I've been in touch with Mervyn Cook, the VCC Hobbs enthusiast hoping to get a bit more information about production levels but I think Hilary has already done a good job of picking his brain.
According to Mervyn, early Hobbs, i.e. pre-1936, had quite simple lugs although Mervyn said the craftsmanship was outstanding. Hilary suggested that Hobbs frame numbering probably did not start at 1 but a much higher number, as was common at the time. Mervyn said no one knows this for sure but he, too, thinks it unlikely that No. 1 was the starting point and 500 a possibility.
Mervyn added, "Hetchins did not make very fancy frames in '36, whereas Hobbs introduced the 'Continental' catalogue in '37, and the first fancy lugged frame (with 'Superbe' lugs) on the register is No 1649. I date that at early 1937, and the earliest fancy frame with provenance is No 1958, still owned by the original purchaser, in late '37/'38.
"I've no way of knowing total numbers. The latest number I have pre-war is 2202, so that puts output at some 1500 over a seven year period (assuming a No. 500 start). Post war they were, I think, major builders because they had the facilities and capacity of the Sterling Works. I would think they made more than Hetchins then, but don't forget that lots of them were quite basic frames. Sporty, but batch produced. They were also into export in a big way then, but again I just don't know how many."
Hilary had earlier written: I do think it is correct that Hobbs were making frames with fancy lugs prior to 1936. All the early Hobbs frames I have seen have lugs with simple cutouts in a similar manner to most other English builders of the time. However I do agree Hobbs were the first builder in Britain to offer a true fancy cut lugwork on their Continental Superbe model from the 1937 season - this may mean that they were building them in the previous year.
With Hetchins it is apparent from the first catalogue issued and from photographs that quite plain lugs were offered on some models at the beginning, the few that were a bit more ornate were nothing like as fancy as the Hobbs Continental Superbe. But Hetchins' early slightly fancy pattern lugs must have been a key factor in many of the early sales, for the plain lugs were dropped almost immediately.
Bruce's figures for framer numbers are also not quite what they first seem. Hetchins production did not start proper until August 1935 - between then and the end of 1936 546 frames were built. By the end of 1939, 2400 frames are recorded as built, in just under 4 1/2 years, Bruce reckons that Hobbs had sold 2202 bikes in 9/10 years. This however presumes that Hobbs started at frame number 1. I think this is unlikely - Hobbs claimed to have started in 1930 though there is no other evidence to back this up. The earliest frame known is 680 and fortunately this comes with its original invoice for February 1933. It is very unlikely that Hobbs made 680 frames in just over three years from a cold start-up - I think it is far more likely that they started at frame number 500 or even 600. This was very common practice amongst builders - Baines started at 100, Thanet at 1000 for example.
With Hetchins some frames were built which preceded the start of production proper - these may have been built by Jack Denny before he officially joined Hetchins. Several are known to exist, how many were built like this is not known. The figures I quote for Hetchins are from the Hetchins records which I hold. The number of Hetchins frames sold is slightly less - but it cannot be accurately established as quite a few went out the back door for I think tax reasons. Hetchins were a considerably bigger operation than Hobbs - a minimum of three framebuilders would have been necessary as well as others to prepare, cut and file the lugs. Quite probably the tube cutting, mitreing, lug cutting and filing were done by others with Jack Denny supervising and perhaps brazing the major joints.
Another point of interest that arises from the sales records for Hetchins is the very high numbers of frames sold outside London and its immediate area. Hetch himself went on the road selling the frames bearing his name to dealers small and large all over the country. In 1936 only 5% were sold through other dealers but in 1937 54%, and in 1938 the figure was a staggering 75%.
Post-war it is very important to note that many framebuilders produced fancy hand cut lugged frames - many would reckon that Ephgrave were one of the finest whilst others would champion Gillott's Fleur de Lys pattern. And there's no doubting too the fineness of the lugwork found on some Rotrax and Holdsworth models. There were many other smaller builders who created ornate fine lugwork too - Ferris, Stuart Cycles, Thanet etc