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  • Journal
    Bicycles
    13.10.15

    Design stories: Brompton Bikes

    The club racer's only other two-wheeled essential?

    Words
    Rouleur
Folding bike, green, Brompton, pic: Rouleur/Timothy John

It’s perhaps the only bike other than his racing machine that the clubman should own (apart from his winter hack, ‘cross bike, track machine, or - whisper it - mountain bike).

The Brompton is the folder with pedigree, the commuter machine par excellence, the 16” wheel mini with its own racing class, configured in any of 16.5 million combinations, according to the manufacturer.

Brazed in London, painted in Cardiff, and exported as far as Asia and the Middle East, the Brompton is a British success story; big in Japan, and New York City, too.

Head way out West (Kew Bridge, to be precise), and it’s a short walk to Brompton’s factory, a facility whose 22k square feet are not enough to accommodate a demand that currently sees anything between 120 and 170 bikes manufactured each day.

Brompton has not exactly cancelled Christmas this year, but will use the festive break to move the business, lock, stock and barrel to a facility in nearby Greenford, nearly 4.5 times the size of its current premises.

Bicycle frame tubes, one raw finish, one white, laid in wooden box, Brompton, pic: Rouleur/Timothy John

By any standard, Brompton is a success story. The design, conceived by Andrew Ritchie in a flat opposite the Brompton Oratory in 1976 and launched 13 years later with what would now be described as crowd funding, is made in a quantity equal to roughly one bike every 3.5 minutes.

While the design has been refined over the years, the founding principles remain the same: the frame is manufactured in London, the parts sourced, wherever possible, from the UK (wheels from Wilkinson in the Midlands, an optional Brooks saddle, for example), and the focus on quality is unwavering.

Brompton’s attention to detail is truly impressive, and exhibted over two broad areas: fabrication and paintwork. Members of one production line will check the work of another, and finishes applied in Wales (one lorry a day heads to Cardiff with unpainted frames, and comes back fully loaded with powder-coated chassis, ready for assembly) are checked in London.

If the insistence on perfection in the paintwork is impressive (we are shown a frame rejected for a scratch smaller than a fingernail), then it's the fine tolerance of the engineering work that is more surprising, and impressive. Commuter bikes aren't supposed to be made within such fine tolerances, are they?

One in 50 frames is checked by laser. ISO standards allow for 3mm of flex in a steel frame, but such a margin would be disastrous in a frame with four separate sections (rear frame, main frame, handlebar and fork), hence the laser.

Industrial tooling, Brompton, pic: Rouleur/Timothy John

The brazing line is staffed by men exhibiting their skill with oxyacetylene torches, uniting steel with brass at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. There are six sections of the rear frame alone, and the production line is comprised of stations where processes obscure to the layman (“dimpling” and “cold setting”, to name just two) take place. 

Training is done in-house, with pay scales set according to the number of skills attained. It takes between a year and 18 months to learn all 13 stations and highlights one of several reasons why Brompton does not intend ever to leave London: the cost of training a replacement workforce would be significant.

The other is that many of the machines and tools are bespoke. No one else makes Brompton bikes, ergo the tooling is unique, made on-site by toolmakers of impressive skill, if they are to be judged by the complexity of their creations. An “autobrazer’, used to join sections of the frame that cannot be reached by hand, for instance, looks like something from a Bruegel painting.

Brompton’s uniqueness makes the employment of its own toolmakers essential: change one part of the design, however small, and new tooling is required. The Brompton may look timeless, but the most cursory glance at the now-superseded models hung on the walls of a staircase from reception shows how much it has changed over the years.

The most modern touches can be found at the upper end of the range: a titanium frame, or an attractive transparent lacquer that shows off the workmanship of the brazers. The sheer number of combinations is dizzying. Brompton claims 16.5m, when 13 colours for each of the four separate sections of the frame, four handlebar shapes, four gear options, 14 tyre variations and countless options on saddles, mudguards, racks etc. have been taken into account.

Bicycle wheels, Brompton Bikes, pic: Rouleur/Timothy John

Customisation has unquestionably broadened the Brompton’s appeal from steadfast commuter to fashion accessory, especially in foreign territories. In NYC and Seoul, the machine unfolded with practised ease on platforms at Waterloo and Charing Cross is seen as the embodiment of British style.

Asia accounts for 40 per cent of Brompton’s export market; 30 per cent are sold in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 10 per cent in the Americas. France, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Spain are Brompton's biggest markets. Its demographic is getting younger too, although the middle aged man in pinstripes remains its core audience.

The bike is sold through 1,500 stores worldwide, 10 of which are its flagship ‘Junction’ stores. Viewed through the prism of London, Condor Cycles might be taken as an example of a traditional dealer and Brompton’s shop on Covent Garden’s Long Acre as a ‘Junction’ store.

Brompton hopes to produce 50,000 bikes this year: a far cry from Britain’s (read: “Raleigh’s”) heyday, but a substantial contribution, nonetheless. The folder has long been an essential for the commuter, but increasingly the Brompton is the choice of the hipster, too.

And for the clubman? Brompton’s sporting Dura-Ace chainsets and Chris King headsets are not unheard of. Websites like Bromptification cater for a growing market for customisation: a niche previously the realm of time triallists. In every regard, the time of this unassuming folder has come.

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