by David Henshaw
Excellent Books, copyright 2009, 152 pgs., £11.95
The history of the Brompton, a folding bicycle made in London, is evidence that talent, persistence and lucky failures can add up to a unique manufacturing success story. In January 2010, a book about the folder, Brompton Bicycle, was available to American readers through Amazon.com. Excerpts are also available on Brompton’s website.
The lucky failures for Brompton included not gaining the support of Raleigh, a company that ended up acting as Brompton’s doppelganger. As Brompton moved from inventor Andrew Ritchie’s bedroom workshop through progressively larger factories to become Britain’s biggest bicycle maker, Raleigh fell from its position as a dominant manufacturer to a relatively minor posting as a bicycle marketer, today fully dependent on Asian imports.
Another lucky failure was Brompton’s abortive attempt to outsource production through an Asian supplier. The relationship, rocky from the start, meant that design, frame manufacturing, assembly and marketing of “real” Brompton bicycles remained in London under the control of Ritchie and his team. It was that control, and Ritchie’s conservative approach to money management, that helped the company not only survive the hollowing-out of British manufacturing, but thrive.
It also helped that the Brompton bicycle was a niche product. The author credits an early design award to the fact that its main competitor was similar to many other bicycles while Brompton brought something new to the game: the best combination of folding and rideability exhibited by any machine to that time.
The book is somewhat of an inside story. The back cover credits Henshaw with helping to establish Brompton’s dealer network in the 1990s. Henshaw also publishes A to B, a magazine devoted to folding bicycles.
However, the result is a surprisingly unbiased and relatively transparent look at the company from the perspective of one of its supporters. (Though the author does tend to use past tense quite consistently when referring to Brompton’s competitors.) It’s a great read for anyone interested in marketing studies, in folding bicycles and, of course, in Bromptons.
This isn’t an exhaustive biography of the people behind the Brompton story. Perhaps because this is a British book, you get the ancestral lineage of Ritchie and his most important backer, but not a great deal of insight into their personal lives, expect for that portion of it devoted to business.
Other players are covered even more briefly, including Ritchie’s first employee, known only as Patrick, a “dour Scotsman and occasional alcoholic.”
One note: Brompton may be Britain’s largest bicycle manufacturer, but that’s like saying Cheerios is the most popular cereal in my pantry. (Right now, it’s the only cereal in my pantry.) Go outside of Britain and Brompton’s annual production (slightly more than 20,000 bicycles in 2009) is less impressive.
For example, Dahon, the largest maker of folding bikes, claims production of more than two million units since 1982. Overall, bike makers produced 130 million bicycles in 2007 and two of every three machines came from Chinese factories. (To gain some perspective on the current might of British bicycle manufacturing, compare Brompton production numbers with Raleigh’s single-year output of a million bicycles in 1951.)
But this is about more than numbers; it’s about laying claim for the modern folding bicycle. From a brand perspective, Brompton fans are just as psychically invested in the success of “their bike” as the owners of any other folding bicycle. For evidence, you don’t have to look much further than the Brompton World Championship, an event that attracts riders of every ability as long as they are attired properly, that is, in coat and tie.