Posted: Monday 08th June 2020
Rory O’Brien bikes from the 1950s and 1960s may not attract as much attention as the more collectible builders of this period. Yet, in quality and design, they arguably are their equal. His best frames were built to high standards by top craftsmen such as Les Ephgrave and Vic Edwards. Rory himself was influential in the cycling world: certainly in the East London/Essex area, where he was one of the top dealers in lightweight road bikes; and nationally through his sponsorship of competitive riders riding under the Rory O’Brien Cycles name.
He was a long time member of the Easterly Cycling Club, was known to encourage young riders, and his shops were a well-known hangout for club cyclists. Despite all this, very little information has survived and I am indebted to cycling veterans who knew Rory and kindly shared their knowledge and memories of him.
Rory O’Brien was born Henry Nolan O’Brien in Stratford, Essex in 1909. I know nothing of his early life but by the end of the 30s he was married, living in Romford, and working as a bike mechanic. He subsequently became manager of Claud Butler’s East Ham shop, which is probably where he met Les Ephgrave, who also worked for Claud at that time. Rory and Les became good friends, they both left Claud Butler’s in the late 1940s to start their own businesses. It is said that Rory helped Les Ephgrave set up his business and had an ownership stake in Ephgrave Lightweights. In return, Les built Rory’s first frames and continued to build his top-of-line frames.
Rory opened his first shop, named Rory O’Brien Cycles, in Manor Park, around 1947 followed by a second shop in Romford in 1956. His brotherin-law, Ken Kirby, joined him as a wheel builder and later managed the Manor Park shop, while Rory spent more time at the Romford shop.
While most high quality bike builders of that era built and sold their own brand, Rory sold a wide range of bikes that included “off the peg” bikes from other builders, such as Claud Butler, as well as custom bikes of his own brand. He contracted with other respected builders to build his custom frames. It is widely accepted that Les Ephgrave built Rory’s top model, the Rory O’Brien Championship – at least until the mid-1960s when he was taken ill. Vic Edwards is credited with building other models for Rory, as is Wally Green.
Few details of Rory’s business have survived. But an early 1960s catalog (kindly shared by Alan Cross) shows Rory produced four designs – Road, described as a general purpose bike suitable for club riding or time trialing; Road Racing, a shorter wheelbase, lower clearance machine used successfully in top level competitions;Track; and Road Track.
Four models with different price-points could be had and those could be further customized with various add-ons and upgrades (see catalog). All were built with Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing. Each model could be ordered in any of the four designs, except the Cadet, which came as Road or Road Track only.
The Cadet was Rory’s “reasonably priced frame”. It was built with Nervex Legere lugs and could be ordered in either the Road or Road Track design. This was priced at £11:19:6, or £18:16:0 with Campagnolo fork ends and Gran Sport gears.
Rory’s medium priced frame was the Contessa, built with modified Nervex Professional lugs and seat stays meeting the seat lug in a semi wrap-over. This was priced at £14:5:0 or £20:15:0 with Campag forks ends and gears.
A small step up in price got you the “D.B.” Special, named for Dave Bedwell, a very successful British rider in the 50s and early 60s, who worked for Rory as a wheel builder, and raced under his sponsorship in 1957-59 and 1964-65. The D.B. Special was built with Prugnat lugs and fully wrapped over seat stays and cost £14:19:6, or £21:10:0 with Campagnolo fork ends and gears.
Rory’s top-of-line model was the Championship. This was produced using hand cut lugs and is attributed to Les Ephgrave (see article by Bryan Clarke on Classic Lightweights at https://www.classiclightweights.co.uk/builders/r-o-bbuilders. html). The Rory O’Brien catalog specifies the lapped rear bridge and wrap over seat stays, which are hallmarks of Les Ephgrave’s work. The Championship model listed for £17:5:0 or for £23:15:0 if fitted with Campagnolo fork ends and Gran Sport gears.
To put these prices in context, the average weekly wage for clerical or manufacturing work at this time was around £14 per week.
Rory sponsored individual road and track riders in the late 50s and early 60s. During the same time he also sponsored a professional racing team, Rory O’Brien Cycles, which often included Dave Bedwell and won a number of British events. According to the book Roule Britannia: Great Britain and the Tour de France, Rory was part of a discussion in 1953 that resulted in a British team entering the Tour de France in 1955. The team included Dave Bedwell, although that year he was riding for Hercules Cycles.
Rory closed the Manor Park shop around 1974 and operated from the Romford shop until he sold his business in 1979 and retired to live in Bicknacre, Essex. He died there in 1989. His Romford shop continued to operate as Rory O’Brien Cycles, first owned by Roy Hodges and later by Johns of Romford, a local motorcycle dealer.
Proving the age and builder of a Rory O’Brien frame can be challenging. No business records survive and there is no reference for serial numbers, which may vary based on who built the frame, and probably changed when the business was sold. The models can generally be identified by their design and lugs – at least into the mid- 1960s. In some cases, this can also identify the builder if the work is consistent with other frames they built.
I have started to compile a list of frame numbers by year to determine if Rory used a frame numbering system. If anyone is willing to share their frame number and year (if known) please send it to djhullx2(at)gmail.com. If I gather enough numbers to be helpful I will add them to this site.”
David Hull – October 2017
(David is V-CC Marque Enthusiast for Rory O’Brien)
Brian Clarke – Classic Lightweights
David Twitchett – Lightweight News # 56
National Archives: 1939 Register
Roule Britannia: Great Britain and the Tour de France
A tribute to Dave Bedwell by Roy Green, 1964
CycleChat: Members of the Rory O’Brien thread
My father (Frank Butler) and I both joined the Southern Veteran Cycling Club in the early 1970’s. Rory and Phyllis were very good friends of my dad and we were all in the club together.
Rory started on his own in the cycling trade in 1947. His brother in law Ken Kirby was his wheel-builder. They both retired from the business after 32 years when Rory sold his shops to Roy Hodges Elite C.C in 1979. Ken taught Dave Bedwell to build wheels, Ken always said that his most successful customer was Dave Bedwell. Another of Rory’s employees was Roger Joseph who started there in 1957 it was his first job after leaving school he worked there until 1967.
Dave Bedwell had a shop in Paignton Devon which he eventually sold to Colin Lewis. Les Ephgrave was a great friend of the O’Brien’s and built all his early frames and the better quality high end ones up until his early death from cancer.
I owned Rory’s U.S.W.B tandem for many years, the tandem was a 1939 Claud Butler built by Bill Gray that Les modified for Rory, it had his transfers on it and we regularly rode it on SVCC events, tours and time trials.