Cliff Shrubb - An appreciation

Richard Hallett remembers the master frame builder among whose achievements was teaching him the art of frame building

by Richard Hallett   June 11, 2014  

 

One of the leading members of the generation of British frame builders that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, Cliff Shrubb, who has died aged 79 while on a cycle ride with friends, only began building under his own name in the late 1970s as a sideline to his regular employment maintaining factory clocking-on systems.

So successful was he in this venture, carried on in a workshop rented from George Clare, owner of Geoffrey Butler Cycles in Croydon, that the two leading British pursuit riders of the early ‘80s, Sean Yates and Tony Doyle, both rode Cliff Shrubb frames.

After starting his working life as an engineering draughtsman, Cliff learned the skills of frame building through employment at the Clapham factory of Claud Butler Cycles, where he began with frame repairs before progressing to the more exalted world of new frame production.

Joining the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to undertake his National Service, Cliff then worked for IBM serving and repairing factory timekeeping machines and fire alarms. Here he learnt skills he put to use during a spell spent living and working in Melbourne, Australia, which he attempted to reach overland in a Citroen 2CV. He never lost his affection for these interesting machines and still drove regularly an example he had restored.

Returning to the UK in 1965, Cliff stuck with his trade as a repairer of time keeping systems until his frame building skills began to bear fruit in around 1978.  Initially renting a workshop from George Clare in Croydon, he built frames for the local cycle racing fraternity under the Geoffrey Butler label and using his own name.

By the early 1980s he had moved into a workshop behind the Allin Cycles shop in Whitehorse Road, Croydon and had established a reputation for finding engineering solutions to unusual frame building problems and built one of the first ‘lo-profile’ track frames for Yates. Featuring a headset hidden inside the head tube, it was raced unpainted in the national pursuit championships

Cliff’s engineering talents enabled him to tackled some truly unusual projects. Perhaps the most famous was the UK paced speed record bike ridden by Dave Le Grys in 1985. To reach the exceptionally high gear ratio required to travel at close to 100mph it used a double transmission and bottom bracket design with the second bottom bracket shell set some way up the seat tube. An eccentric main bottom bracket took care of primary chain tension and the design avoided the need for an expensive super-sized front chainwheel.

The design concept was followed almost exactly by Jason Rourke in building the machine used by motorcyclist Guy Martin to set a new record last year. Other special projects included cross-frame time trial bikes, unconventional tandems and, of course, fancy lugs, although his personal building style tended towards the unflashy.

I first met Cliff in the workshop at Pearson Cycles in Sutton, where he worked well into retirement as a mechanic while building his own frames in small numbers at his own premises. His fastidious way with tools and spannering stood out and we found we shared a similar view of cycle engineering so, when I unaccountably felt the urge last year to take up frame-building, he was the obvious man to ask for advice. He agreed to teach me the essentials and proved an excellent coach, albeit one who clearly felt happier holding a brazing torch himself than watching someone else hold it.

Lessons at the Shrubb workshop were invariably infused with his wry humour; having mitred the main triangle tubes for my tutorial frame, I was somewhat unnerved by Cliff’s demand for a ‘Big Day’ from me when we next met, which would be when I got to fillet braze them. Luckily, when the moment of truth arrived, he went off and made a cup of tea, leaving me to sink or swim at the most technically-demanding moment of the build. His own ability to create a flawless fillet without appearing to try only made matters worse.

Cycling was only one of his interests, with clocks and clock-making sharing top billing as a visit to his home made evident. He was also something of a petrol-head, although one who loved cars for their engineering. 

He suffered a bad fall from his bike during the winter, injuring his pelvis, but eventually made a good recovery and was able to resume his habit of a cycle ride with friends every Tuesday and Thursday.  He did not always ride one of his own machines, often preferring instead to take one made by his friend and fellow master frame-builder, the late Ron Cooper.