Over 20 years ago, Andrew Ritchie was introduced to a Bickerton folding bike, an Australian-built, revolutionary design, which at the time seemed quirky, but unlikely to be an instant hit with anyone aside from those lacking the space to accommodate a full size bicycle.
Despite the folding market seemingly failing to leave the starting blocks, Ritchie was convinced that he could draw inspiration from the concept of a folding bike and turn it into something desirable.
Having spent many years building the very first Brompton bicycles, Ritchie began running out of momentum. The bikes were selling, but the company could only be taken so far without a backer and further resources. Luck had it that one of the early buyers of the bikes built at Ritchey’s house was so taken by the bike's flexibility, that when he learned production had halted, immediately made contact to get Ritchie's one-man production line rolling again.
Today, Brompton employs over 100 staff, who between them make the equivalent number of hand-built bicycles per day for markets across the globe. Ritchie's chosen successor, William-Butler Adams, joined six years ago when the company was half the size and largely under-resourced, as has historically been the case.
He tells BikeBiz: "Over the years the folding bike has gone from being a quirky, overlooked item, to the useful urban transport form that it is today. There are a number of things in the pipeline to further our progress, including an online build configurator due for launch later this year. This tool will enable end-users to build a Brompton to their spec, which will then be ordered via the customer's local shop."
Last year alone, the company saw around £1 million channelled directly back into a massive resource expansion, which included new offices and staff facilities, as well as further engineering and testing space. Without visiting the Brentford headquarters, it's hard to quantify just how much time, space and resource is dedicated to ensuring every last component of the build is engineering to within a millimetre of perfection. One in every 50 made is fully tested, often by specially designed machines and jigs, built only to flip hinges and test strength. Should a fault be found, every single build in between that and the last batch is checked to ensure repeat problems are eradicated. And if that wasn't enough quality control, each significant framework component is discreetly branded with the initials of its creator.
Some remain curious as to why the brand doesn't bring out a new model every year. Adams is adamant this is not necessary if your design is tried, tested and has a reputation for quality as strong as Brompton's.
"The basic design has actually changed very little since its conception. Every year we take on board the feedback from the often-passionate Brompton owners across the world, as well as the more objective thoughts of our dealers and make subtle refinements. In recent years weight has become a big issue – and rightly so. A folder is one of the only bikes designed to be carried!" adds Adams.
"However, function is of utmost importance. When Sturmey Archer went bust in 2000, prior to the Sun Race takeover, Brompton took on its design manager and as a result we now have our own-branded internal gear hub. Our design has eliminated a lot of the excess weight associated with these hubs, simplifying the internal design and converting effort directly into power. The Brompton three-speed design has the same range as a Sturmey Archer Eight, yet is a kilo lighter."
So just how did Brompton come to earn its iconic reputation; it can't all be in the build? Each UK dealer should have a Brompton ready for loan should anything go wrong with an existing customer's build. But why is this important?
Adams explains: "An IBD's service is paramount to maintaining our brand's reputation. One of the reasons we don't bring out a new build every year is the backwards compatibility of our bikes. A new build will work with a Brompton from 15 years, or more, ago. It's all about keeping bikes on the road and re-assuring our customers that they'll always be supported. We have spares here in London that are ten years old. If you’re bringing new models out every year, carrying a high-volume of spare components is far less practical."
Those interested in becoming a Brompton stockist can email firstname.lastname@example.org.