Book review: Brompton Bicycle

Published by Andrew on 2 May 2017

With the folding Brompton bike as popular as ever, Bob Zeller reviews the story of the struggle to make the original concept a reality.

Brompton Bicycle by David Henshaw
Published by Excellent Books
Price £11.95

Cover of Brompton

On one hand this book is an inspiration. It’s the story of Andrew Ritchie, a brilliant engineer and designer, who could not only see the future for commuter cycling, but was determined to be part of it – even its leader. To do that, he would have to design and build the best train-to-office commuting bicycle in the world. And he has done just that in the eyes of many.

It is indeed a wonderful story. And yet, all the way through the book, I was wondering if the right person had written it. The problem is that David Henshaw, its author, has been close to the Brompton company for many years. In fact, in his introduction to the book, Henshaw tells how the Brompton folding bicycle changed his life. It was Henshaw’s newly discovered awareness of the Brompton that led to his founding of the Folding Society which, he even suggests, was ‘nominally a forum for all folding bikes, but built around our enthusiasm for the Brompton, and the folding bike club gradually grew with the bike manufacturer’.

That’s why, when you put the book down having read it in its entirety, you wonder just how much the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the bike and Ritchie has led to his viewing the Brompton story through rose-coloured glasses.

According to him, there is very little that was done wrong over the years. Most of the troubles encountered along the way were seldom the fault of Ritchie, but of circumstances or situations beyond control. And that might be right. But it’s hard to get rid of the nagging feeling that in the author’s view, Ritchie seldom made mistakes. Maybe so, but after years of writing about businesses and people, in Europe and North America, I find that hard to believe.

Nevertheless, the Brompton story from its beginning in the '70 up to now, is a great success story – no matter who tells it. Ritchie wasn’t the first to come up with a folding bike, but he was the first to come up with a folder that not only folded well but was good to ride from the train station to the office. And since then, revisions and new models have produced many examples of folders that do even more than that.

Henshaw provides great detail of Richie’s difficulties. Raising capital was always a problem. Manufacturing tools had to be designed and then refined and refined again before actual manufacturing could begin. His own extraordinary work ethic was not often shared by employees. And while he needed the advice and experience of others in almost every area, he was loathe, at times, to acknowledge this assistance. In fact, a reader might wonder just how all the ducks actually became lined up in the right order for the company to grow into one that is currently producing 50,000 units a year and is looking to double that number in short order.

Nevertheless, the success of the Brompton is real. From an idea of an engineer who became an urban cyclist while at Cambridge to a highly refined bicycle that sets out to do what it does brilliantly, of that there is no doubt. One might just wish that the story were told in a way that didn’t seem as it was written by the company’s press office.

Brompton Bicycle by David Henshaw
Published by: Excellent Books
Price £11.95

Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for the (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most. 

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