10 November 2016

What Happened To 708?

How can you tell the best bikes from the rest?

For about half a century, the answer was simple:  Look for Reynolds 531 stickers on the frame and fork.  Just about everyone who built frames by hand in the English-speaking world used it. So did the top bikes from the leading manufacturers in those countries, as well as in Continental Europe and Japan.  Even some Cinellis were made from "five-three-one" in the main triangle (and Columbus SP forks and stays) until the mid-1960s.

The reason for this was simple:   Reynolds 531 offered, by far, the best weight-to-strength ratio of any bicycle building material available. Its strength, said to be the result of its composition (made with maganese and molybdenum) allowed it to be drawn paper-thin midway through the length of the tube. That made significantly lighter bikes possible, and the fact that it was "butted" at the ends and seamless meant that it didn't compromise strength.  While other companies made seamless double-butted tubing (which Reynolds first developed), none seemed to achieve quite the balance of responsiveness and comfort of Reynolds 531. Also, it was offered in a dizzying array of configurations to suit just about every kind of rider and riding.

While nearly all of the British builders and manufacturers, and some in France, continued to build mainly or exclusively with Reynolds 531, some in other European countries, as well as the US, shifted to Columbus tubing--or offered bikes made from each brand.  While some claimed that Columbus made for a "stiffer" bike, I think that perception came from the fact it was used mainly to build criterium and track frames, which were the mainstays of high-end Italian bike production.  In contrast, Reynolds 531 was used on a wider variety of bikes, including the touring, audax and randonneuring machines made mainly by British and French builders, but far less often by their Italian counterparts.

In part to compete with Columbus and other tubing companies, and in part as a response to changes in bike-building techniques, Reynolds created new tubing sets, starting with their "753", introduced in 1975.  (See Retrogrouch's excellent article about it.)  Other tube sets followed.  Some, such as the 631 (said to be the successor of 531) and 853, have become mainstays (pun intended) of the bike world.  Others, like the 501, a seamed chrome-molybdenum tubing, were widely used for a number of years on mid- to upper-mid level bikes, including some from Peugeot, Motobecane and Trek as well as British makers like Raleigh and Dawes.  

Then there were other Reynolds products that seemed to come and go pretty quickly.  One example is their "708".


I could find very little information about it.  Apparently, it was made for a few years during the 1980s, and it seems not to have been used much, if at all, outside of England.  I could find no reference to it in any American frame builder's or bike manufacturer's literature of that period, and I saw references to just two French bikes--one from Peugeot, the other from Motobecane.  Neither of them, nor any of the British models made from 708, seems to have been exported to the US.  

This tubing differed from others made by Reynolds, as well as other high-quality tube sets from Columbus, Tange, Ishiwata and Vitus, in that it wasn't internally butted at the ends.  Instead, the tubes were made with eight internal ribs running lengthwise inside the tubes, rather like the rifling in a gun barrel. (I know, that's not the most politically-correct analogy to use, especially after the latest election, but it will be useful later.) This was supposed to increase strength and lateral stiffness over butted or straight-gauge tubes.  Reynolds intended for it to be used on touring and other heavy-use bikes,  and the few bikes made from it were of those types.  

Raleigh Randonneur, a bike made from Reynolds 708 tubing. From Retrobike UK.

The few testimonies I've found about bikes made from Reynolds 708 were positive. So why did it come and go as quickly as it did?  One the reasons was brand loyalty--or, more specifically, a product loyalty.  At that time, it seemed, dyed-in-the-wool 531 riders didn't want to try anything else, whether or not it came from Reynolds.  And those who were inclined to try something new were switching over to Columbus or the then-new aluminum bikes.

I can think of one other possible reason why, not only did so few people buy bikes made from 708, but why, apparently, so few (comparatively, anyway) bikes were made from it.  A butted frame tube has the same thickness through the circumference of the tube.  This means that whether the builder or manufacturer brazes or welds the frame tubes together, and whether or not lugs are used, a consistent level of heat can be maintained around the circumference. In contrast, ribbed frame tubes have thick and thin sections, which makes it more difficult to maintain consistent heat levels.  An area that is heated more loses more strength that is heated less.  Thus, I imagine that it would be more difficult to make a strong joint with ribbed than with butted tubes.

Then again, I didn't see any references to collapses or other failures of 708 frames.  That may be a result of the relatively small number that were produced, or of that those few tended to be relatively high-level bikes which were made by more skilled hands than mass-market bikes.

Whether or not 708 had the possible problems I mentioned, it didn't seem to influence bike-making very much.  The only other internally-ribbed frame tubes of which I'm aware were Columbus SLX and the tubing that Miyata made for some of their own bikes. Both were manufactured around the same time as 708 was produced.  I don't know whether either was inspired by 708.  Miyata, though, may have had the idea stored in their institutional memory, if you will:  Before they started making bikes, they made rifles.


  1. Interesting post. I knew about Columbus SLX but not Reynolds 708. By the way the the rifle barrel analogy is quite legit. Don't worry about politically correct hoplophobes who might have a hissy fit if you mention the word "rifle".

  2. On my stealth black bike my bike guy was shocked that I even refused the 531 sticker...

  3. Phillip--I only learned about it recently myself. Ok, now I feel better about the rifle reference!

    Coline--If that isn't "going stealth", I don't know what is! ;-)

  4. I think a lot of the reason for the swift rise and fall of 708 was that it was at the end of steel frame popularity with aluminium seem as the only way to build a lightweight frame.
    I have a raleigh randonneur which is a remarkably stiff fast bike for a not particularly light tourer. the seatube fractured just above the bottom bracket a few years ago, but i like the bike so much i had the frame repaired and its still going strong. Thanks for the post...

  5. Paul--Thank you for sharing your experience. It's good to know that you and other people like their 708 bikes. I don't think Reynolds ever made a low-quality or poorly-designed tubeset; I think your explanation for 708's non-popularity makes sense.

  6. Very interesting comments. I have a Raleigh Royal which is made of 708 and so far no problems. It rides beautifully and maybe is stiffer than my 531 bikes.

  7. Unknown--I'm not surprised. I'd like to try a couple of 708 frames just to see what they're like.

  8. I have found a graham weigh frame with Reynolds 708 stamped on it. It might be a very rare frame so thinking of restoring it (really ugly paint) and making a swift commuter from it.

  9. Garibaldo--It sounds like an interesting bike, worth restoring.

  10. I got a frame built by Des Maye (under Rapparee brandname) in 1997 who made custom frames in Ireland during 80's and 90's. Built with Reynolds 708 and in regular use since mainly for road cycling mainly. Great bike with original paint job still looking well.