The curious story of a historian, a designer and a gong

A profile of Andrew Ritchie. Both of them. By Carlton Reid...
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A profile of Andrew Ritchie. Both of them. By Carlton Reid...
Andrew Ritchie - Brompton.jpg

Yes. There are two Andrew Ritchies. They both ride Bromptons. One got an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours List and the other is seeking 100 folks interested in a book on bicycle history. And one of them is mentioned heaps of times in a book about bicycle history. Confused? Read on.

Andrew Ritchie, MBE, is the British designer of the Brompton, gonged in the New Year Honours list for his service to bicycle manufacturing.

Dr Andrew Ritchie has a PhD from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow and now lives in America.

Both Andrew Ritchies were at Cambridge University in the 1960s. They were in different years and studied different subjects, but they met once in a pub. After that, their paths divided again, but both are big into bikes.

Andrew Ritchie, MBE, designed them, creating the Brompton bicycle, the cult classic that the Evening Standard said recently went from ‘geek chic to the bike every commuter wants’.

Andrew Ritchie, MBE, is also the star of a history book about the Brompton, by A to B Magazine’s David Henshaw – Brompton Bicyclehas just been published by Excellent Books.

Dr Andrew Ritchie, on the other hand, has produced a bicycle history book and is seeking 100 micro-investors to get it off the ground. His book Quest for Speedis a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, “Bicycle Racing and Recreation: Sport, Technology and Modernity, 1867 – 1903.” He’s after 100 investors to pay £25 a piece for Quest for Speedahead of publication.

“If I can count on at least 100 people to subscribe, I will have $4,000 to design, lay out, and print a small first edition. Each subscriber will receive a signed, numbered copy,” says Dr Ritchie.

There’s even a historic precedent: Karl Kron wrote Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle in 1887, a compendium of early, high-wheel, cycling history, and self-published it, sending it out to pre-paid subscribers who each paid Kron one dollar. The early history of the bicycle industry plays a key role in the book. There was an “inextricable relationship between bicycle sport and the emerging modern bicycle industry,” says Dr Ritchie.

“Designers, manufacturers, advertising and marketing personnel and the cycling press were engaged in a new style of commercial activity dedicated to the sport and pastime of cycling.”

You can contact Dr Andrew Ritchie at

Andrew Ritchie – the MBE, not the PhD – left university in 1968 with a degree in engineering. He first applied this knowledge in the nascent field of computing, but soon realised he preferred the idea of being self-employed and, before long, found himself working as a landscape gardener in London. While plying his green trade out of the back of an ancient Morris 1000 van in 1975, a chance meeting with a backer of the fledgling Bickerton folding bicycle changed the direction of his career again.

Ritchie improved on the design and produced a prototype. From the outset, the prototypes bore a strong similarity to the final design.

Prototype one had larger 18-inch wheels and the handlebars were very different, folding downwards on either side, but the rear wheel folded under the bike just like every Brompton produced since. By the time a second prototype had appeared, all the Brompton features were in place, with the first machines weighing almost 15 kilograms.

Rather than hinge back on itself in the centre of the frame, like most traditional folders, Ritchie had come up with a novel concept that resulted in a compact folded machine. The rear of the frame was hinged near the chainwheel, allowing the rear wheel to fold forwards under the main frame tube, while the front wheel – pivoting towards the front of the frame and the headset – swung gently back to nestle against the folded rear wheel.

Ritchie’s plan at this stage was to interest an established company in taking up the idea under licence. As happened with the Moulton bike, Raleigh showed interest but was not convinced a big enough market existed for such machines. Now, of course, Brompton is the largest bicycle builder in the UK and Raleigh no longer makes bikes in the UK.

Going into production by himself, Ritchie pre-sold the first 30 bikes to friends and family. The first factory was opened in 1981 close to Kew Gardens in London. At the Cyclex exhibition in April 1987, with fresh investment from audio entrepreneur Julian Vereker, the Brompton won the Best Product award.

One of the award judges, Peter Lumley, didn’t think the the top prize should go to a machine which you just simply fold up and chuck in a car boot.

However, Cycle Trader editor Neil Murray, another of the judges, said: “The point is that it’s a machine that will sell to non-cyclists, thus expanding the market. There’s nothing like a Brompton, so it won.”

IBDs placed orders. By November 1987, the company had moved into a railway arch in Brentford, West London, and by the following March trickles of bikes had begun to emerge from the factory, with the volumes gradually increasing to sixty a month. Today, the company makes one hundred bikes a day.

Last year Ritchie won the Prince Philip Designers Prize for his lifetime contribution to design. The prize is run by the Design Council and is the most prestigious award for design in Great Britain.

Speaking after the award, Andrew said: “I’m not finished yet”. Although he stepped down as managing director of Brompton Bicycle in April 2008, he continues to work on the design and quality of the Brompton in his capacity as technical director. Will Butler-Adams, his successor, ays: “This award was a well-deserved recognition for a man who has dedicated his life to the fine perfection of the folding bicycle. Andrew never gave up on his belief that he had conceived a product that would add real value to people’s lives. Years of knock-backs, refusals and false starts never dented his determination to make the Brompton a reality.”

Over 175,000 Bromptons have been sold across the world. The Brompton is available in 27 international markets. Famous owners include Jerry Hall, Katie Melua, Will Self, Top Gear’s James May and Bill Oddie.

The company is growing at 25 per cent a year. Seventy per cent of its output is exported.

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