After spending many Saturday mornings from my childhood in the workshop where my Dad worked, I’ve always had a soft spot for some well engineered gear and that love of a finely-crafted threaded bits of metal was truly satisfied by a recent trip to the Brompton Bicycle Company.
To illustrate a feature that the business desk were writing on the growth of the folding bike company in Asian markets, I was given a guided tour around their factory in west London to see just how much attention goes into making these tiny-wheeled beasts of the road. By way of a very potted history of the company, the folding Brompton bike was invented by Andrew Ritchie in 1975 with the company being registered in 1976. After a number of prototypes, Ritchie approached a whole range of companies, including major bike manufacturer Raleigh, but received a steady stream of rejection letters. Ploughing on, the design was finalised in 1980 with the first recognisable Bromptons hitting the streets in 1981. Over the following decades the company has steadily increased in size up to the present day where, led by Will Butler-Adams, the Brompton is sold in 42 export markets around the world.
Well aware that they have a more bespoke product on their hands, the company make sure that they make all of the unique and specific parts in-house, giving the bike a real “hand-made” feel. Wandering between the stations where the factory team members work, it really has the feel of a meticulously-run personal company but on a serious scale. It wouldn’t surprise me if half of the guys in the brazing area didn’t just have the theme from The A-Team on constant loop in their headphones.
Shooting in the factory was a real pleasure with this guy having the best looking workstation of all. The combination of spotlights for delicate stages and brazing torch flares lighting up the worker’s faces, it was great to be able to just crank the ISO to 2500 and forget about flash. While using off-camera strobes create very dynamic images, they also can get a bit boring so while I’m often guilty of breaking out the triggers or the off-camera cable, shooting ambient here put a big smile on my face.
Having seen all of the checks and tests that the components go through during assembly, AFP journalist Matthieu Gorse asked to see an example of something that had failed the quality tests. Here you go. See that bar below? See that circle? That’s not it. See the tiny white chip at the top of the circle? That’s not it. See the infinitesimally small mark in the centre of the ring? Yup. Fail. I would consider that as being dust personally but I guess when you’re paying a premium for these bikes, you want to know that it’s bang-on.
With the bikes ranging from around £750 for a basic model up to a rather eye-watering £1500 for one with all the toys, it’s certainly not a cheap option but that’s part of the appeal; you know that what you’re buying is a well-engineered, highly developed bit of kit that will last. Those that do splash out seem to be very happy with their investment. One of the AFP picture editors in London has recently purchased one and it sits close to his desk every day so that it’s within easy stroking distance.
With my recent scooter purchase, I can really appreciate how easier life is on two wheels in London with the Vauxhall helicopter crash being a fine example. While I was trying to get closer to the police cordon, those that were just trying to drive to work were sat for hours in queues as Police closed off more of the area. Those on motorbikes and bicycles just cruised along quite happily with no real delays to their journey. Being able to combine the ease of travel with being able to carry it into your house or office at the end of your trip is just one extra tick from me.
So having seen the production process, I can safely say that it’s now been added to my list of things that would be quite good fun to own. Going back to my introduction, I was brought up with my Dad handing me pieces of equipment and tools with the words, “Oooo, feel how smooth that actions is” etc and the Brompton factory had that by the bucket-load. While the price may be high, you do get a lot of folding for your folding.