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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 Brompton.

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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