Bill Davidson and Bob Freeman are partners in Elliott Bay Bicycles, a venerable bicycle institution in downtown Seattle, WA, and the home of Davidson Cycles. They have been building frames in one incarnation or another, since the early 1970’s. Bob and Bill were here in the beginning, when the bike boom brought a resurgence of American custom frame building. They’ve waxed, they’ve waned, and now with the wave of interest in hand built bicycles, they are waxing once again. We sat down with Bob to talk about how it all it began and how it continues.
Born and raised in Seattle Bill is a son of a welding shop owner. Fabricating metal is what he knows.
Bill got his start frame building in 1973. He’d spent the fall of 1972 traveling around Europe by bike, during which time he wound up in Liverpool in Harry Quinn’s workshop. Bill was hanging around too long so Harry put him to work doing prep work. When Bill got back, his friends and co-workers encouraged him to start making his own frames. They were first built in the shop where he worked in Seattle part time, then in his own shop starting in 1976. In December of 1983, Bill decided that Seattle needed a new pro bike store with a custom frame shop, and opened Elliott Bay Bicycles with Bob Freeman. Bill moved his frame shop from Kent in 1984 and it’s been in Seattle ever since. Bill believes that it is important to manage the process, starting with designing the frame through to the complete bicycle being built up, and then fitting it to its new owner. It was a unique concept for the US back then and still is today.
Bob Freeman started cycling in Walla Walla, Washington in 1973. He got involved in a little bit of racing and then led a tour for Bikecentennial which later became Adventure Cycling. That was 1976, he was 26-years old and it was a big adventure and everyone was starting to do that kind of riding. His group consisted of 13 people between the ages of 16 and 26. They went from Oregon to Virginia following the Transamerica Trail. They didn’t exactly get paid but their trip didn’t cost anything and he got a small per diem. When it ended Bob kept going onand rode up to Montreal. Then he took a train to Michigan and rode to Traverse City on his way out west. He finally got to Seattle in October that year. He didn’t have any idea what he was going to do until he landed a job working for Sekai, a bicycle importer, where he worked for the better part of three years. He had his first retail experience at a place called De La Rosa and Kolin’s Northwest Cycle. It was one of the first places in Seattle to sell pro bikes from all over the world, along with clothing, shoes, and all the gear racing cyclists needed. The owners wrote a couple of books published by Rodale, which gave them instant recognition. One was called The Custom Bicycle and other was called The Ten Speed Bicycle.
700 frames a year.
Once Bill and co-owner, Bob opened up Elliott Bay Bicycles, they started working towards the economy of scale building and production. At peak production in the late 80’s the shop was making about 700 frames a year, in batches of 20-30 frames of one size at a time. The first frame was a sport-touring model called the Discovery. Then they added the Challenge, a racing model. In 1986 the Impulse, their most popular frame, was introduced. They also made a few stock TIG welded track frames and a stock tandem called the Double Century. Bill worked hard to keep the quality and finish of the frames top notch while making them faster to build. He made many small fixtures that made seemingly difficult jobs very efficient, and invented new techniques to streamline the whole process. One is inside-out brazing. He developed small brass pre-forms that were inserted in the frame before it was assembled, and then when heated with a torch, the brazer could draw the brass out to the edges of the joints evenly and cleanly, making for less time at temperature, and less cleanup afterwards, and ensuring a fully brazed joint with an inside fillet.
The steel frame business began to dwindle when aluminum, carbon, and titanium arrived. They then decided to go back to their roots and build only one-off custom frames again as the demand was still strong for those. They found that the techniques and equipment they employed making semi- production frames made custom frames more efficient to make too. They also began building titanium frames in the mid 90s utilizing their TIG welding experience. Making titanium frames remains a mainstay of the business today. In keeping with their custom fit philosophy, they build each titanium frame to the geometry the customer needs. Road racing, randonneuring and travel are the most popular styles. They can also utilize carbon stays, or build the occasional 7-tube carbon frame with custom titanium lugs.
Bill does all the hand works such as cut lugs, and various R&D, and custom jobs, along with fitting customers and designing custom bicycles. Their frame shop is a small dedicated team that assists Bill to design, build and paint the frames entirely within their Seattle works.
It is a business built on the philosophy of being able to deliver a top quality hand built frame efficiently and totally custom to what the customer envisioned. There are many dimensions of custom frames, geometry, clearances, features, different functions and sizes. It’s about a bike that fits the rider’s body, but it also must fit their sense of aesthetics, style, and purpose. Some people want style and prestige, and some want simple and clean design that rides well and doesn’t attract attention. “We hear it all the time from our customers, that someone in the middle of a ride recognized their bike as a Davidson and said, “Nice bike”. Their best advertising has been from repeat customers and customer referrals. They have hundreds of customers with multiple Davidson bikes.
Something to be said for experience.
“What attracted us to the Rapha Continental instantly was that we love the type of rides Rapha has been doing. That style of riding is something we have promoted all of our years in business.”
For more information visit: davidsonbicycles.com