Posted on 16 February 2017
Apartment folder: the Raleigh Twenty.
In every product life-cycle there is often a company that starts something, that sparks the idea, that makes people say "aha!" and then - for whatever reason - that company completely vanishes. The company that appears after usually gets it right. The companies that come after that usually get the idea, but then commodify and dilute it.
Such is a story with the folding bike. The first folding bikes were British and were designed to reduce the footprint when stored in small London apartments. But, even if they folded, they didn't get much smaller. Bikes like the Raleigh 20 or the Dawes Kingpin folded in half, but only transferred its mass from length into width without cutting down any height. The first bike to truly shrink in terms of length, width and height was Bickerton. Bickerton was also an British company, but their bike was designed for another sort of British problem: train transport.
First generation folder: the notorious Bickerton
Unlike North American cities, London was built on the train - and this created a problem that transportaton engineers call the last mile. The last mile refers to the shortest and most expensive part of any trip. For instance, the distance you cover in a taxi from the airport costs nearly as much as flying over an entire province. And, if you live in London - which expanded through subway and railroad - you need to connect home to station and station to work (and then back again). You could own a car to drive to the train station. You could take a taxi. But, that's expensive. That's the last mile.
Second generation: the first edition 1982 Brompton.
So, the great genius of a folding bike is that you can ride from home to station, take the bike on the train, and ride from station to work (and then back again). Bickerton did this, but the handlebars were so insanely long that they flexed back and forth like an exercise machine. It wasn't a good bike, although we totally understand its appeal to collectors. Anyways, they went bust.
Andrew Ritchie was a brilliant engineer who saw the Bickerton and decided he wanted to do better. He was a Cambridge-trained engineer with an eccentric, obsessive and stubborn streak. He worked during the time as a landscape gardener and in the evenings he would fill his tiny London roomed apartment with prototypes. His first production bike doesn't look all that different from the Brompton you see today. It's like he pulled the Platonic form from the sky and made it concrete. A bike from the Gods. People do get religious about their Bromptons....
Brompton today. Unbeatable. Eccentric. Perfect.
With Andrew Ritchie in charge, Brompton was always going to be an engineering company before it was a marketing company - and he had no problem with that.
Engineering is about tolerances, and perhaps the best definition of tolerances is that (a) things fit perfectly together, and (b) do so without any resistance. That's a Brompton. But, to get there he had to braze the frames (a dark art with few practitioners, creating a perfectly straight frame by connecting steel with brass), and developing over 1,200 unique folding bike parts. If you fold up a Tern or a Dahon you'll see huge gaps that the bike doesn't fit into. And, this is because the frames don't have the same down-to-the-millimeter tolerances, and because their parts come from regular bikes. Folding bikes need folding parts, according to Andrew Ritchie. So he made those too. In London. Yes, all in London. As they continue to do today. It's a remarkable story that was never driven by greed or money but instead a very human impulse to make things right.
Third generation folders: built around the car. Folds big, rides like meh.
We said that after a company designs the perfect product another company will come around and dilute it. That certainly happened with the folding bike. We might want to ask why?
As the folding bike evolved from an apartment bike to a commuter train bike, it developed a new set of responsibilities. These responsibilities form the three main critieria that anyone buying a folding bike should hold dear. First, it's a bike - so it should ride well. Second, it's a folding bike - so it should fold well. And finally, when it's folded it better be compact, lightweight and transportable - otherwise why on earth did you buy it?
You can see why these criteria played a role for anyone taking a commuter train into London. The trains are small, so the bike must fold small. Bringing it on or off a busy commuter train means it must fold or unfold quickly and easily. And, since riding in London is scary at the best of times, it must ride stable and true. To this day, Brompton is the only company that can package all three features into one bike. We'll explain why in a bit.
As the folding bike immigrated to the United States the set of responsibilities moved away from commuter train travel to automobile travel. Unfortunately, this did not represent an evolution with the folding bike. These companies essentially dumbed the product down because they knew the customer wasn't riding in scary cities and, in terms of folded size, only cared that it fit in the trunk. It didn't fold well, but again, that's because the designers figured you only folded it once to get it into the car and another time to get it out. If travel for you means riding around London and tucking your bike under pub tables, there's a good chance you aren't terribly convinced. Don't worry, neither are we.
Smallest folded. Longest wheelbase. Best ride.
You see, the great thing about small wheels is that they have remarkable acceleration and maneuverability if and only if the wheelbase of the bike is long. (Wheelbase is the length from axle to axle). If the wheelbase is short, those small wheels make for a squirrely, scary ride. In short, if a bike unfolds to a short wheelbase it unfolds small. If it unfolds to a large wheelbase it unfolds big. Believe it or not, a Brompton unfolds bigger than a standard hybrid bike. A Devinci Oslo has a wheelbase of 155cm while a Brompton has a wheelbase of 170cm. To compare, a Dahon or Tern folding bike typically has a wheelbase of 140cm. The Brompton, simply put, is much more stable as a ride.
But, what about foldability? If a Brompton unfolds big we would also expect it's folded shape to be big. Not so! A Brompton unfolds to the longest wheelbase (which means the most stable ride) and the smallest folded size (which means the most transportable). Again, that's because they engineer in tight tolerances and use all their own parts. When we fold a Dahon Qix we have a size of 30x60x85cm (5.5 cubic feet). whereas the Brompton is a teensy 28x60x60cm (3.56 cubic feet). Best of all, a Brompton also unfolds the easiest (and fastest) with various phases of the fold functioning either as a kickstand or a shopping cart (yes, seriously).
Canada's Go Bike. A naive bike and our naive first attempt
While we're the oldest Brompton dealer in Canada, we won't deny that we've tried every other brand - convinced that someone out there must make something just as good for cheaper. We've carried Dahon, Mezzo, Birdy, Go Bike (a Canadian brand, now defunct), Moulton - and nothing beats a Brompton.
At the end of the day, all of this talk of ride and engineering comes down to company culture. Brompton takes quality engineering seriously. That means they have to braze frames, make their own parts, and control these aspects by making everything on site. And, because they aren't made in China, Brompton can do something other than mass produce. We carry our own "Toronto Brompton" built on years of experience, but if you want something custom, Brompton has tuned their entire operation just for you.
Take it anywhere and it will take you everywhere.
Today, the trendy word in business-speak is "mass-customization," a notion that challenges the sameness inherent in the philosophy of commodification. Brompton has been mass-customizing bikes before the term was invented. And, while many small-scale custom bikes can manufacture a conventional bike frame (yes, just a frame) for $2000 in under a year, Brompton can turn around a very unconventional and clever frame, with a ton of proprietary parts, all crafted in England, for the same price (and under six weeks). If you want to beat Brompton at their game, you have to figure out how to do that. And most companies don't dare try.
So: Brompton. An amazing ride, an amazing fold, and without a doubt, an amazing company. Proof that business can be about something other than money, about making a contribution, about doing things right.