I have a friend who owns a Brompton bicycle. When I meet him for a coffee, he invariably arrives at the cafe on his Brompton. He speaks lovingly about his travelling companion in the same way that I speak about my own bicycle, Reggie. People think that I am strange having a bicycle with a name (although I am not the only one out there…) and when I see my Brompton-loving friend I have to say that I think he is a bit strange for having chosen one. He even takes his folding friend with him when he travels abroad… Bromptons are just for the fanatics, no?
A couple of months ago, I published an article here about the growth of ‘bicycle culture’ in the UK. It made mention of Brompton bikes and, as a result of that post, I was contacted by the Brompton Bicycle Company. Did I want to come and visit their factory? Well, if nothing else, it would be an opportunity to find out a little more about the bicycles that I had previously categorised as (to say the least) idiosyncratic. So, last Tuesday, I boarded the train for London, destination Kew Bridge (or was it Brentford? Kew does sound better…) and the Brompton Bicycle Factory.
The Brompton folding bicycle is the brain child of Andrew Ritchie. In the early 1970s, having graduated from Cambridge university with a degree in engineering, he was working as a landscape gardener. A chance meeting with an investor in the Bickerton folding bicycle got Andrew thinking and, working away in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in central London, he invented the Brompton bicycle. When I arrived at the factory in Brentford, I was introduced to my guides – Clare and Mike – and the first thing that I was shown were three of the original bikes that were made in the early years of the company during the 1970s. They were hanging on a wall. Underneath the bicycles in the stairwell (this was no grand museum, just a corner of the factory) were letters of rejection from numerous well-known financial institutions. It was a nice touch and reminds me that I should never throw away my own rejection letters from the great and the good of the publishing world.
History lesson over, we entered the main factory space just next door. There was a quiet hum of activity; nothing too frenetic or indeed loud, just lots of equipment and a number of workers sitting or standing at machines testing, brazing, checking, moving, chatting, smiling… They seemed a happy bunch; 250 people work at the factory, many having done so for the whole of the twenty-five years of its existence next to the M4 flyover in west London. Clare and Mike explained each of the stages of production from the initial creation of the frames, the quality control, the cleaning of the metal and… well at that point everything gets shipped to Wales to be painted. We tend to think of Britain as a country that no longer manufactures things but in this little corner of Brentford, that certainly wasn’t the case. What’s more, the skilled workers that the company employ have a clear sense of pride in what they do with each bike being carefully constructed from the tubes of metal that arrive at the door to fully completed frames. Little of what I saw could be in any way described as ‘mass manufacturing’. Each of the bicycles was being crafted, not built. As I watched and questioned, I could feel myself warming to the bikes that I had previously categorised as quirky. There was nothing quirky about this factory.
A second part of the building is dedicated to the assembly of the final bicycle. The frames return to Brentford after their painting holiday in Wales and are lined up in beautiful multi-coloured lines of metal. Each of the bicycles is ‘bespoke’ (this usually means matching to the requirements of the shops that sell the bike rather than the individuals that purchase them although that is entirely possible – have a look at this page of their website) and every Brompton is tracked with a small card (as well as electronically) to ensure that what comes off the end of the short assembly line is exactly what the customer – shop or individual – has requested.
I’ll be honest; I have no intention of buying a Brompton bicycle. In my current position of a commuting cyclist who ventures across the countryside of South East Oxfordshire five days a week, my Ridgeback Panorama (Reggie) will do just fine. If you had asked me last weekend if I would ever consider buying a Brompton I would have smiled and said something along the lines of ‘of course not...’. Ask me now, after seeing the care, attention and indeed the love that the people in the factory in Brentford put into making the famous, folding bicycles, my answer would be ‘not yet...’. But when I have a job that requires me to have an exclusively urban commute, where I want the flexibility of being able to rock up at my place of work and carry my bicycle to my desk (just like Lord Grantham in 2012 / WC1), I might just invest… Watch this space!