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Raleigh SBDU - Specialist Bicycle Development Unit

Author John Foster


The Specialist Bicycle Development Unit at Raleigh was ultimately born out of the acquisition of Carlton Cycles of Worksop in 1960.

The Early History of Specialist Bicycles at Raleigh

However it is important to understand the role Reg Harris played in the acquisition of Carlton. Harris, already well known to visitors of this website (four times World Sprint Champion), was discussing a new idea with Raleigh management: this was to form a new company called Reg Harris Cycles Ltd, that would hand-build specialist racing bicycles in small numbers in a vacant part of the Nottingham works. Harris was very enthusiastic, but the idea was shelved at the eleventh hour by Raleigh management, reason being it was ultimately contrary to the firm’s policy of reducing their number of brands.

Harris however, still convinced at the need for a hand building section separate from the main works, suggested Raleigh buy an existing company already engaged in this hand built market. Reg Harris had been very impressed with Carlton cycles run by the O’Donovan family in Worksop (producing fine bicycles), and despite the small numbers produced had quickly won acclaim the world over.  Raleigh needed this aristocratic brand to bring enthusiasts back to the company: Carlton was regarded as Tour de France material for the new world of leisure cycling beginning to emerge at the time. Carlton came under the Raleigh banner during the spring of 1960, and for a time Reg Harris was member of the board.

Competition History

In 1963 a company called British Manufactured Bearings decided to sponsor a race team and set up the B.M.B-Carlton squad. Riders in 1963  included George Shaw who went on to manage the Raleigh-Weinmann team in the 1980s - this team included riders such as Malcolm Elliott and Steve Jones. One member of the B.M.B-Carlton squad competed in the British national team that competed in the 1967 TdF and that was Arthur Metcalf : this was the ill-fated tour in which Tom Simpson died on the Ventoux (Simpson began his professional career riding a Carlton).

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Geordie Johnson - winner Leicester G P - 1070

In 1968 the team changed its name to Carlton BMB and it became their best year to date; Trevor Bull joined the team in 1968 and became the British Professional Sprint Champion.
In 1969/70 the team became Carlton Truwell Campagnolo. In 1968 Raleigh Sturmey Archer sponsored just one rider Jan LeGrand the Dutchman who was a track star. He later was chief Mechanic for TI Raleigh and he also went on to build Presto frames.

The team also ventured to the continent competing in the Amstel Gold race, although the results were poor, it was step in competing in the right direction. The next milestone in the team’s competition history came in 1970 with the World Championships being held at Leicester. Hugh Porter won the World Pursuit Championship and Gordie Johnson won the Sprint title. The road team eventually became the Raleigh team in 1972


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Hugh Porter with Raleigh SBPU track machine - 1970

In 1972 after several name changes the team became TI Raleigh. However 1974 was to see significant changes in the Raleigh business and the technical progress of the racing bicycle – this was to benefit both British and American racing teams.  After a number of lack lustre seasons on the road the 1973 season did much to make up for it, holding by the end of the 1973 season British titles for – National Sprint, National Road Race and National Pursuit.

By this time Raleigh management were enthusiastic about setting up a crack professional team to take part in major continental events, and under the current chairman Tom Barnsley recruited Peter Post to manage the team. The new team arrived in Holland in February 1974, and was eighteen-strong and divided into sub-teams one with twelve members (six British and six continental riders) who would compete in the continental events and the other a six member team (all British) to compete in national events in the UK (for a brief Palmares see below).

1974 marks a period in Raleigh history with not only the forming of the 1974 team, but the beginning of a period of dominance not only for the team but for Raleigh bicycles in the continental race arena for best part of a decade and more. The Raleigh team, whether in the guise of TI-Raleigh or Panasonic Raleigh was the last great powerhouse team of the classic era – all equipped with SBDU built bicycles.

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1974 Raleigh team

The Birth of the Specialist Bicycle Development Unit

The Carlton company had originally been acquired to furnish Raleigh with a small hand-building section. At the time of the Raleigh takeover Carlton were building 2500 machines a year, such was the popularity of Carlton cycles that by 1974 production had reached 2500 per week.

The bicycles were still hand built, but hand built in batches. Raleigh management decided something had to be done and Gerald O’Donovan; his family originally owned Carlton (and then worked for Raleigh), took over a small factory at Digby Street in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. In 1974 he created this new factory for making very small numbers of outstandingly high quality specialist frames and bicycles.  With only six specially selected expert frame builders from the Raleigh factory; these builders were also chosen for their inventive capability, as Gerald O’Donovan was very much focused on future innovative developments with his new unit.

During the first year (1975) the SBDU was producing about 30 frames a week, and was heavily involved in development work on the then new composite technologies (and also components specification. It is estimated that the SBDU was building around a 1000 frames a year with four builders.

Full details of Peter Kohler's TI Raleigh SDBU 1976 Time Trial Special, including a comprehensive history of the machine and of the SBDU production facility in the period when Reynolds 753 frame tubing was introduced.  

During the late 1970's and 1980's the unit was not only supplying bespoke frames to the most successful professional teams it was producing frames for discerning British riders and complete bicycles handbuilt by one builder.

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At Ilkeston the customer consulted with either Gerald O’Donovan or Mike Mullet (Mike being O’Donovan’s ”right hand”), Gerald O’Donovan’s secretary at the time I ordered my frame was Mrs P. Zbozen.

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Gerald O'Donovan at the SBDU works

Identification of Frames

Care has to be taken when identifying SBDU machines, as Raleigh operated in parallel with the SBDU in Ilkeston, a Lightweight Unit in Nottingham. The Lightweight Unit offered not only complete machines such as the Team Replica 12, Road Ace-EX 12 and the Corsa (the author bought a Corsa new in 1984 which he still has), but off the peg framesets not featured as complete machines – these frames were the Gran Course and Gran Tour. Whilst the Lightweight Unit complete machines and off the peg frames were built to a high standard they were a grade down in build quality from the SBDU machines which were always bespoke. Like comparing a high quality off the peg suit from Daks to a bespoke item from a Saville Row or Jermyn Street tailor.

In my SBDU brochure from 1985 the framsets were built in Reynolds 531C, 531 Pro, 753 R or 753 T, with Campag or Simplex dropouts, and Prugnat or Cinelli lugs and Cinelli or Haden Bottom Bracket shells.

SBDU - The Finale?

Gradually the SBDU, moving from Ilkeston during 1987 to Nottingham, became the Special Products division, and although this was not a ”strategic” move on Raleigh management's part they had lost the understanding of how the division might continue to fit within the organisation – especially with the retirement of Raleigh’s Managing Director Sandy Roberts, and a champion of the SBDU, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Arguably the SBDU became lost as a skunk-works type commercial, marketable, entity and became a development laboratory for Raleigh: for example in developing the new tubesets from Reynolds (2055, 2060, 2070, 2080 and the Titanium main tubeset 2325) with cast aluminium lugs using new adhesive technologies branded Dyna-Tech.

Raleigh would also build, alongside the new technologies framesets in steel for professional teams like Raleigh-Weinmann, Panasonic, Systeme U, Castorama and Raleigh Banana to name four.

Victories

A brief Palmares of SBDU built frames from 1974 to 1985 includes 26 Classic wins including Het Volk, Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem.

Tour de France victories – Joop Zoetemelk won the Tour de France in 1980, there were 62 stage wins and 8 team prizes. 40 other Tour wins including Paris-Nice. There were 6 world champions, 13 national road champions, and 12 national pro-track champions.

Arguably the most famous rider to use SBDU framesets in the Classic period was the late Laurent Fignon’s Systeme U/Super U team. Fignon’s 1989 Tour de France machine returned to Raleigh in 1989 and was on display for some time in the Science Museum.

Fignon’s Castorama team also used SBDU machines during the 1990 season, which arguably was both the swansong of a great rider’s career and a great flowering of British technology and craftsmanship dominating the continental professional cycling arena.


John Foster, November 2010;

Sources:
The author’s own SBDU literature
The Nottingham Evening Post
Gregory Houston Bowden, ”The Story of the Raleigh Cycle”
and Gerald O’Donovan’s team who built me two lovely bicycles in the 1980s.

A prime example of a classic Raleigh SBDU time-trial machine 1979
(Note SBDU sticker on nearside chainstay)

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1979 Raleigh 'Time Trial Special 59cm 'square' Frame number SB2471. Built at Raleigh's Specialist Bicycle Division at Ilkeston out of Reynolds ultra lightweight 753 tubing with vertical, drilled fork ends and slotted bottom bracket shell. The bike is in 'time -warp' condition and has been stored for 30 years. It is still fitted with it’s original competition equipment, the lightest available at that time and the whole bike weighs an incredible 17lbs.
Chainset: TA Criterium single chainring. Brake levers: Mafac composite bodied with drilled levers. Brake Calipers: Weinmann 500 side pulls. Saddle: Cinelli unpadded Unicanitor. Seatpin: Ruggieri fluted. Rear mech: Suntour Cyclone. Block: Suntour Gold 5-speed close ratio 13-17. Chain: Regina 'Record slotted'. Bars: Cinelli 'Criterium'. Stem: Cinelli 1A 100mm. Headset: EDCO 'Competition'. Wheels: Mavic gold ORO10 sprint rims on Omas small flange hubs and alloy skewers. These wheels were built by Tour de France mechanic Ken Bird. Front, radially spoked. Rear, crossed, tied and soldered drive side.

Tez Watson adds:
I read with great interest your page about the Raleigh SBDU as I once owned a machine bearing the frame number OD 174. Shortly after I bought the bike in 1975 (secondhand from Tony's bike shop in Copley Road, Doncaster) I joined the RAF and whilst at RAF Swinderby I watched the Gerry Thurlow Criteriums when an old burly kind of chap asked to take a look at it. He told me where it had been built and that the OD stood for O' Donovan and the 174 was the date (1974) he told me that he was employed at Ilkeston and had been involved in building that very bike.

The spec was (from memory) Reynolds 753 throughout, chrome forks (full) and rear stays (half), intricate lugwork (also chrome apart from bottom bracket). It had a Brooks B17 with huge copper rivets, Campag Super Record chainset, gear changers, bracket set, headset and seat set, the brakes were Campag Piccolo (very shallow), the hubs were small-flange quick-release by Zeus with 28 direct spoking onto Mavic gold rims, the tubs were silk Clements! Can't recall much else but as an eighteen year old it was a fabulous bike to have. I paid £130 for it and it fitted me like a glove!

Sadly on my return from germany in 1985 we were hard up and I sold it for £150! I averaged 8,000 miles per annum in those days so I had my moneys worth out of it. I now wonder if it's still around... I have a picture of me with it beside me taken at RAF Cosford (below) in 1976 the only picture I have of it, Happy Days....

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RAF Cosford Cycling Team 1976 in RAFCC team colours
Tez Watson (left with Raleigh OD 174) and Martin Ellacott on the right with his Southern Cross. Next to me is a lad called Trevor (who featured in a BBC documentary 'Fighter Pilot'). In the middle is Howard Stansfield and the older guy I cannot recall as he rarely trained with us. We were the RAF Cosford Cycling Team and the vests are RAFCC circa 1976. We trained hard around the Midlands up and down The Hermitage almost every day! I met one or two pro riders out and about midweek as I was excused PT and allowed to go training instead.