Straight Outta Brompton
Cycling Plus|March 2017

The mass manufacture of bicycles in the UK has almost been consigned to history. But in one corner of west London, Britain’s biggest bike builder has just upped capacity to cope with demand. Welcome to the fold…

Paul Robson

Popping up into the London sunshine at Notting Hill Gate tube station, we unfold our bikes and set off past Kensington Palace through Hyde Park, Mayfair and Soho: destination Covent Garden. ‘We’ are Cycling Plus and Brompton’s global brand manager Ross Hawkins, and our bikes are two of the west London firm’s portable wonders, which is why we’ve been able to complete the first part of our journey from Brompton’s Greenford factory under TfL’s steam rather than our own. And that, in microcosm, is the genius of designer Andrew Ritchie’s famous creation.

You’ve almost certainly encountered a Brompton folding bike on a street or railway platform; perhaps you were impressed, perhaps you were intrigued, or perhaps you were aghast at the very idea. Whatever your thoughts, if one of them is that they are nothing more than interesting curiosities beloved of suburban commuters who wouldn’t otherwise be seen on two wheels then you might be surprised to learn that 50,000 of these small, hand-made bikes fly out of the firm’s west London factory every year – a remarkable success story for a business built from one man’s vision.

“I’d played with one or two other ideas before the Brompton,” remembers inventor Ritchie, “and although at the outset with the bike I had nothing else on the boil, I didn’t expect or intend to devote my working life to the project.

“When the original plans came to nought, I realised that the only way forward was to make and sell the bike independently.”

Born in London in 1977, the Brompton bicycle took its name from the Brompton Oratory Catholic church in Kensington, visible from the window of inventor Ritchie’s flat. Folding bikes existed before, but none had the simplicity of design and ease of use that would become the enduring trademark of this British institution.

“Andrew’s father was an investor in Bickerton, one of the first folding bikes,” explains Hawkins as we ride. “As an engineer Andrew thought it was interesting but that he could do better. Inspiration was taken from the Bickerton, and although the modern Brompton looks a lot different what unites them is the rear wheel folding back under the bike.

“Testament to the original Brompton design is the fact it hasn’t changed phenomenally from the first prototypes. Almost every component is different, but the design’s still there, and that’s how it’s achieved its iconic status.”

While Andrew set about designing a bike, it was never his plan to manufacture: the idea at the time was to license the design to someone such as Raleigh that was already well established in bicycle manufacturing.

“The response he got was that although the idea was interesting, the manufacturers weren’t convinced there was a market or that the idea was scalable,” says Hawkins.

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