Curtis Bikes 35 Years | Heritage
Curtis bikes are still producing some of the finest built frames in the world, at the forefront of the industry, managing to tread water against all odds...
35 years of curtis bikes
We take history for granted, we don’t really take into consideration when companies emerge and what the ethos behind them is, many companies start from the complacency around them, they’re usually the brainchild of someone who isn’t entirely satisfied with the influences that surround them.
DIRT ISSUE 66 - AUGUST 2007
Words by Elliot Eveson. Photography by Grant Robinson
When I started to ride, I would occasionally see Curtis Bikes adverts in magazines, so I checked out their website, I couldn’t really see the point of spending that sort of money on a hand crafted frame when I could get one built by a robot for less than half the price. That was until I started talking to other riders and the friends around me who I ride with. The amount of respect they held for the brand, bespoke frames hand built in the UK using top line tubing, but more than anything, it was the geometry of the frames that people are always most impressed with.
Although riders knew that Curtis were at the forefront of frame design for riding trails and 4X, 24" frames and BMX race frames, no-one had an idea about the previous twenty–odd years that preceded the mountain bike era at Curtis. The years of BMX influenced by current owner Gary Woodhouse, and before that, the years when Brian Curtis supplied Scramble (motocross as we know it now) riders with a sweet geometry of his own, the Curtis Honda CR250. This year Curtis has reached the ripe old age of 35, with young-blood influences, Curtis bikes are still producing some of the finest built frames in the world, remaining at the forefront of the industry, managing to tread water against all odds, supplying purist riders with a quality that a robot frame builder isn’t programmed to understand.
When you’re in strange lands you see strange things, everything a ‘local’ overlooks on a daily basis is incredibly funny to a visitor. We drove through Compton without getting shot, we drove through a town called Street instead of up one, and went past Radstock which sounds like a festival for the ‘extreme’. We managed to get so lost that we needed to stop for something to eat, we had no map and no idea of where to go other than directions from a man who doesn’t drive, cheers Jim!
We thought we should be in the vicinity by now, and after our written directions came to an end we thought it would be sensible to stop at the next property and ask if they knew where we were going. We asked an old boy with a knowing face who has probably helped numerous people in the search for the Curtis workshop before and will no doubt will also assist many times in the future. He smiled and pointed over the road, ‘up that lane and stop’, he ain’t wrong, you go 100 yards up a mud track and stop. Blocking the whole lane seems to be the norm and doesn’t bother anyone. As we get out of the car we fire each other nervous looks, we’ve been told by the old boy it’s where they make bikes, but there is nothing obvious to say that, all we see is a modest gate, no signs just an old boys word, as we sheepishly walked through the gate, we see stables, we expect to see horses, but instead we see a long line of chromoly steeds, all in chronological order. Welcome to the Curtis Museum, where you can have a peek into the future if your lucky.
click through to view our curtis bikes gallery before reading on...
[part title="35 Years of Curtis Bikes | Heritage Page Two..."]
How do you picture the Curtis workshop? A place where great things are designed and built. I have always swayed from a small messy, unorganised shack with an unkempt old boy, verging between genius and insanity, welding new frames and giving them to team riders for analysis, to a super pimp, hi-tech, state of the art workshop with laser cutting machinery in one corner and computers loaded with CAD software hooked up to all sorts of machinery in another.
Each time I run through the scenario of going to Curtis, I imagine the workshop in a different way, I guess I had no idea of what to expect. Gary Woodhouse, current owner and natural predecessor of the brand, came out to greet us, the first thing I notice is his enthusiasm, and it’s like being hit by a tornado. Within minutes we’ve had a full tour of the workshop, had our drinks orders taken and received what we had requested just minutes before. Occasionally I butted in to try and ask some questions, get some deeper information, but they were only answered hastily as Gary moved onto the next thing that caught his attention.
After the initial excitement we all managed to slow down to a normal pace of conversation, topics changed from bikes to photography, then onto Taiwanese frames, politics and inevitably, back to bikes, hell…that is what we’re here for. I had done some research into the history of the company, enough to ask the right questions anyway, I assumed Gary would fill in all the gaps, all 35 years worth! As I started to ask questions about Brian Curtis – pre Curtis Bikes, Gary suggested that I ask him in person. I hadn’t expected the founder himself to turn up, I mean, he sold the company years ago, why would he bother?
Gary explained that his was coming in to make an appearance, quite a rare occasion. As we idly chat, we were silently joined by a bloke, who seems to just stand on the sideline of the conversation, I assumed he was lost, probably looking for the farm over the road, just waiting for a break in conversation to politely ask where Home Farm is or something, instead, as we all shot a look at the random guy by the door, Gary introduces him…’this is Brian, Brian Curtis’. Maybe it was my clouded head from the local clouded cider induced hangover from the previous nights festivities, but he wasn’t the unkempt old boy who verged between genius and insanity that I had in mind. After a double take, I shake hands with Brian, we begin to chat, and it isn’t long before I realise that he isn’t insane, and probably not a genius, just a regular down to earth man who has a passion about riding bikes.
Brian first started scrambling in the late 1950’s, he reckons its pretty much bang on 50 years since he first lifted a leg over a scrambler at a race meet. He soon went to Rickman Motorcycles where he learnt the skills of welding and frame building from the two Rickman brothers, Don and Derek, who were best known for their Metisse frames (Metisse translates from French as ‘mongrel dog’), Rickman Motorcycles made scrambler frames and body kits for competition off–road bikes powered by engines from Montesa, Zundapp, Matchless and Triumph.
It wasn’t long before Brian was turning up at the race meets in his battered old van and rolling out his Matchless powered Rickman Mettise. Brian never got a free bike from Rickmans, all bought and paid for in full, he was often mistaken for a team rider. What didn’t help this misconception was in 1965 at Longleat, at the regional championship Brian found himself racing against the elite, including his two bosses, Brian immediately held the lead in the first heat and took the win, then got a hard earned second place in the following heat, enough for him to get the overall win for the weekend…and more importantly, beating his bosses. This took him to local hero status amongst the other riders and fans alike.>>>
[part title="35 Years of Curtis Bikes | Heritage Page Three..."]
After four years working at Rickman he joined Eric Cheny building scrambler frames before gong it alone. For some it’s natural to move on, if you aren’t entirely satisfied with what you are doing, after all, it wasn’t just a job for Brian, he was building something that he was passionate about, he needed to believe in what he was doing.
So in 1974 he started building a frame to incorporate the Honda power plant, he saw the potential in the Honda that superseded the European engines that he was used too, after great success with the Curtis Hondas, Brian was commissioned by Yamaha through the Norton Villiers Triumph Group to build 200 Yamaha XL500 frames. You have to be doing something right for an individual in a workshop to be commissioned by an international motor vehicle company to build frames for, what at the time, was a specialist bit of kit. This led Brian into the early BMX era.
Gary Woodhouse had just moved to Frome in Somerset from Cornwall, after finishing a year at college learning welding techniques. Fate led him into the Curtis workshop looking for a job. I think if you are passionate about a dirt bike, it’s easy to cross over and understand others passions for another discipline.
With the imminent boom of the BMX era upon the nation, Brian was intrigued by the ‘motocross look’ of the Mongoose BMX Gary had just bought. ‘It was one of the first that I had seen close up, and I just took an interest in it’ explained Brian. He initially took its shape and modified it, ‘it was rather crude, they were horrible back then, very basic.’ Gary wasn’t a racer really, don’t get me wrong, he has trophies lined up in the workshop, he won a stack of regional races in the early eighties, and came second in the Cruiser class at the Brits.
He was more of a display rider, now we would call it an exhibition rider, but back in the day he used to ride at shop openings showing the excited kids how to bunny hop, whipping up the locals into a wild frenzy, getting radical on a bike was sort of a new thing, until then it was a mode of transport, the only real sport that was pedal powered was road racing, hardly rad!
Gary competed in the first ever British Freestyle championship in Bristol, and he recalls, ‘a couple of riders came down from London, we thought they were going to be awesome, but they refused to compete because they wanted to do a load of tricks on the flat and the competition was based around a tabletop jump, that’s when things started to become aerial’.
Brian explains, ‘Gary really developed the bikes, I would try to build lighter bikes, but just as strong, Gary’s job was to go out and try to break them and give feedback on the geometry. Occasionally he would come back with a bike in two halves. It is the only way of testing them, to find the limits and the weaknesses of materials and joins. But it wasn’t long before we had developed a good solid team. We had a really good little team back then, all of our riders got through to the finals in Derby. The 80’s were a time when we perfected the motocross frame, they had become extremely strong and light with a great geometry that everyone liked, we then developed the Cruiser off the back of the 20" frame, tweaking angles here and there to accommodate the bigger wheels.’>>>
[part title="35 Years of Curtis Bikes | Heritage Page Four..."]
Curtis Bikes have been the steppingstone for many talented riders, throughout the eighties, and in its BMX heyday they have supported a considerable amount of successful riders, the Miller brothers, Steve Geall, Richard Thorner and current Bike Co. owner Anthony Revell.
Curtis Bikes fell into the lull that affected the BMX world. Then in 2000 Gary talked Brian into producing a mountain bike frame, it was also at this time when Brian wanted to take a back seat in the company and let Gary’s vision take over. Gary continued to push the 20", motocross frames and 24" Cruiser frames, with Brian taking on the job of brazing the tubes together, while Gary began to develop the all–new Supercross frame. Both Gary and Brian had mastered the shape and feel of both the cruiser and 20" frames and brought that same feel over into the 26" frame of the Supercross for the popular Dual Slalom series.
The bike felt like a tight and nimble race frame that BMX racers were used to. It was quite revolutionary at the time, it was a lot more compact than most other mountain bikes, and ever since its launch, it has hardly changed at all, the geometry remains pretty much the same with just a few tweaks on the tubing and brazes. I guess it was actually futuristic. How many frames have changed that little in the last seven years?
On the 13th of June 2000, Chris Smith picked up his brand new Supercross frame, the first one ever built. The Supercross has played a major part in the geometry of many bikes, first of all in 2001, with Chris now being the test pilot and helping with the research and development. Gary decided to produce the SX24, a chopped down version of the 26" frame. The geometry is very similar to the Supercross, yet it feels a little tighter to ride. This frame has influenced most of the trail bikes we ride today, again the geometry has hardly changed over the last six years.
Many companies have come up with other designs and failed and now are all returning to the SX24 to use its geometry to build their own version of the ultimate trail bike, with a few little tweaks to make them different. And from here Gary has always watched the latest trends, and how our riding is developing to incorporate little tweaks and changes in order to accommodate our latest fashions.
The basis of the Supercross and its little brother, the SX24 now are available in many guises. Both are available as Race Lite models for 4X. The SX24 has had various street incarnations as the latest demands begin to show, with adding extra strength where needed. In 2003 Jim Davage received his Signature model frame the Trail Boss, a SX24 stripped down to bare essentials, while also working on Curtis’s very own DH bike, the ThumperX.
The ThumperX was in R&D for pretty much 18 months before either Gary or Jim were happy to let one through the door for a paying punter. Gary has worked with trials riders to develop a series of trials bikes including in ’05 producing a 24" street trials frame. Gary has also hit the XC market with a series of frames and recently beefed these up to accommodate the freeride fraternity. All of these frames have come from the basic design of the SuperX, each one, has in turn been an evolutionary step to making something great for the next big thing in riding.
Basically, Gary watches the riding trends and constantly stays one step ahead, so as you realise that you ‘need’ something different to make you ride better in whatever your discipline, Gary will probably be there with a freshly hand crafted frame that fits your individual needs, and if he hasn’t pre–empted this trend, with the right input from you, the customer, he’ll build you exactly what you need.
I hope Curtis Bikes will always be here, providing a handful of passionate riders with what they desire most…a beautifully hand built bike, customised and bespoke to your riding needs. Gary’s latest attempt to keep up with the ever–competitive market has been to go against the grain and have a limited number of frames be built to a high specification in Taiwan.
These frames will be sold from retailers at a cut price to compete against that side of the market. Gary has thought long and hard about doing this, and dragged his heels all the way, he is now convinced that these can be built to a high standard, just not bespoke. But for a specialist company such as Curtis, sometimes you need to swallow the bitter pill in order to survive.