How we made the Brompton folding bike

Brompton World Championship final

Brompton Black Edition


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How we made the Brompton folding bike” was written by Interviews by Kate Abbott, for The Guardian on Monday 27th April 2015 16.52 UTC

Andrew Ritchie, inventor

It’s the same old thing lots of people have dreamed of having – a magic carpet you can keep in your pocket. Of course, what I achieved was rather chunkier, but it was still pretty manageable compared with other fold-up bikes out there. Before the Brompton, most portable bikes were fold-in-half things, not something you’d want to carry around.

I’d been dabbling with inventing, having studied engineering at Cambridge, but it was nothing serious. Then I tried out a fold-in-half bike called the Bickerton. I found it awkward and I had nothing to do that night, so I thought: what other ways could a bike fold? I introduced a hinge at the front so the handlebars tucked down, and one at the back that doubled as a suspension point – you need that with small wheels or you bump about. The first one looked pretty awful. I wanted it to be slick, so that when you pushed the saddle down everything swung into place, but the cables stretched too much and would have needed constant replacing. That version was quite underengineered. It was a non-starter.

I got the patent in 1976. My backers were friends of mine. We didn’t want to do the manufacturing ourselves: we wanted a business to take on the idea, make the bikes, and bring us riches beyond the dreams of avarice. But after several years, we were nowhere. Eventually, I got into production on a small scale, after doing a proto-Kickstarter kind of thing and pre-selling 30 bikes. They were all duly delivered, then my hinge supplier went out of business.

That was a hiccup, followed by even more years of looking for money. In 1986, however, a man called Julian Vereker came on board. He’d bought a lot of the early bikes and had business kudos. Things began to snowball: backers came forward and soon we had enough to get our own factory going.

I felt like giving up quite often. I had to work as a gardener, a builder, a messenger – anything noncommittal since, at any minute, the Brompton might have taken off. The fact that we didn’t get proper backing early on probably spared us. My first bikes started breaking after four years. If we’d had thousands out there, it could have ruined the company.

folded Brompton bike

By 1987, I’d nearly got it right. I reinforced the points where it was weak: three spots on the frame that were susceptible to snapping. I danced around with design, coming up with the simplest and least inelegant solutions, and that’s where we’ve been for 30 years now. But it’s still crying out for petty improvements. I know – I use one every day and get irritated. I spent months making the cables go the right way, but the front ones wear out because they go through a big loop. We should get rid of that. The cables get snagged, too, then the brakes and gears don’t work.

People have been trying to make wheels fold for years. I’ve thought about it, of course, because that’s the obvious way to get the bike smaller still. But it seems silly to start reinventing the wheel. I might be wrong; maybe someone will come up with a way. But I haven’t got the energy.

Today, folk take Bromptons for granted and think they’ve been around for ever, but it was a pretty perilous journey into existence. I can’t say if it was all worth it – but what else would I have done?

Will Carleysmith, head of design

We’re not really interested in selling to cyclists. I know that’s an odd thing to say. But if you live in a city, a Brompton is like a can-opener: an ugly way of getting around and quite hard to use. We want it to become accessible to everybody, not just people who like technical products. As it stands, the folding isn’t that intuitive, and you have to carry it of course. Think about suitcases becoming so easy to roll and move – we’d like to do that, and make it lighter, too. If you live on the fourth floor, you’ve got to schlep it up. Our lightest bike is 9.4kg. There’s at least a kilo to come out, probably more.

And the news is squeaking out about another project of ours: electric drive. We want to have a powered bike so you don’t get hot and sweaty. If you think about someone on their Brompton, in their work clothes going to a social event, they don’t want to turn up in head-to-toe Lycra, steaming.

When I joined as a graduate 10 years ago, our biggest problem was that we couldn’t make enough bikes. Our lead time was pretty huge: up to five months, given our one-bike-at-a-time production line. So we went to look at the factories of Triumph and Toyota, and essentially copied what they did. Now, we more than meet demand, making a bike every three minutes.

It’s taken 30 years to get established by word of mouth. Now, we export 80% of our bikes. The weirdest place we’ve sent a Brompton to is the south pole. A research scientist’s instruments were a mile away from where he lived, so he cycled across the surface of the Antarctic to work. He sent us a great picture of himself on his bike in full polar gear.

In Japan, we’re now a lifestyle product. We’re British in that Burberry, Paul Smith kind of way. They customise their bikes to outdo their mates, replacing mudguard flaps, say, with ones made of fine leather or bits of plastic with machined titanium. They’ve turned our utilitarian product into a thing of luxury. But that’s part of the fun.

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