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The Bicycle Story: Bill Davidson on making bike frames in Seattle since the 70s

Photo from the Davidson website.
Photo from the Davidson website.

Bill Davidson has been building bike frames in Seattle since 1973, and he didn’t let little details like nobody here knowing how to do it (and, therefore, able to teach him) get in his way (Rodriguez and Erickson also started in 1973). So it should be no surprise that the closure of his longtime shop didn’t stop him, either.

As we reported previously, Davidson had to move his shop when Elliott Bay Bicycles near Pike Place Market closed its doors after 31 years. Davidson then formed a partnership with bike maker Max Kullaway of 333fab to open a new shop in Fremont. That shop has been operating for a couple months at 34th and Stone Way.

Josh Cohen caught up with Davidson recently and published a great interview with him at his blog The Bicycle Story. It’s a great look at what it was like to be on the frontier of craft bicycle making in America, based right here in Seattle.

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From The Bicycle Story:

How did you learn how to build bikes? There weren’t exactly UBI classes to take in the early 70s.

Interesting that you know that. A lot of people don’t know how difficult it was back then. Nobody here knew anything to show you. We Americans that started doing this back the are pretty much self taught or got a very, very brief education. Mine was extremely brief. I did have the advantage of having a dad who had a welding shop in Ballard, a neighborhood here in Seattle. I had some metal working experience to fall back on. But that didn’t mean that I wouldn’t make all the rookie frame builder mistakes back then. Again, no schools, no youtube, no magazine articles, no books. You just had to figure this all out yourself. Hopefully you would be a quick study and not make too many crazy mistakes along the way.

I spent a little time at a small shop in Liverpool, England called Harry Quinn Cycles. I suppose essentially I got one of those two week frame building classes. But they had no intention of teaching me. They just wanted to have me help them out doing grunt work and so forth while I was there. Some people called that an apprenticeship, but that was their words, not mine. I know how an electrician or a plumber or sheet metal apprenticeship works. My experience would not qualify as one. They were very friendly and interested in teaching me anything I asked, but they had to put money in the bank every week. No time to be teaching people that weren’t pulling their weight.

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3 responses to “The Bicycle Story: Bill Davidson on making bike frames in Seattle since the 70s”

  1. Kirk

    My first decent bike was a Davidson custom built in March of 1981 with Columbus SL tubing. I had it repainted a few years ago and Bill and Bob produced some vintage decals to fully restore it. I recently updated from vintage Campy to modern Campy, and it is still an amazing ride. I’ll be riding it again for the STP. I miss the Elliott Bay Bike shop, but will have to stop in at the new shop some day…

  2. Allan

    I am going to assume that Erickson, Davidson and Rodriguez were pretty much equals back in the day. I have an old Erickson with S&S couplings. It is a really amazing bike although I seldom use it, in favor of a carbon road bike or flat bar cross bike. The amazing things about the Erickson are that it is very light weight for steel, probably similar to an expensive Italian bike like Pegorretti. It is also the straightest running bike I have. Outside the city you could ride it all day with your hands in your pockets.

  3. Todd

    What a great read.

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