From the Journal 469 (Spring/Summer 2016) Peter Murray, an avid cyclist, examines Brompton Bikes' continuing success as a London manufacturer, while other small bike firms are being forced out of the capital.
Like the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Land Rover and the Moulton, the Brompton folding bicycle is a quintessentially English design. Pragmatic, sturdy, useful, good-looking rather than beautiful, and honestly engineered, it re ects values that de ne our approach to culture and consumer products. But the Brompton stands out from the rest because it is London-made.
Brompton began in 1975, when inventor Andrew Ritchie created Brompton prototypes in his bedroom in South Kensington, overlooking Brompton Oratory — thus the name. Low-volume production started in 1981 and in 1988 the company moved to railway arches in Brentford in West London, chosen so Andrew could cycle to work.
The factory is now moving to new larger premises in Greenford; a location selected because it is within easy commuting distance for the 250 staff, of whom 44 are "brazers". A key element in the production process is brazing, which is used instead of welding to join the tubes that make up the frame. Brazing is done at a lower temperature than welding and with an extremely close fit between the parts being joined. Each brazer is trained by Brompton for 18 months and has a "signature" that is stamped on the parts of the bike that they work on. While a move out of London might have been a cheaper option, the company needed to stay close to this skilled workforce, whose members live in West London.
In the past, Brompton tried to source completed frames from the Far East, but found it impossible to obtain the fine tolerances needed for the complex folding structure. It was an experiment that ended in tears when the Far- Eastern partner started distributing copies of the Brompton in Europe, although after several years of struggle the European courts upheld Brompton’s claims to infringement of its intellectual property.
This year the factory will turn out 48,000 bicycles, 80 per cent of which is for export. Historically the company has been growing at around 20 per cent per year, but has recently slowed down, reflecting a softening of the wider bicycle market. However in London, cycling numbers continue to increase. ere are currently 90,000 Bromptons in the city and the firm has plans to expand its role in London’s transport sector.
For some years, and at significant expense, the company has been testing the idea of Brompton lockers at stations, where people can hire a bike for £2.50 a day. The firm has now refined the design and plans to roll out bike- hire lockers across the capital. Outer London remains untouched by Boris bikes because of the £25,000 cost of docking stations, which need to be connected to the electricity supply.
By contrast, the Brompton docking stations cost only £3—£4,000 and are solar powered, requiring no connection to main services. Brompton chief executive Will Butler-Adams suggests that he is moving “from a maker of bikes to a provider of active travel solutions”. The firm is working with Williams Formula One Advanced Engineering team to develop an electric-assisted Brompton that will further increase their popularity and the distance they cover.
The firm is also collaborating with Stuart Lipton, developer of the new 62-storey tower at 22 Bishopsgate, EC2, to provide folding bikes for staff in the building. Instead of ordering a taxi when they go to meetings, staff can use an app to let reception know they need a bike; by the time they get downstairs, the Brompton will be waiting for them.
These initiatives, closely linked to the London market, will help keep Brompton located in the capital, unlike many other manufacturers. There are many reasons for firms to move away, foremost are the costs of accommodation, the cost of staff and the increasing difficulty of lower paid workers to afford to live here at all. Brompton is exceptional — it needs its trained brazers and, as a premium product that has been growing successfully and consistently, can afford London prices.
Other bike makers still in London include Ashley Malcolm, who constructs custom bikes in Brockley; sculptor-turned bike-builder Jake Rusby, who creates very elegant frames in a workshop in Dulwich: Caren Hartley, Britain’s top woman frame-builder and a former jeweller, also in South London; Quirk Cycles, making frames in Walthamstow; and architect Matt Teague who makes steel frames in a small workshop in South Woodford.
But it’s not the same for everyone. Tom Donhou of Donhou Bicycles was described in Cycling Weekly as a “bike-building da Vinci”, and won the best in show at Bespoked, the UK hand-made bike show. Tom is based in Hackney Wick and came back to London from his native Norfolk to be close to friends and “be a part of London”. Thirty per cent of his sales are here, although he feels that London doesn't offer much for a small manufacture like him.
In order for his business to grow, he is looking at relocating. “As the industrial estate where my workshop is located is being turned over to developers, I don't see myself here much longer,” he says.
Ted James of TJD Bikes has gone. Ted is one of the UK’s top new bike builders. A major figure in the growth of the fixed-gear bike movement, he started frame building in 2008. He set up a workshop off Brick Lane, but last year moved to Gloucestershire in order to find a bigger workshop that he could afford.
Roberts Cycles of Croydon, a family bicycle- and frame-making business that had its beginnings in the 1930s, survived until last year, when its owner decided on a well-earned sabbatical. Where he will reopen is not yet known.
Even bike show Bespoked, held in the Velodrome in 2013, and thus alerting Londoners to the marketplace, has now moved to Bristol, pressured like so many businesses in the capital by high costs. Phil Taylor, who runs Bespoked, says that everything in London, from venues to pr, marketing and contractors, seems to cost about twice as much as in Bristol.
A couple of years ago I visited Portland, Oregon, to study cycling infrastructure. The city and the state has become a global centre for bike-making as well as bicycle tourism. Cycling forms a key part of the local economy. The Made in Portland website lists 43 bike makers — as well as makers of beer, and baristas. “Portlanders have built entire industries around shared passions,” says the site (madeinportland.org). So successful has the bike industry been that Chris King, who makes world’s best bike bearings, has advised the White House on promoting new manufacturing.
London once had a buoyant cycle- building business, with several bike makers and bike shops per borough, but they left town as the car took over. Can we revive the sector? London has a growing bike culture and cyclist numbers continue to increase. We may accept that large makers like Brompton are an exception, but the smaller bespoke sector is an area where proximity to the customer base is an advantage and price levels are less sensitive. It is a sector that needs greater promotion: a website, a show, and support from the cycling community. London can learn from Portland in building industries around shared passions — and passion is something cyclists are not short of.