Everyone seems to be talking about bicycles. This week’s eye-catching initiative from the Department for Transport is a scheme to turn Brighton, Aylesbury, Derby and Darlington into cyclists’ utopias, at a cost of £1 million per town. Meanwhile, more and more people have taken to cycling in London since the July bombings — an observation that had its status as a new cliché confirmed by an airing in one of Bird and Fortune’s Islington dinner-party sketches on Channel 4. And the BBC Panorama reporter Stephanie Flanders made cycles (geddit?) the motif of her assessment this week of Gordon Brown’s chancellorship. To illustrate the fate of British industry on Gordon’s watch, Flanders visited Raleigh, the Nottingham company that once made two million bicycles a year but now makes none at all, importing them instead from low-wage factories in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
So the humble two-wheeler has a lot to say about economics, environmental priorities and perceptions of personal safety and freedom. And since everyone else is talking about it, so shall I, not only because I am a secret bicycle bore, but also because I have hit upon a bicycle story which is not a metaphor for the threat of globalisation but — in a modest, cheerful, mildly eccentric, perfectly British way — precisely the opposite.
In May this year I woke up one night strangely possessed by the idea of buying a folding bicycle. Alighting from the train at King’s Cross the following day en route to The Spectator, I watched a grey-suited commuter assemble just such a machine and pedal off to work. Strolling down Gray’s Inn Road for a lunchtime sandwich, I found a pillar-box-red cuboid of collapsed bike winking at me from a cycle shop window. Five minutes and £500 later, sandwich forgotten, I was riding it in triumph down Doughty Street.
It’s called a Brompton and it is, I’m afraid, a new cliché of dinner-party conversation all in itself. Like Su Doku and the iPod, you see it and hear about it everywhere. But bear with me: suffice to say that the Brompton is an exquisite piece of design, with a foolproof folding mechanism that takes 15 seconds and makes you smile every time at its neatness. As to performance, the Brompton and I acquitted ourselves admirably on a 30-mile sponsored ride over the North York Moors, though I never heard the punchline of the vicar’s witticism about the Church of England being like a bicycle because he was whizzing downhill ahead of me on his conventional machine — the Brompton’s smaller wheels making it a bit frisky to handle at high speeds.
But what is most captivating about my new steed is how and where it is made. Its designer, Andrew Ritchie, started making prototype folding bikes in a flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory — hence the name — in 1975. A former landscape gardener and plant salesman, he is everything you would wish a bicycle boffin to be. I found him wearing navy-blue shorts and brown leather lace-up shoes, dragging on a thin roll-up, hunched over a desk strewn with cogs, chains and oily-fingerprinted invoices. For years — ‘a man driven by the seed of an idea, working for next to nothing’ — he struggled to get his business going. He finally succeeded in 1988 in a Brentford railway arch, with one wealthy private investor and a few early Brompton fans behind him. Since then his order-book has never been less than full. Now housed in a modern factory unit beside the M4 — ‘a cathedral compared to where we started’ — he aims to produce 14,000 bikes this year, up from 10,000 three years ago. Many go for export: the Dutch and Germans are keen, and the Japanese are catching on.
Ritchie is a perfectionist, and he seems worried (demand for the product having run ahead of capacity this summer) that his business is not as perfectly organised as it should be. The bikes are hand-built, using jigs and patterns made by Ritchie himself. Tiny dots of coloured paint identify which worker assembles each finished product. The unpainted frame assemblies with their brazed joints are sculptural objects which might grace the display shelves of an Islington dining-room. But how can an operation like this possibly survive in a global market? As Raleigh’s chief executive told Panorama, Indian manufacturers can now make mountain bikes to sell for as little as £40. Dahon, the US-based volume leader of the folding bike market, churns out 250,000 a year from factories in Taiwan, Macau and mainland China. Brompton’s design may be saluted by cycling magazine anoraks (who am I to talk? I look lovely in Lycra), but it is no longer protected by patent; cheap copies could flood the market at any time.
But it’s not that simple, Ritchie says. The Chinese have already produced Brompton rip-offs, but they failed to get the build quality or the weight right: an independent buyer’s guide describes the copies as ‘laughable’. For several years Bromptons were made legitimately under licence in Taiwan, but even though Ritchie ‘stood over them for weeks trying to get it right’, the product was inferior and the contract was eventually dropped. Where globalisation does come into play is in the sourcing of Brompton components: alloy strip for the mudguards comes from Taiwan, steel tube for the frame from China, lightweight titanium wheel-forks from Russia — and wheels, perhaps surprisingly, from a small family firm in Wolverhampton.
Each contract with a foreign supplier can take two years to set up. If Ritchie had venture capitalists or public shareholders breathing down his neck, he would be under pressure — like Raleigh and the makers of so many other once-British products from Dyson vacuum cleaners to Hornby model trains — to pump up his profit margins by sourcing not just components but, however disruptively, entire bicycles from wherever in the world they could be made cheapest. But so far he has avoided the City sharks, because Brompton has been able to generate enough cash to fund its own expansion. He thinks his bikes are best built by people who ride to work on them through west London every day and understand exactly what the customer wants. And he has no interest in selling the business to new owners who would do it all on a more aggressive scale elsewhere, because he clearly loves his job.
One bike shed does not an economic theory make, but what this little tale tells me is that with a combination of stubbornness, brilliant design, attention to detail, clever sourcing, cautious financing and a following wind of fashion, it is still possible to make world-class products in Brentford. I give you the Brompton bicycle, proof that British manufacturing is not dead yet.