Brompton Bicycle Folding Bikes

  • Established 1976
  • Head Office London
  • Employees 250
  • Brompton ownership
    Ownership: About 100 private shareholders, with Andrew Ritchie owning biggest stake
  • 2015 Sales £32m

A Brompton bike can be made in 16 million variants depending on colour and style

From the Dandy horse to the carbon bike

Brompton’s folding bike has been described by Andrew Ritchie, the company’s founder, as the cycling equivalent of “a magic carpet you can keep in your pocket”. It has followed a series of innovations in bike design over two centuries.

  • Karl Drais of Karlsruhe, Germany, invents an early bicycle, called the velocipede or Dandy horse. It was propelled by sitting on it and pushing oneself along with the feet.
  • Philipp Moritz Fischer, a German instrument maker, creates the first bicycle powered by a pedal and crank.
  • The Penny Farthing is invented in the UK by James Starley. The bike, with one big and one small wheel, was named after two Victorian coins.
  • In the US, Albert Pope starts making the Columbia bike at the Connecticut factory of Weed Sewing Machine.
  • Gustave Trouvé of France creates a tricycle with an electric drive – the forerunner of today’s electric bikes.
  • US inventor Emmit Latta files a patent for a collapsible bike that can be “folded when not required for use, so as to require little storage-room and facilitate its transportation”.
  • Raleigh Bicycle Company, one of the world’s best known bike makers, opens in Nottingham, UK. It closes its last factory in the city in 2003.
  • The Moulton cycle – devised by Alex Moulton in the UK and featuring unusually small wheels – inspires a wave of new folding bike designs.
  • Harry Bickerton designs a lightweight folding commuter bike using the latest aluminium alloys and special robust hinges. Over the next 20 years his UK company sells about 600,000 folding bikes.
  • Businessman King Liu starts Giant Manufacturing in Taiwan. The company grows into one of the world’s biggest bicycle makers, known especially for its lightweight carbon fibre bikes.
  • Andrew Ritchie designs a new folding bike in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington, London. A year later Ritchie patents the design.
  • Ritchie sets up Brompton Bicycle Company, with production beginning three years later.
  • A Brompton is ridden at the South Pole.
  • The company moves into a new London factory.

Home-grown talent behind cycling resurgence

After a long period of decline, Britain’s bicycle building business has been going through an upturn, helped by a renewed interest in cycling and the resulting demand for specialised, high-value bikes that can be manufactured profitably in the UK.

While most of the UK’s best known bike brands design and assemble their products in Britain, some import key parts such as frames, usually from China.

Shand – based in Livingston, near Edinburgh and started in 2003 by Steven Shand – has made a name for itself in upmarket “adventure bikes” used for instance in mountain racing. Like some of its rivals, the company sets great store on making its own frames, mainly using special steel tubing.

Paper Bicycle is another Scottish company – based in Stewarton, Ayrshire – which was started by Nick Lobnitz, a farmer-cum-engineer who has also worked as a silversmith. Lobnitz’s bikes feature an upright design and are meant for everyday use in towns and cities. He describes his interests as designing “tools for simple lives and friendly societies”.

Paper Bicycle’s designs share some features with the bikes made by Pashley of Stratford-upon-Avon, which is the oldest bike maker still based in Britain, having been founded in 1926. Among Pashley’s classic “commuter bikes” are the Princess and Roadster models.

Another well established UK brand is Condor, a London company started in 1948 by Monty Young. It is known for its hand-built bikes – each unique to the customer – with frames made by a specialist firm in Italy. Among its products is £3,000 ultra-light bike using parts made from carbon fibre.

Donhou Bicycles, also based in London, was started in 2010 by Tom Donhou, an entrepreneur who says he was inspired to set up his own bike making company during a long cycling trip in China. The year before Donhou started up, Ricky Feather left his factory job to start making bikes in another new company – Feather Cycles, based in Easingwold, North Yorkshire.

Empire Cycles is a Bolton business set up in 2004 by Chris Williams, a former motorbike engineer. Williams has an eye for innovation and has collaborated with Renishaw, the UK engineering group, to make a limited edition bike with parts made using 3D printing. He says he named his company Empire because he wanted to be part of “something big”.

Williams’ company makes bikes in small volumes with frames designed, manufactured and assembled in the UK. Among the UK component suppliers he with are Hope Technology, based in Barnoldswick, which specialises in hubs, brakes and brackets; Renthal of Manchester, known for handlebars; and Bolton based Merlin Engineering, which has moved into 3D printing and was involved in the collaboration with Renishaw.

Gearing up on the back of engineering advances

Looking beyond his own company, Will Butler-Adams, Brompton’s chief executive, says its products illustrates the power of engineering.

“We are making stuff – thinking about problems, solving them and working out how to create the things that result. Putting design, engineering and manufacturing together in this way is highly creative and can be incredibly exciting.”

Brompton has worked on a number of key areas of manufacturing technology, among them new welding techniques for titanium components. Titanium is used in parts of some of its frames on account of the metal’s strength and lightness. Brompton has set up a joint venture with CW Fletcher, a metals specialist, to make titanium frames in Sheffield.

It has designed its own steel hinges that ensure that even after a bike has been folded and unfolded many times the alignment between the front and back wheels and the frame is highly precise. “We have to make sure the parts line up to within a fifth of a millimetre. If we don’t do that, the cyclist immediately knows something is wrong,” says Butler-Adams.

Among the bike’s most important components are several hundred small parts, each crucial to the overall design, that form part of each bike’s drive mechanism, comprising the system that links the pedals to the wheels via gears and hubs.

Brompton also works with several key suppliers that make specific parts. It buys wheels from Wilkinson Wheels, a specialist company based in Wolverhampton, and has a longstanding partnership with Wye Valley Services, a machining business in Maidenhead that supplies small metal components.

Mini Plas of Welwyn Garden City produces many of the injection moulded plastic items that go into each bike, while luggage bags, available as optional accessories, come from Carlisle-based Chapman Bags.

Bendable bikes find a niche

The world of folding bikes is not just about Brompton. But while other companies provide the London business with competition, none of the other major manufacturers produces its bikes in the UK.

For example Dawes, a long-established UK cycling company based in Birmingham, builds its products in Asia including the well-known Kingpin folding bike, which launched in the 1960s.

Tern – based in Taiwan – makes what it claims is the world’s fastest folding bike, a sleek machine called the X22 Blackbird. Dahon – a company based in California – is also known for folding bikes which are built in China and Bulgaria.

Other folding bikes made in low-cost locations include the Slovenia-designed Bigfish, the Land Rover City Bike and the Raleigh Stowaway.