The Brompton: engineering for change – for life

City cycling by Brompton: Holborn viaduct, London. October 2022

I love my Brompton Electric bike, as I explained in this blogpost in 2019. So I was delighted to receive as a birthday present The Brompton, a book by Brompton Bicycle chief executive Will Butler-Adams and journalist Dan Davies.

It’s not a typical book about bikes. It’s part history of Britain’s best-loved folding bike, part business biography and part call to arms in the battle for the future of our cities. Butler-Adams is an eloquent advocate for the role of the bike in transforming lives – but more of that later.

Brompton’s progress

Butler-Adams is brutally open about the challenges of growing the Brompton business, and his relationship with the brilliant designer of the iconic bike, Andrew Ritchie. Will joined the company as a ‘young designer and dogsbody’, but after becoming CEO insisted that the founder stepped back from operational control. Ritchie found this painful – sometimes he’d only find out about his successor’s plans during a board meeting. Butler-Adams also felt the pressure, comparing it with the ordeal of an embattled leader facing prime minister’s questions.

I was intrigued to read about Brompton’s move to take its distribution network in-house, after years of working with distributors. Will poignantly describes the warm relationship the bike brand had with many of its former distributors, especially Simon Koorn of Fiets a Parts in the Netherlands. At one time Bromptons were sold with completely different names in the Benelux countries, such as Brompton-Ralph and Potter-Brompton. But as the world went online, people compared prices and specs between countries, and Adams-Butler concluded that the old ways would have to change. So Brompton bought out its distribution partners, a process he says was neither easy nor pleasant. He describes breaking the news to Simon Koom as one of the most agonising and emotional meetings he’s ever held.

This is just one example of the way that Adams-Butler took a far sighted, strategic approach to growing Brompton from a small scale manufacturer of a fairly niche bike to a business that can genuinely have an impact on how people move around our cities (and beyond). Leadership isn’t easy, and few companies thrive if leaders put off difficult decisions. Will recognised that Brompton had to increase dramatically the number of bikes Brompton can produce to meet actual and future demand.

Brompton’s old factory, Brentford, London

This is Brompton’s old factory at Brentford, just off the A4. I drove past it every day on my way home from work. I always smiled when I saw Brompton employees cycling their Brommies along Lionel Road South as they left work for the day. I first saw the company’s clever new logo image of a Brompton in the three stages of folding on the factory wall. I felt sad when they moved, but I was thrilled that the best folding bike was still being made in London, a city that has largely abandoned its manufacturing tradition.

Will vividly describes the reasons for the move: ‘In Brentford, the space was gradually strangling us… We had enough demand to run two production lines but there was only room for one…’ But he added that moving was a huge gamble. Moving only made sense if the new factory had space for future expansion, but that extra space for the future came with a price tag. Many companies don’t survive expansion. Happily, Brompton flourished after moving to Greenford in 2016 and is now planning a bigger factory in Kent.

My Brompton journey

I bought my first Brompton 20 years ago. It was prompted by desperation: how to get to work in the City of London during a tube strike. I made an impulse purchase in Evans Cycles in Waterloo the night before the strike, and took my new bike on the Bakerloo line, trying to convince myself that it didn’t weigh a tonne. I was one of the few people at HSBC’s old HQ in the City on strike day – a testimony to the independence the Brompton gave me.

I didn’t use that first Brompton very often – but it was my magic carpet for car services and, in the photos above, rugby international day in Cardiff. My Dad dropped me on the outskirts of Cardiff city centre ahead of Wales’s Rugby World Cup 2015 game against Fuji, and I cycled back to Penarth after the game.

My Brompton Electric at Marylebone station, 2019

Will Butler-Adams says that ‘hardly any Brompton owner I’ve met has said anything other than the bike has changed their lives’. My second Brommie has certainly done that.

It was also an impulse purchase, but in this case the impulse changed my travel habits. That’s certainly because it was an electric folder. Forget the idea that using an electric bike is cheating – as Will says, that’s confusing sport with transport. (More on that later.)

I found joy in the fun and freedom that the new bike gave me. I could fly to my local station without breaking into a sweat, before folding the Brompton for the quick journey to London. At the other end, rather than descending with the masses to the Underground, I’d unfold the bike and weave my way through London traffic to my meetings.

I relished those crisp winter commutes, and took pride in cycling through the inevitable showers. But then 2020’s lockdown made my loft my office, exiling my pride and joy to the garage as I used my sportier bikes on those precious dally exercise outings.

Happily, the Covid cloud finally lifted this year, and I started going back to the office. I now had two options: drive to my old office in Richmond, or get the train to our new office in Fleet Place near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The Brompton made the decision for me. On the very first post-Covid cycle-train commute to the City I was hooked: my old electric dream was as powerful as ever. I now opt for the City commute, saving £15 a time on the station car park and extra fare for taking the Tube. That’s the Brompton dividend without even considering the health benefit and intoxicating buzz you get from beating a Porsche away from the lights…

Saving the city

This is the view ahead of my Brompton as I head home from the City under Holborn Viaduct. London is a far more cycle-friendly city than in my early cycling commuting days in 1989: spot the segregated cycle path. The traffic lights in the distance give cyclists a head start, going green a few seconds before letting other vehicles through. It’s not like this throughout my ride to Marylebone, but the traffic is generally far lighter than in 1989. In short, it’s a pleasure.

Solving the manure problem

When my grandparents were born in the 1890s. the huge problem cities faced was manure. There were some 75,000 working horses on the streets of London alone, pulling carts and cabs. The Times predicted that by the middle of the 20th century the streets would be buried under nine feet of manure. The problem was solved with the rise of the internal combustion engine. But that solution is now causing a crisis of its own, contributing to climate change and threatening our health through air pollution. And, as Butler-Adams and Davies points out, every car owner in London is given an asset (car parking) worth at least £10,000 for a charge of under 2 per cent a year, based on the average land values in London. Yet barely half of London’s households own a car. 

There’s a huge debate about the future of our cities and how we move beyond the kingdom of the car. Many people assume that the electric car is a panacea,, but it isn’t. Two striking facts from The Brompton book: a single car parking space could accommodate 42 folded Bromptons. And the battery in an Audi Q4 car could power 150 electric bikes, which would not need new charging infrastructure. When the average car journey is just eight miles, there’s a huge opportunity to get people out of their metal boxes and onto bikes. 

Amsterdam shows the way

Above: Amsterdam in the 1970s: gridlock and protests against the toll that car culture was inflicting. Photo L: @BrentToderian: R: Environmental Justice Atlas

Walking along Amsterdam’s peaceful canal-side streets today, it’s hard to believe the city authorities once thought cars were more important than children’s lives. Like many historic European cities, it was not designed for the car. As a result, cyclists and pedestrians lost out, and tragically over 400 children were killed in Amsterdam traffic accidents in 1971. The city even filled in canals to make more room for roads in the 1960s. (As if the world needed another Chicago more than it needed historic Amsterdam.) A women’s protest movement called Stop de Kindermoor (stop the child murder) helped secure a transformation, and today more than 38 per cent of trips in Amsterdam are by bike, compared with 2 per cent in Britain. 

Transport, not sport

The bike is an incredible invention: a brilliant means of transport as well as a British sporting success story. But the bike’s sports role can be a distraction, creating an assumption you need to wear Lycra and a helmet to cycle from A to B. When I cycled around Cardiff as a child in the Seventies I wore normal clothes, while cycle helmets were unknown. That’s still true in the Netherlands. There is no need for either in a country that takes cycling seriously and provides proper cycle routes. As a cyclist who relishes breaking a personal best on Strava, I’ve had to adapt to city cycling, taking pleasure in navigating the city rather than racing to beat the lights. It’s so rewarding.

I can’t wait to see where Britain’s cycle transport revolution takes us in the next 10 years.

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