The iconic bicycle has gone from unconventional urban workhorse to ubiquitous status symbol. We trace its surprise ride to global dominance
The skeleton of a Brompton bike has six components: the rear frame connects to the main frame; the main frame connects to the front frame; and the fork, handlebar pin and stem all connect to the front frame. Dem bones, dem bones, dem bones…
But it’s the joints, not the bones, that make this skeleton dance. Four of them – folds and slides in a machine that, for almost 150 years since the first sit-up-and-beg bicycle designs of 1880s, has prided itself on relentless rigidity. Bikes aren’t meant to bend. Yet Bromptons do. And more than ever it is us they are shaping. Over the pandemic demand soared, with the company doubling down on production. Its current turnover is close to £100 million and Brompton is now planning an ambitious new eco-friendly site to expand even further.
Release the clip that connects that rear frame and fold the back wheel under the main crossbar; unscrew the mainframe hinge and swivel the front wheel back; lift the lever to drop the seat post; then unscrew the angled second hinge so the handlebars fall flush against the rest. These are the mechanics of a quirkily British success story.
For novices it can seem a bewildering exercise in public humiliation. But more experienced hands can collapse a Brompton in about 20 seconds and true experts, as documented in countless YouTube videos, manage it in under six, transforming a 147cm-long strand of metal and rubber into a cube 58cm long and 27cm deep, convenient enough to be hauled on to the Tube, into the office, or even, says Will Butler-Adams, 47, the company’s plummy-voiced CEO, into ‘pubs and nightclubs’.
‘I love going to nightclubs,’ he says, gazing out over the factory floor in Greenford, west London, where about 650 bikes are made each day, four days a week. It’s a production line he is constantly trying to improve. But his attention, for once, isn’t there. He’s really gazing back 20 years, to the time when he’d just joined Brompton, and was exploring London, dancing, drinking, and meeting his future wife, Sarah, known as Bugs, with whom he lives near Henley with their three teenage daughters. ‘There would always be someone at the [nightclub] cloakroom with amazing nails, and I’d rock up with my bike and they’d never refuse it, and when we’d leave at two in the morning Bugs would stand on the back. I was having a blast.’
Reminiscence is essential to the Brompton story. It’s important to remember that, those same two decades ago, it was a company with 27 staff and £2 million turnover on the production of 6,000 bikes a year. Today there are more than 600 employees making well over 100,000 bikes a year, in four pedal-powered variations on the basic theme, from the basic ‘A-line’ which starts at £850 and weighs 11.5kg, to the premium, titanium ‘T-line’ which shaves off four kilos but adds three grand to the bill. There’s also an electric version for £2,995.
It is a transformation that has not been without its casualties – the eccentric genius behind the original design has been sidelined. Nor is it over yet. Butler-Adams has plans to capitalise on new-found, Covid-inspired enthusiasm for cycling, not just in Britain but around the world; to help transform motor cities from London to LA to Beijing. A new factory is in the works for an ‘innovative new product’, whose design will harness advances in ‘materials science, robotics, the internet of things’. Will it even have a hinge? He shrugs. ‘There are no sacred cows. We’re not about the bike. The bike’s irrelevant. It’s about doing our best to make people a little bit happier… in urban living.’ So can Brompton, a quintessentially barmy British brand, conquer the globe and retain its soul?
Andrew Ritchie, the Cambridge-educated engineer who designed the first Brompton in the mid-’70s, would probably say in growing so far so fast, it has already lost it. ‘I got a 17-page letter [from Ritchie] in 2012,’ says Butler-Adams, fondly. ‘Seventeen pages, line-by-line, showing how I had ruined the company. I adore him. But you know, over the years he’s driven me potty and I can with absolute confidence say that he would say the same about me.’
Ritchie himself only got involved in the project that shaped his life by accident. He had taken a job as a computer programmer after graduating from Trinity College but left to set up as a landscape gardener in the early 1970s, just about making ends meet. It was only when, quite by chance, he was introduced to the Bickerton – an aluminium folding bike, whose design ‘left a lot wanting’, according to Ritchie – that he started seeing if he could do better. Other folding bikes at the time, like the Raleigh RSW16, also left him underwhelmed.
What happened next is now part of Brompton lore. Ritchie raised money from friends, produced a prototype in 1975 in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory – hence the name – failed to interest Raleigh in the design, yet kept finding interest from customers. Sales propelled what had started out as a hobby from one Brentford railway arch to expand into a second in 1994, to a modest factory in Chiswick in 1998, and from there to the hangar-sized space the company occupies in Greenford in 2016.
‘Obsessive’ is the word most usually associated with Ritchie. If the bike is ‘irrelevant’ to Butler-Adams, to Ritchie it was everything, with every tube and fold and spring the subject of countless drawings. ‘We’ve got thousands and each one is a da Vinci,’ says Butler-Adams. ‘And he carried on doing it when everyone was saying, “It’s never going to f—king work, it’s a stupid idea.”’ So revolutionary was the concept that Ritchie didn’t just have to design the bike itself, he had to design all the manufacturing jigs to produce the parts it would require. But the result was that his control was total. The failure to find a backer ‘allowed me to be a perfectionist’, Ritchie said in 2005. ‘I’m glad we didn’t get a licensing deal with Raleigh… The bike probably would have been dumbed down and cheapened.’
Instead, says Stephen Bayley, founding CEO of the Design Museum, ‘it became a piece of genius. Before then, collapsing bikes were really primitive, horrible clunking things. Then the Brompton came along and it was a revelation.’
Above all it was the design’s enduring functionality, despite the endless folding and unfolding, that stood Brompton apart. ‘It really, properly worked,’ says Bayley, who included the Brompton in his encyclopaedia of great design Intelligence Made Visible (2007), written with Sir Terence Conran. Most notably it overcame key challenges of stability and balance, which affect any vehicle with small wheels, by compensating with a lower centre of gravity. ‘It’s very nearly perfect,’ says Bayley, ‘no one anywhere as far as I know has come up with a superior solution.’
But that, he thinks, is all down to the idiosyncrasy of its invention. ‘The Brompton wasn’t created with the aid of grants, it wasn’t created by a research lab or by committee. It was created by a bloody-minded individual with a “sod that” mentality who understood what he needed to do with absolute conviction. It’s a token of what I like to think of as that national idiosyncratic genius, which is of course what the Mini was. Because who else would persist with something like this?’
But that curious, rather eccentric obstinacy, while ideal for invention, was not, according to Butler-Adams, ideal for running the business. He joined in 2002 aged 28, after working at ICI, where, as a project manager in chemical plants, he was used to perfectly planned, minute-by-minute operations (‘If they go wrong, they kill people, they blow up’). At Brompton, by contrast, he found chaos. ‘There was so much stuff. You couldn’t even find the stuff you needed.
‘Everything was done by hand. There were no meetings, there was no budget, there were no monthly management accounts. There was no strategy. There was nothing. No website. This was 2002 not 1975. Andrew signed every cheque. In my opinion, he’s a complete megalomaniac and that’s exactly what you need to invent. That’s not what you need to grow. I was like, “This is a joke,” and I bloody nearly gave up so many times.’
He makes the whole enterprise sound as if it was lifted from a charming, if scarcely believable, Richard Curtis movie, all quirky British diffidence and triumph through adversity. Board meetings were conducted in the house of chairman Tim Guinness, who had recruited Butler-Adams after meeting him on a bus. ‘They were ad hoc, involved lots of wine and a general chit-chat.’
But elsewhere there were professional, passionless eyes being run over the business. Fleming Family & Partners, private equity investors with distant ties to Bond creator Ian Fleming, were interested in a takeover. Butler-Adams took it upon himself to find out how much they were prepared to pay. When he reported back, he says, Brompton’s board baulked. But the exercise gave him the numbers he needed to launch his own friendly bid, which in 2008 he did. He says he bought out 40 per cent of Ritchie’s 60 per cent stake for £2.5 million. Butler-Adams himself put in £400,000. ‘Andrew’s philosophy was that he would sell enough so that if I f—ked the company up – and he was always permanently convinced that I would f—k it up – he’d have enough money to live on.’
Now the two men are the biggest shareholders in the company, which remains private and has never raised outside capital, with Ritchie owning 18 per cent and Butler-Adams 8.4 per cent, according to the analysts PitchBook, but Ritchie no longer sits on the board.
Since then, the tall, talkative, sweary chief executive, who positively exudes the robust self-confidence that British public schools are famed for (‘Meant to go to Eton. Failed spectacularly. Went to Rugby’), says things have hardly calmed down. ‘It’s never-ending carnage. All you do is you balance the idiotic mistakes versus the successes. If there are more successes than f—k ups, you’re growing.’
This is a kind of hearty faux-modesty. Because Brompton is growing, with revenues up 17 per cent per year compound over 20 years. Butler-Adams has had a gift for business since boyhood. ‘I was permanently flogging stuff. I got Mum to sew beer towels together – to make bedspreads [to sell]. I was obsessed, because I had no money. I had a very privileged upbringing, but my parents gave me no money.’
When he arrived at Newcastle University, he saw another opportunity. Instead of paying rent, he convinced his father to lend him £20,000 as a deposit to buy a house – the first of five he acquired and still owns today. Those houses, too, play a pivotal part in the story. For when the time came to buy Ritchie out in 2008, it was they that Butler-Adams, who earns £210,000 a year, leveraged to raise the £400,000 he needed. ‘Those houses have been amazing. Saved my bacon.’
And so he came to find himself in charge of a factory making perhaps the most famous hinge in Britain. In a way, the piece encapsulates the absurd, genre-defying nature of the Brompton, requiring as it does a heavy, solid, cast-metal hinge to be attached to the thin, hollow steel tube of the bike frame.
The solution is a ring of brass alloy inserted into the hinge piece, which is then placed over the tube. Heated in a furnace at 900C, the red-hot hinge vivid against vibrant green flames, the alloy melts and is drawn into the join like spilt water into kitchen paper, glueing the very different pieces together. The technique, known as brazing, is the bedrock of the Brompton operation. Every bike begins with skilled brazers, who take up to two years to train, assembling pre-cut tubes into the six basic components of the frame. If you own a Brompton, and examine the frame closely, you will discover letters etched into it – the initials of the individual brazer responsible. It is on-site expertise that, Brompton boasts, guarantees quality, longevity, and critically, loyalty. ‘It has to be perfect, and not perfect when you buy it, perfect 15-16 years later,’ says Butler-Adams. Rivals may imitate it, he insists, telling the story of an irate customer whose frame had cracked after ‘19 years, and it was second-hand’. ‘We sorted him out with another bike. That is what our brand is. You can copy the design but you can’t copy that.’
Such rejection of throwaway culture comes at a cost, of course. Is it a rich man’s toy? ‘I completely and utterly disagree,’ says Butler-Adams. Costs are driven above all, he insists, by commodity prices. And for the rest, well, it’s an investment that can be recouped over many joyful years.
Thieves certainly know their value. Hundreds of Bromptons were stolen last year according to Bikeregister, a national database, not bad going for an object whose very design concept means it is never left unattended. Yet occasionally even that is no barrier to robbery, as riders assaulted by moped gangs (‘Just give us the f—king bike’) have discovered to their cost.
Those riders are a more diverse bunch than they were. Gone are the days when it was mostly used to potter about by older riders with an aesthetic eye, as Butler-Adams suggests it was when he joined. Now the clientele is younger, more dynamic ‘and they’re not wearing suits’. The Brompton today prizes pragmatism over preening. ‘They’re beating the hell out of it,’ Butler-Adams says of the machine’s riders now.
At least they are in relatively wealthy Britain. But Brompton has designs far beyond Britain, with its piddly population. Already, around three-quarters of the bikes that come off its production line head abroad, with China the number one foreign market. Together Asia makes up 35 per cent of sales. Unlike in Britain (20 per cent of sales), where the bikes are commuter workhorses, in Asia they are recreational badges of luxury. ‘We are a luxury brand there, but we haven’t really curated it. It’s just sort of happened,’ says Butler-Adams. In Asia that luxury is very much tied up with Brompton’s Britishness, like Burberry and Chelsea boots. The fatal mistake, he says, would be to rely on that. ‘We’re not so naive to think that anyone’s going to pay any more because it’s British. The consumer is not stupid.’
That’s not to say that demand isn’t constant, elevated notably by the pandemic, which turned many workers away from public transport. It was a make or break moment for Brompton. But instead of shutting down, the company doubled down. Staff who could work at home did. To the rest, Butler-Adams made a wartime pitch. ‘I said to the guys, “The risks to us, who are pretty fit, pretty young, pretty healthy, look to me to be very low… The bigger risk is that this company goes bust. Because if we go bust, and other companies go bust, there will be no job to go to. Until someone comes round and tells us to stop making bikes, we’ll bloody well keep making bikes.”’ In that movie version, Curtis would doubtless be laying the Elgar on pretty thick.
Instead of laying staff off, Brompton took them on to meet the boom in cycling. Just a couple of months into the pandemic, Department for Transport figures showed pedal traffic up by more than 300 per cent compared with pre-Covid days. And while that initial enthusiasm has faded a little, it has by no means disappeared completely. In mid-March this year, some weekdays had 50 per cent more cycle journeys than in 2019.
This is the transformational moment Brompton has been hoping for. ‘We thought: if now isn’t the time to put the chips on the table, when is?’ says Butler-Adams, explaining the decision to expand. But they weren’t the only ones. What about electric scooters, I ask, increasingly ubiquitous on city streets?
He’s not worried. Scooters will bring custom, he reckons, as urban road warriors who get older and fatter end up switching to something better built. For those who can’t manage the effort, there’s always the electric Brompton, which the company says can hit 15mph for a range of between 20-45 miles. And for those who can’t, or won’t get out of their cars, and are driven mad by closed roads in low-traffic neighbourhoods, Butler-Adams has little sympathy.
‘Change creates frustration, fear and anxiety. It’s always the same. In cities there are mental-health problems, physical-health problems, air-quality problems, and families grow up with two-ton metal boxes whizzing along right next door. How on earth could we think that’s really the best way to design our cities?’
Bayley doesn’t wholly agree – ‘Cars are popular because people find them to be useful’ – but notes that the rising popularity of biking comes with a problem that Bromptons can solve. ‘The clutter of bicycles is appalling. In Amsterdam, or Copenhagen there are oceans of big, clunky bikes as far as the eye can see. But Bromptons are easily stored and not a painful sight when not in use.’
The new factory, near Ashford in Kent, will not open for another four or five years. When it does, it will make the most of the green credentials the company so boldly espouses. It will be built on stilts amid restored wetland. There won’t even be a car park amid the solar panels, wind turbines and water-recycling unit. What is this magical new product that will be built there? Butler-
Butler-Adams simply taps his temple with his index finger and smiles. ‘The new site isn’t for this bike.’ He points out to the current production line. ‘It’s for a bicycle pushing the boundaries of design.’
It all sounds very familiar, harking back to when Ritchie challenged himself to do the same in his flat overlooking Brompton Oratory. ‘1886 was the first real conceptual breakthrough in bicycle design, with that basic triangle frame,’ says Bayley. ‘The only other substantial innovation in bicycle design since then has been the Brompton. It is the bike’s second evolutionary stage.’
Now Brompton wants to transform itself, and the world of cyclists and cycling, once more. Surely this British company, born of one engineer’s obsession and raised by another his temperamental opposite, couldn’t do it again?
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