The Manufacturer team recently dropped by Brompton Bicycle to see how one of Britain's few remaining bike manufacturers is taking on the cycling world.
Greeted by ebullient managing director William Butler-Adams, the first job was to try one of the folding bicycles for ourselves. The bike brought a grin to the face of even the most jaded journalist among us and after a quick ride around the site we were taken to the factory floor.
Hung in pride of place, along with a rejection letter for the original Brompton bicycle design from Raleigh, is the drawing of the first Brompton prototype by the company’s founder Andrew Ritchie. Mr Ritchie, who started the company in his flat opposite the Brompton Oratory, still has the largest share holding but no longer owns the company.
Ritchie and Butler-Adams complement each other with the founder spending his time on engineering innovations and Will focusing on building the business.
“We agreed when I took over that I couldn’t run it if he owned it,” Says Mr Butler-Adams. “I wouldn’t have been able to get the business growing because I would do things that he wouldn’t have been happy with.”
“Sometimes I’ve done things that he didn’t like, but in time he has said ‘I’m glad you did that – but I wouldn’t have done it’.”
Will also discussed the challenges that face UK manufactures compared with Britain’s global competitors.
“One of the major problems with the British manufacturing model is that it is often backed by short term venture capitalist funding. If you look at the German model it is a family business-based, long term model. Their banks really understand the risks and long term nature of manufacturing businesses.”
Brompton uses brazing rather the more common welding to fabriacate its steel frames. The lower temperature allows the firm to build its products to much tighter tolerances than conventional bikes.
“Good quality bikes are built to wheel alignment tolerances of around +/- 2mm,” says Butler-Adams. “But if we stuck to that we would have a pretty terrible bike because we have five different parts that have to come together so +/- 2mm would become 1cm in the finished bike.”
“We make our bike to tolerances of +/- 0.2mm, around ten times the tolerance of a normal bike, because when you build a folding bike you need that to get a very accurate end result.”
Every fiftieth frame is checked on a CMM machine to ensure that the precision engineering of the frame is maintained.
Picking up the optional titanium rear frame I couldn’t believe how light it was. Although this part is currently manufactured in China, Brompton is looking to reshore the technology, perhaps producing them using 3D printing techniques which it is currently to make prototypes.
The titanium option, which adds a whooping £500 to the retail price of the bike, is not to make the biker lighter when riding but for when it is being carried – a crucial feature of a folding bike.
“You get all these MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) saying ‘I’ve just spent £1000 on my carbon fibre stuff so my bike now weighs 9kg instead of 10kg’,” Butler-Adams says.
“Then some bright spark drinking his pint of Fullers says ‘so how much do you weigh?’”
“He answers ‘90kgs’, and gets told, ‘you silly arse you only saved 1%. It would have been cheaper to go and have a crap before you get on your bike’!” Will argues that the extra costs of super-dear carbon bikes is only justified if you are carrying the bike a lot as only then are you getting the full advantage of the lighter material.
Watch this space for a gallery of photos of brazing and assembling the original folding Brompton bicycle.
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