You can go a long way with the right mix of imagination and grit. In the mid-1970s engineering graduate Andrew Ritchie was working as a landscape gardener when a cycling enthusiast asked him to come up with a better fold-up bike than the ones available back then.
The idea gripped him – so much so that his initial design triggered what has become a major manufacturing success story. Brompton Bicycles, started by Ritchie in 1976, built 44,000 bicycles in 2015, 80 per cent of which were exported.
The company is now Britain’s biggest bike manufacturer in an age when most of the world’s bikes are produced in Asia. Its story offers another example of Britain’s ability to thrive as a manufacturing base for higher-value, specialist products where craft skills and design combine with technical ingenuity.
Brompton also exhibits a certain quirkiness. “We make our bikes with incredible tolerances and using some special materials, but we have some fun while we’re doing it,” says Will Butler-Adams, Brompton’s chief executive, who joined the company in 2002 from the chemical industry. Ritchie now has little day-to-day involvement with the business although he retains a large stake.
The company organises a series of bike races – open only to Brompton riders – in cities around the world, some of them including challenges in which riders have to pick up their bikes and run through a wall of cardboard boxes, for example.
Brompton bikes have a sturdy design that can withstand the challenges of heavy use on urban roads and the rigours of being carted around when not in use, but at the same time they are remarkably straightforward to fold up, carry and stow away.