Brompton folding bike

Building bicycles in the UK

E&T visits a cross-section of Britain's bicycle industry, to discover that, for those who've found their niche, business is booming.

In an era when transportation has been revolutionised by ever faster, more reliable and user-friendly cars, when high-speed trains race across Europe and Maglevs scythe through China, it is perhaps surprising that the humble bicycle is still around at all. It has never featured in any of the celebrated visions of a future world, where slim townsfolk sported superhero-style catsuits and jet packs. Yet here we are in 2010 and that clunking relic of the Victorian age is not only still around it's enjoying a renaissance. Even more surprisingly, when so much manufacturing has been outsourced, significant numbers of bicycles are still being manufactured in Britain.

In the teeth of a severe economic downturn, the global bike industry enjoyed an impressive year in 2009, following a spectacular 2008. Retailers in recession-hit Britain have told of record sales, and shortages of their most popular models. 'Europe,' one London cycle shop owner commented, 'is running out of bikes.'

Brompton, purveyors of folding bikes that are built from scratch somewhat incongruously perhaps in ritzy west London, explained that a bike ordered in early December could not be with the purchaser for 13 weeks. It was a similar story over at Pashley's factory in Stratford-upon-Avon. Technical director Dan Farrell commented that sales were up by 30 per cent year on year, and that it was a case of 'all hands on deck' to get orders that had been placed months before boxed up and shipped out in time for Christmas.

A combination of convenience, cost saving and health and environmental concerns seems to have inspired this urge to saddle up, for both the daily commute and for getting out and about at weekends. In Britain, the government's 'Cycle to Work' tax incentive has been a trigger; it is estimated to account for as much as half of all sales in some bike shops. London is leading the way, with a dramatic 90 per cent increase in the number of cyclists since 2005, amid worries about obesity and carbon footprints, with a cycling Mayor, and a cycling leader of the parliamentary opposition.

It has also coincided with the gentrification of areas once derided as 'inner cities'. Their affluent residents have discovered that a five-mile daily commute is easily achievable in normal, non-lycra, clothing and often preferable to the costly hurly burly of rush-hour public transport. Homes that are close to a city centre-bound cycle path have become highly sought-after.

Pashley's celebrity cyclists

So cycling is back in vogue, and, incredibly, the classic sit-up-and-beg boneshaker is right at the cutting edge. 'Now it's very cool,' enthuses Farrell. 'Vivienne Westwood and Kelly Brook have been pictured riding our bikes; it's the thing that everyone wants now. We're certainly benefiting from more people riding to work and those who think they should.'

Farrell is quick to dispel any notion of 'boneshaking', though: 'we make cycles that are nice to ride, not fast or light historically we've been leisure-oriented and practical: bikes for riding into town and to the pub.'

Established in Birmingham in 1926, Pashley was one of many small British companies that made utility bicycles for a largely pre-car era, including all manner of eccentric looking delivery cycles. Over the years, many of Pashley's rivals bearers of evocative names such as Triumph, Hercules and Sunbeam were subsumed by Raleigh, whose vast Nottingham factory churned out more than a million cycles a year in the early 1950s, many of which were exported.

That, however, proved to be the peak for production of traditional roadsters, as the public began to opt for the joys of motoring. Raleigh's UK market share steadily declined from a high of 75 per cent, but the firm was able to prosper both from the popularity of small-wheeled folding bikes in the 1970s, continued exports to former colonies such as Nigeria, and a boom in mountain bikes in the 1980s.

Ever more imported bikes, initially from France and later Taiwan, hit Raleigh hard in the 1980s. However, and despite a major reorganisation and adopting the just-in-time (JIT) approach to manufacturing in 1987, sales continued to slide. Crucially, the company chose not to invest in tooling for lighter and cheaper aluminum frames, which were being developed enthusiastically in the Far East. Volume production of frames in Nottingham was abandoned in 1999 and Raleigh's factory gates clanged shut for the last time in late 2002.

Raleigh lives on (indeed, it too is thriving) in the Nottingham area but as a trader, rather than a builder, of bicycles, made to its specifications in various factories across the world, from Bangladesh to Thailand and Germany.

Meanwhile, Pashley quietly continued to do what it knew, hand-brazing steel tubes in open hearths in Stratford upon Avon making sturdy roadster designs for traditionalists and the likes of the Royal Mail, but also making the innovative Moulton folding bike. The company went through some tough times, but fortunes have been revived since a management buyout 15 years ago. Around a quarter of Pashley's cycles are exported, going to over 50 countries,including destinations as diverse as Abu Dhabi, Sierra Leone and Kazakhstan. Three ice-cream tricycles were even sold to cash-strapped Iceland in 2009.

Heritage chic

Pashley is playing the English heritage card for all it's worth, and striving to source as many locally made components as possible. The inventory includes mudguards, spokes, leather saddles, (made by Brooks in Smethwick since 1866), handlebar grips and cables, but other parts have to be imported.

'We were the last firm to make an all-UK-sourced cycle in about 1986, until Michelin closed its tyre factory in Stoke on Trent,' says Farrell. Clearly it costs more to build bicycles in the West Midlands than in many Asian countries, but the company's survival as a niche producer is testimony to people being prepared to stump up around £500 for a British-made classic bike. Farrell says there has been a noticeable upward shift in the average value of a cycle sold in Britain in recent years, adding: 'I think that £500 is viewed as quite reasonable, you take your car for a service and it might cost at least that.'

Sales of a replica 1930s road bike called the Guvnor, which retails for about £800, have apparently been impressive, underlining the pull of 'heritage chic'. The design was resurrected from deep in the company's back catalogue, its curiously swept handlebars reminiscent of machines that graced early Tour de France races the kind that might be propped up against a rustic kitchen table in Provence while the rider tucked into a lunchtime bowl of soup. Laden with black and white diagrams (imperial measures) and sketches of hearty fellows in plus-fours barreling along empty country lanes, the sales brochure peddles an image that's a far cry from the rather soulless industrial estate where the bikes are actually built.

The Guvnor's frame is made from Reynolds 531 tubing, a tough steel alloy that was designed for high-end sports bikes for half a century and became a powerful brand until it lost ground to aluminum and carbon fibre.

Steel at Reynolds

Steel was down but it wasn't out. Reynolds is another bicycle-oriented manufacturer that managed to cling on in the West Midlands, and is now benefiting from the cycling boom. In 1897 the company took out a patent on a method of producing stronger and lighter steel tubes by thinning out the middle sections and increasing the thickness of the end walls, while maintaining a constant outer diameter. Known as 'butted' tubes, they could be 25 per cent lighter than their plain gauge equivalent.

At the forefront of metallurgical research between the wars, Reynolds experimented with various steel alloys, eventually alighting on the famed 531 in 1935 a blend of carbon, sulphur, silicon, phosphorus and molybdenum. Aviation had been the inspiration, but it also proved highly suitable for bicycles.

More than a century later, Reynolds is still at it, albeit on a scale considerably reduced from its postwar heyday. Its 531 tubing was even used to make the steel chassis of Thrust2, the jet-powered car which held the world speed record for Britain from 1983 to 1997.

Raising his voice above the screeching cacophony of steel tubes being dragged through venerable mandrel presses, managing director Keith Noronha says growth in 2009 went up by around a third. 'A new generation of cyclists are finding that steel construction can mean light weight, a clean, swept look and a supple ride. With aluminum you have to use large diameters to achieve the required stiffness.'

Noronha says that most of the butted tubing is destined overseas, heading for the workshops of master frame-builders in East Asia, mainland Europe and North America. These exports have been buoyed by favourable exchange rates in recent months, but Noronha is not complacent: 'We can't afford to assume that because Reynolds has done a good job, and because we've been around for 112 years, we'll make it to 113 it doesn't work like that.

'Innovation is the fundamental reason we still exist. It has been tough, because the costs of manufacturing in Britain are obviously high compared with the Far East but we continuously work to create new products using new metals.'

This includes an ultra high-strength maraging stainless steel alloy Reynolds 953 which Noronha hopes will be the formula that will enable the brand to rejoin the world of professional cycle racing.

Several small British companies still buy butted tubes from Reynolds and lovingly craft them into classic racing and touring bikes, continuing a decades-long tradition. Mercian Cycles can be perhaps be compared to a Savile Row tailor, its three highly skilled artisans painstakingly brazing frames to measure in a modest workshop outside Derby.

A few years ago, celebrated designer Paul Smith, a cycling aficionado, forged a link with the firm, designing a special edition that was sold through his fashion shops. Price tags well above the 1,500 mark and long waiting lists have not deterred buyers sales were up in 2009, and that included two men who flew in from Brazil to be measured up in Mercian's shop on a nondescript parade in Alveston.

Cycling for fashionistas

While bicycles made by Mercian appeal to traditionalists, other manufacturers are targeting a younger, hipper market. Located in London's fashionable Shoreditch, 14 Bike Co began selling startlingly minimalist, brightly coloured, fixed-wheel bikes in spring 2009. The sleek, pared-down designs were inspired by the US 'track bike' scene, which has been enthusiastically adopted by bike couriers and, subsequently, the urban fashion cognoscenti. The bikes come in five different frame styles, with their own ride characteristics, which can be paired with a wide range of components, including hand-built wheels.

The firm's co-founder, John Wainwright, is another evangelist for traditional (Reynolds) steel frames, arguing that they are light and offer a more forgiving ride, which is perfect for harsh city streets. Steel also lasts longer than other materials, and is readily repairable.'

Wainwright says customers are very interested in how and where the bikes are made, and, it seems, they are prepared to pay a premium for it, around £2,500 is common. Photographs in the marketing brochure show their principal frame-builder, Lee Cooper, hard at work in the Midlands, brazing torch in hand. 'Local production is central to our values,' says Wainright, adding that delays in sourcing components from abroad, and the hassle of dealing with import tariffs, meant he was increasingly commissioning British factories, mainly in the West Midlands, to produce them.

Folding-bike renaissance

Folding bikes were once regarded with suspicion, if not outright ridicule. That has changed in recent years, perhaps as a result of the sheer number of the things, criss-crossing Britain's towns and cities.

The market leader, and therefore the firm to be held largely responsible for this small-wheeled proliferation, is Brompton. In 2009 it rolled 25,000 folding bikes out of its bright and well-organised factory that nestles beside the M4 in west London, not far from Kew Bridge. With volumes of more than 600 a week, Brompton has recently become Britain's largest bike manufacturer, edging ahead of Pashley. Senior designer Will Carleysmith says the company's 110 staff (up from around 40 five years ago) are working at full tilt, but that still was not enough to meet demand.

Anyone wanting one is apparently in for at least an 11-week wait. He thinks the relatively weak pound was a big factor in their success in 2009, given the importance of exports, notably to the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Korea (UK sales typically account for only around 30 per cent of the total).

There is talk of expansion and the company is attempting to innovate with more efficient, cellular, Toyota-inspired methods of construction. It is all a far cry from the grimy, low-rent image of bicycle factories of yore.

Brompton's story is a classic tale of British manufacturing, Andrew Ritchie, working in his bedroom in the mid 1970s, came up with an ingenious design for a bicycle that could quickly concertina into a surprisingly portable package. Several years of penury and loss-making development followed, but finally an entrepreneur recognised the bike's potential and full-time production kicked off in 1988.

Over time, improvements have been made to both the bike's design and the manufacturing processes, the most rapid period of growth overseen by Tim Butler-Adams, who grasped the handlebars after leaving a career in big business.

Each bicycle contains some 1,200 parts, around three-quarters of which are unique to the Brompton. This has meant that, unlike the majority of bicycle manufacturers, Brompton makes most of them itself under one roof, which also means also producing the bespoke machine tools and fixtures in-house. This has enabled the company to maintain control over all the materials, which Carleysmith tells me is very important, particularly in frame construction, given that the they are subject to greater forces than standard bike frames. Furthermore, he adds, keeping the knowledge and expertise close to home helps it pass on advances in design to its customers, strengthening competitive advantage.

Like the wares of other UK-based bicycle manufacturers, Brompton bikes are hardly cheap, ranging from around £600 for the base model to over £1,500 for a top-spec machine. But the fact that so many cyclists are prepared to pay these prices in the teeth of a prolonged recession begs the question of whether the mass production of bicycles could ever return to Britain.

Could this be what the government means by 'green-collar jobs'? A glance at the sheer number of imported bikes - almost one million from Taiwan alone in 2008 and mindful of the demise of Raleigh as a full-scale manufacturer, along with its R&D function and myriad component-makers, the answer can only be no. It's a case of survival of the niches.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles