40 years of folding bicycles
Andrew Ritchie built his first folding bicycle 40 years ago named
the Brompton. The diminutive machine is now more popular than ever.
In the UK cycling has never been more popular, whether it is using
a bike to go to the shops or out for a fast road ride on a Sunday
morning. This growing interest in cycling is also being reflected
in the growing number of people using a bicycle to commute on. However,
with train companies reluctant to let people travel with full sized
bikes, users are turning to folding machines and one of the most
popular, not just in the UK but around the world, is the London-made
Following his graduation from university with a degree in engineering,
Andrew Ritchie had a variety of jobs, including buying and selling
flowers. However, he was always looking at ways to make the best
use his engineering skills, challenging himself mentally, and eventually
found himself working at Bickerton, a folding bicycle company which
was founded in 1971. However, it did not take very long for Ritchie
to realise he could build a better folding bike. Full of the exuberance
of youth, Ritchie left Bickerton and, working from his cramped flat
in Kensington, designed and built the first prototype Brompton in
1975. He took the name for his new bicycle from the view from his
flat – the Brompton Oratory.
After working through numerous prototypes, full-time production
officially began in 1988, a year after the final prototype design
had won the Best Product Award at Cyclex, the premier cycling event
held at Olympia, London. Even today, the current versions of the
distinctive folding bike look extremely similar to the final prototype
and the unique feature where the bike folds around the drivetrain,
protecting the owner from grease and dirt on the drivetrain remains.
Today the business is flourishing, with sales of 50,000 bicycles
a year, and all of those Brompton bikes are still produced by hand
in London, the difference is that production is no longer in Ritchie’s
but a factory in West London. There, there is a workforce of staff
from designers through frame builders and assemblers working together
to create the machines that, thanks to the options available, can
be ordered in one of 16 million plus combinations when all the official
accessories are considered.
The starting point for each Brompton is the folding frame, each
of which is brazed together by hand by a team of engineers, each
of whom has had 18 months of in-house training before they are qualified
to build each part of a Brompton frame. All of the company’s
frame builders have a ‘signature’ which they stamp on
each of the parts of the bike that they braze together marking their
work for the life of the cycle.
Such is the demand for the clever little folding bike that the
company is set to move to larger premises to create more space for
increased production. Production which is currently running at over
50,000. Each year 20% of Brompton’s output remains in the
UK, 40% goes to the Asia-Pacific countries, 30% Europe, Middle East
and Africa, and the remaining 10% to the Americas.
As well as supplying cycle shops and offering an online retail
service, Brompton has its own dedicated retail outlets around the
globe. Known as Brompton Junction stores, they are branded retail
spaces offering a personalised service, showing bikes which reflect
the many colours and specification finishes possible, and utilising
high calibre workshop facilities and specialist staff. Unique to
each Brompton Junction is an original 1982 Brompton displayed prominently
in-store; one of 400 made in the first production run. The particular
outlet’s identity is also represented by the frame number
of the original Brompton they are allocated at launch. Cities where
stores are located include; Bangkok, Beijing, Milan, London, Hamburg,
Shanghai, Amsterdam, and Kobe.
However, there is no need to go to a Brompton store to be able
to try a Brompton bike out, as the company also operates what it
believes to be the country’s biggest nation-wide cycle hire
scheme. Made up of 32 docking stations around the UK, a user can
take a bike from any one of the stations for just £2.50 a
day and return it to any station, anywhere in the country. In theory,
a Brompton could be hired in London and then returned to Birmingham
or Exeter, for example.
Once you’ve given one of the icon folders a spin you might
want to take things even further and join the massed ranks of Brompton
owners who compete each year in the Brompton World Championship.
This year saw the 10th running of the event which was tied into
the Ride London celebrations – the London Mayor’s festival
of cycling. Brompton World Championship events take place at 17
locations around the world, with the Grand Final held in London.
Over 500 riders took part and had to start by unfolding their bikes
before racing around the same route as the professional racing cyclists
used later in the day. However, unlike the professionals, Lycra
is banned for Brompton riders, with blazers, smart shorts and a
tie are more usual attire for competitors.
It is hard to imagine a bicycle brand that generates as much loyalty
as Brompton, as witnessed by it World Championship, and yet each
and every one of the bikes ridden every day around the world began
life in West London where it was assembled by hand, with the original
designer still involved to this day, forty years on from the very
first Brompton being built.
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