Great British Engineering

Royce UK Ltd was established in 1980 and has weathered every change in cycling for over 30 years. They are the last traditional British manufacturing industry in the south of England. The main reason for this, and for why they are so interesting, is the founder: Cliff Polton, a precision engineer, cycle and, as we find out later, pedal car enthusiast.

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Headset Press visited Royce UK Ltd in the summer of 2012. Having met with Cliff initially at Bristol Bespoked: seen these beautiful components; been in awe of the man: we knew this visit had to happen.

We travel to their base in Hampshire, to an unassuming industrial estate, in an area not dissimilar to many other parts of southern England, find them tucked right the way at the back of the estate in a bright yellow workshop. Everything at surface level seems normal: engineering equipment, noise and those smells you only get in such places – from metal to grease. (To be honest it is a little intimidating, walking in to such a burly environment.) But this isn’t a normal engineering shop making any old motor parts. This is where some of the finest British cycle components are made, parts that have graced the bikes of Chris Boardman, Nicole Cooke, Sean Yates and many more.

We are greeted by Cliff who immediately offers us tea and biscuits. We start talking and this is the thing: Cliff is an enthusiastic man who is generous with his time and knowledge. A rare find. Nothing is off topic and Cliff has his take on most things, which, especially when it comes to his engineering and products, is illuminating and accurate, like a good engineer should be. Entirely friendly but there is a certain sharpness of mind that won’t be readily tricked or taken for a fool. You’ve been warned!

One of the exceptional products that Royce make are their hubs. Laying out on the bench (by the kettle and our tea) is a selection of hubs in various states of assembly. They look like jewellery – precise fast pieces of jewellery! That is not what Cliff ever intended to make, ornamentation is not what a Royce product is about, but they’re so well made it’s an unintentional happy consequence. It is a natural starting point for our introduction into what Royce do. The juxtaposition of finely polished hubs and grease is stunning, to be honest, it is a bit like finding gold in the riverbed.

Royce hubs are made from aluminum and titanium. Each material is used in proportion where stiffness and/or durability are needed. The exception to that is the racing gold hub, which features a carbon fibre sleeve between the hub flanges. We ask Cliff why no black hubs, to which he replies, “I don’t like them.” Simple answer! But he instantly backs it up by showing us a set of black-coated hubs (anodised) which had come out a lacklustre blackish grey and had a definite plastic feel. When these are placed next to the titanium polished and coated silver hubs, we can see why he thinks that. He says, “Even though that is Black Diamond Finish, the hardest coating known to man, I don’t like it! I’m sorry I just don’t like it.” So he does have some quirks about the way things look!

Things are not done on a whimsical basis though. You could look at the price of a hubset and baulk at it, but these hubs are cut from billets of titanium, costing 100’s of UK pounds, then you factor in the time and skill, then the prices actually seem reasonable! But the fact is Royce spends a lot of time and money on research (including trying a black finish.) They are only looking for the unsurpassed and they will not compromise. This is how they make products at Royce.

This attitude towards quality is what attracts riders: both those who believe in the best and those who have exacting specifications. The latter is often at the sharp end of racing. Cliff has helped Nicole Cooke for many years, helping her gain incredible success and in the process becoming a good family friend. It’s not just the product you get with Cliff, there’s a much deeper level of commitment. He has assisted many athletes in reaching their goals: around the walls of the office and building are reminders of this. Most notably, helping Chris Boardman with his athletes’ hour record, providing components and advice. Requirements for supplying someone like Chris and his team are going to be about as exacting as they could get: this is not a problem for Royce.

With this level of specification a part cannot be made and simply popped in the box and pushed out the door – factory style assembly – but after each stage of the process the component must be checked for tolerances and these tolerances have to be tight. If you order a 135mm rear hub, that’s what you get, not 135.1mm! Quality control is serious stuff when you are serious about making quality items.

Cliff gives us the full tour of Royce, showing us each machine, from lathes to osmosis baths. We meet all the people who work here and the whole experience is amazing. It’s not a sterile environment, it’s not a factory, workshop doesn’t quite describe it either – it’s more than that. It is a sensibly run business, with passion as the main driving force. Everyday Cliff is here, thinking of ways to make his products better or developing new products when he believes he can improve on something. For example, he shows us his new track cranks. Everything he has learnt about making cranks and bottom brackets has gone into this.

I ask Cliff why no one has taken this approach before and his answer is, “No idea!” The idea is a Tri Lobe bottom bracket (BB) and crank that can take its shape, basically a spindle with a tapered triangle. It seems strange in the current scheme of bike components to make something so obscure, but the point is, it works and tested against others [for similar use] it is incredibly stiff. This is a very important thing, which Royce strongly believes in. They don’t build things based on fads or fashion, they base them on the best empirical knowledge they have. This is the way bicycles should be made!

It puzzles us through the visit, why there are pedal cars hanging from the walls. We kept staring at them. It became clearer when Cliff said, after our third cup of tea, “You can’t leave without having a go.” Neither me, Jamie nor Dan had ever been in a pedal car, so we were keen to try.

Cliff and his team help to run a local pedal car race every year- they also compete. We have a lot of respect for that skill, having now tried it ourselves, we can safely say theses things are lethal and a lot of fun. It is very easy to get up speed and tumble on a corner… All the same, a mixture of engineering, silliness and speed, very appealing!

Headset Press would just like to say a big thank you to Royce for giving us some of their precious time and making us welcome. Please visit the Royce website here and buy yourself something incredible.

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