Tom's London Classics: Brompton bicycles

Part of the ongoing 'Tom's London Classics' series, London Cycling Campaign's Tom Bogdanowicz on perhaps the most iconic of London bikes - the story of Brompton begins in SW7...

All in the fold - photos clockwise from centre: designer Andrew Ritchie, Andrew at the drawing board, a 1977 prototype, Tom Bogdanowicz and the S6L Barcelona model.

Invented in London, made in London, named after a London district and the riding choice of tens of thousands of Londoners — surely it merits the title of the iconic London bike? In case you didn’t know, there are Brompton bike hire docking stations (Waterloo, Ealing Broadway, Reading), Brompton races and Mayor Boris Johnson (proponent of that other London cycle icon) has been seen riding one.

The Brompton story begins, fittingly, in Brompton SW7, at the flat of Cambridge-educated engineer Andrew Ritchie. Asked to comment on the first compact British folder, the Bickerton, Ritchie instantly knew that he could do better. Setting to work in 1975 he had a basic design within the year, and a registered company, complete with willing investors and patents a year later. Early prototypes were recognisably Brompton-ish with the small wheels and the unique idea of folding in three rather than just two. But, as with so many good ideas, the inventing was the easy bit. It took Ritchie another five years to turn the concept into a production model. Attempts to sell the idea to established firms failed miserably: Raleigh expressed no interest and the late Alec Moulton took a look but said no.

Undaunted, Ritchie and fellow investors scraped together £12,000 and decided to go it alone in 1981. After a trial run of 30, machinery was installed at the old powerhouse in Kew and a batch of around 400 folders was built. They were a critical success with positive reviews in the Financial Times and Evening Standard.

But problems with suppliers and funding issues brought production to a halt and it wasn’t until five years later that the MkII Brompton re-emerged. This time it won best product award at Cyclex 1987 (the major cycle show of its day) and production was stepped up steadily to 60 per month by 1991, supplying 56 dealerships across the UK and a strong export market.

An ill-fated Taiwanese link came and went while the London operation found its biggest problem was coping with demand. A move to new premises in Brentwood helped address demand problems and a new MkIII model resolved technical issues (like the weak handlebar). UK business was boosted by the elimination of goods-wagons on trains, which restricted peak-time cycle carriage and forced rail commuters to buy folders.

Today the company is building, still in Bentwood, some 37,000 bikes a year but it has not sold out to a cycling giant and remains loyal to its dealer network. Brompton’s biographer, David Henshaw, suspects Ritchie of socialist leanings in his reluctance to marry up with big business and its marketing practices. It took a new CEO at Brompton, Will Butler-Adams, to change the Model T Ford colour choices to the present rainbow selection. The range has also grown with the inclusion of titanium frame elements and a selection of gearing and handlebar options. That increased variety still hasn’t satisfied the growing band of Bromptoneers who have built custom all-titanium versions, three-wheelers, tandems, 14-speeders and even recumbents.

The company says it does not plan to change the basic bike design but, to satisfy collectors, designer editions have appeared (like the ‘Barcelona’ by David Torrents) and it hasn’t ruled out an all-Ti version. In 2013 expect upgraded tailor-made components including cranks, brake levers and wheels. We may also see yet more custom options available, with a new web-based design tool.

Brompton S2L-X model

above image - the Brompton S2L-X model.

Tom Bogdanowicz is London Cycling Campaign's Senior Policy and Development Officer and regulary contributes to London Cyclist magazine.

This article first appeared in London Cyclist April / May 2013 magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.