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On Love & Craft: The Pashley Interview

On Love & Craft: The Pashley Interview

Posted on 22 July 2009

Editors note: another great interview from our now-defunct online Bespoke Magazine. While we have since moved from Pashley to Achielle (a long story that involves a criminally bad Sturmey Archer five speed hub and a US importer who never answered his phone), it's good fun to read this interview if only because Adrian Williams tells the story of how he rescued Brooks England in the 11th hour. Adrian's commitment to British Manufacturing is commendable and in a market where city bikes are in a race to the bottom, we hope Pashley can continue to build relevance. 

- February 2016


Pashley is a legendary company, and the oldest company producing bicycles in the United Kingdom. We've been importing Pashley for nearly six years, and with phenomenal success. The bikes are beautifully crafted, and each and every one by hand. Visiting Pashley - which we do often - is always a rare thrill. To see bikes being produced by real artisans with a focus on craft is a rare thing in developed countries where cheap imports dominate. Unlike many companies, who build bikes around the price they will sell for, Pashley has survived Englands motor-car obsession by not just doing it right, but doing it perfect. We caught up with Adrian Williams - owner of Pashley - for the Pashley interview.

Bespoke: Adrian, could you give us a brief history of Pashley?

Adrian: The Company was founded by William Rathbone “Rath” Pashley in 1926 and at this time proudly declared ‘Manufacturers of every type of cycle’ (a claim still valid today). The model range included everyday roadsters, clubman’s racing machines, tradesman’s carrier cycles and ‘the famous Pashley tandem’. Competition in the cycle trade was very fierce and after a short while ‘Rath’ Pashley realised that success would come through identifying a market niche.  A new company, Pashley Carrier Cycles, was formed to concentrate on building tough carrier cycles which were designed to withstand the abuse thrown at them by errand boys. As prosperity returned after the depression the company increasingly focused on delivery and vending tricycles – for dairy products, ice cream and general deliveries.  This led on to the manufacture of Ice Cream Cars, Platform Refreshment trolleys and specialist units for the dairy and catering trades.

In the 1930s Pashley made almost every single part of their cycles in their own factory – only the tubing and lugs were bought in.  Frame building, brakes, wheels, sheet metal work, polishing and enamelling were all carried out in the works.   During the second world war Pashley, like many other engineering firms, turned some of it’s production capacity to aid the war effort.  Pashley’s multi-disciplinary manufacturing capability proved to be of considerable value to the country.  In the years following the war, carrier cycles were still in high demand but it was the continuation of the supply of larger tricycles, and the infant development of the motor car for the mass market that received most of Pashley’s attention.  Having made motor-rickshaws in the late 1940s, Pashley started the manufacture of Brockhouse Indian Motor Tricycles in 1950 – J. Brockhouse and Co. of Birmingham having acquired the Indian Motorcycle Company of Massachusetts and sub-contracted the manufacture to Pashley.  These had a conventional ‘two wheels at the back’ tricycle layout, similar to the Pashley Pelican motorised rickshaw – with seats for up to four passengers – and the driver.

Pashley also dabbled in car manufacture in 1953, again with a conventional tricycle layout.  Perhaps the most successful of the motorised Pashley tricycles was the ‘3 cwt Light Delivery Truck’, this with a ‘kendrick’ wheel layout – two wheels at the front, giving the driver a view of both the loadspace and the overall vehicle width, useful for manoeuvring in tight spaces.   As more conventional motorised transport became available to most businesses in the early 1960s, Pashley’s focus moved away from motorised vehicles and, together with the carrier cycles, trolleys, carts and street barrows, large numbers of road trailers were manufactured, both as simple chassis and fully bodied.

With the advent of small wheel bicycles, Dick Pashley (Rath’s son) developed a simple ‘shopping’ tricycle, now known as the Pashley Picador.  Many thousands of these have been sold since, users being delighted with the stability and low step-through frame.  It’s all welded construction was very unusual for the cycle industry at the time, but has become the norm in recent years. From the early 1970s Pashley have supplied bicycles to the Royal Mail, who run what is claimed to be the largest bicycle fleet in the western world.

With traditional roadster bicycles being removed from the ranges of other British manufacturers, Pashley decided to concentrate on its classic gents and ladies roadster models and these are proving to be popular to this day.

Bespoke: How did you become involved with Pashley? What were you doing in your pre-Pashley days? How did you get seduced into the bicycle business? Money? Fame?

Adrian: Certainly not money or fame! I have always enjoyed innovation and the making of things.  I studied aeronautical engineering and enjoyed working on future concepts for fast flying remotely piloted helicopters, but was eventually drawn into the commercial world of the Aerospace & Defence business. I had always wanted to run my own business and at the age of 35 asked my wife if she would pay the mortgage whilst I set out on my own. So I moved from "very good job" to "house husband".  I set up a marketing company / consultancy and explored many different market sectors and product ideas to find something that appealed. Then two things happened. Firstly, I discovered that a gear manufacturing business I was assisting had made and then shelved - due to technical problems - an electrically assisted bicycle it had developed. Secondly, my sculptor friend (Jon Buck) encouraged me to get on a bike and try the new [Sustrans] cycle route between Bath and Bristol. It was a glorious Spring day and a great ride, but the steep climb back up the hill to the house made me think that there could be a market for electrically assisted bikes! So I set up a little engineering company to develop one. This was in 1991. During the development phase we were surprised to discover that Sir Clive Sinclair was going to launch an e-bike [the “Zike”] in London. We launched at the same time and both products attracted press coverage.  The response strongly suggested a need for this type of personal transport and whilst we were scratching our heads, wondering how to move forward, Pashley made an approach with a view to licensing the technology. Shortly afterwards, the Pashley family withdrew from the business and I turned up to find a Company in the grip of its bank. I was keen to learn about the cycle trade and offered to help, and quickly came to like Pashley, its people and products. The bank didn't see a future for it and wanted to sell, so I put a business plan together and 3i [venture capital bank] helped finance the management buy-out. That was in December 1994 and it has been a fascinating journey since.

Bespoke: We have often thought of Pashley as the great preserver of the British bike industry. Would you be willing to talk about Pashley's role in saving Brooks from demise and also the recent merger with Alex Moulton bikes?

Adrian: Brooks was a subsidiary of Sturmey Archer and when the latter was sold off by Raleigh and subsequently fell into financial administration, Brooks was left in jeopardy.  I expected that one of the "big boys" from the cycle industry would acquire it, but was surprised to find that no one was coming to its rescue, indeed the front runner seemed to be an "asset stripping" consortium. Pashley had always used Brooks saddles and it seemed unbelievable that it might vanish so we entered into a contract race to fend off the other party and Brooks continued under its management team. We introduced new systems and product development as it moved toward a range of "Fine leather saddles and accessories", then 18 months later my fellow shareholder was approached by Barbara and Massimo from Selle Royal. They were passionate about Brooks and wanted to retain manufacture in England, but give Brooks assistance in developing its products and markets worldwide. So Brooks came under their wing in mid-2002.

Pashley has been associated with Moulton since 1992, initially making the APB range (under licence to Moulton Developments), which was subsequently developed into the Pashley-Moulton TSR. Dr Moulton meanwhile continued to develop and manufacture the AM and New Series "Spaceframe" Moultons. We became more closely involved mid-2008, so that ALL  Moulton bicycles would be marketed under the one... Moulton Bicycle Company. Dr Moulton is honorary President of the Company and Shaun Moulton is General Manager. The Moulton Bicycle Company has a rich heritage spanning 50 years of innovative design, development and manufacture of full suspension, small wheeled bicycles and it has great future prospects. I am sure it will continue to innovate and make beautifully engineered cycles for many years to come.

Bespoke: Could you give us some idea of the history of the bicycle in England? For instance, when did the automobile arise as the dominant vehicle, and how did this effect the bicycle industry? How did a company like Pashley survive as the last man standing while others faltered?

Adrian: Oh er, history is not really my forte, but a couple of years ago I did cycle to the home of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, who in the late 1830s - early 1840s pioneered the driving of the rear wheel of a bicycle by using a pedal - treadle drive system. Until then it had been hobby-horses that were all the rave, which is rather amusing now. We seem then however, to have been uncharacteristically influenced by the French and followed the "velocipede" style of bicycle with pedals directly driving the front wheel, which increased in size (for speed) becoming the "Penny-farthing" [large coin / front wheel - small coin / rear wheel]. Thank goodness for the inventive genius of Englishman J.K. Starley, who in 1885 brought to this World a sensible design of bicycle, the Rover Safety bicycle. Here we had a geared chain drive to the rear wheel, equal sized  wheels, a decent "diamond - shaped" frame and provision for brakes. And to top this off, John Boyd Dunlop came along a few years later and gave bicycles pneumatic tyres...bliss! It cannot be over-emphasised how much of an impact this design of bicycle had on the social and economic development of both England and the World. The latter part of the C19th and early C20th must have been an amazing time to live through if you were an innovative engineer. I like to think of the cycle industry booming in these times, with a multitude of companies in the industrial midlands [of England] being set up or re-tooled to make bicycles or parts for the industry. Brooks saddles prospered, Sturmey-Archer revolutionised gearing and Raleigh steadily grew - acquiring other businesses as it did so - to become a world leader in its day. Many cycle producers dabbled with developing motor driven machines and Rover, who had the largest cycle works in Coventry, were one of the few to successfully complete the metamorphosis from bike maker to mass-volume car producer.  Others were either swallowed up by the likes of Raleigh, fell by the wayside or survived by serving market niches with specialist products. Pashley was one of these. With cheap foreign imports of homogeneous mountain bikes, Pashley stuck to its guns with a traditional, functional, comfortable, quality, British made product. Yes, it is today the longest established bicycle maker in England but we are pleased to see both Brompton and Moulton doing their bit as well.

Bespoke: We often describe Pashley as a 'guild' since it employs certain 'dark arts' such as frame brazing and insists on traditional lugs. The Pashley plant seems to be neither to rely on the 'just in time' inventory system nor the 'assembly line' system. Pashley almost seems to be pre-industrial revolution yet very current in its post-industrial revolution insistence on craft. What makes Pashley such a unique company in terms of how it operates?

Adrian: Our production methods are traditional, but because a process is time established, it does not necessarily mean it is ineffective. We have 35 production operatives who make 150 products or variants thereof, using 4,273 component parts. Add to that colour choice / combinations on various models and our Production Manager has quite an orchestra to conduct.  Our people are very flexible in what they can weld / braze or assemble, and the unit quantities of individual products have not justified investment in automatic machines and in a sense, it would be a shame  if we had to cross that line. We do have however, a fully computerised Manufacturing Resource Planning system and our Design Department use the latest "SolidWorks" software. We keep our overheads to a minimum, design / develop our own products, take most of our own product photos and design our own brochures and website, so we are not too backward in moving forward.

Bespoke: Are there places in the UK that have alway seen high cycle usage despite the increase of automobile use? What is the current situation with bicycle usage in the UK? An increase, decrease?

Adrian: University cities such as Oxford and Cambridge have always seemed to encourage a cycling culture, but unlike some of our fellow northern European countries, we Brits have had a long love affair with the automobile, which has marginalised bicycle use. There has always been a steady core of road, tour and leisure cyclists and then the BMX and Mountain Bike trends have pulled in new customers.  However many mountain bikes bought on the wave of the trend, quickly rested up in sheds and garages, as they might have met consumers aspirations, but not their cycling needs. These days we are seeing more informed customers, choosing appropriate bicycles to meet their cycling needs and lifestyle aspirations and valuing the product they purchase. The cheap "mountain bike" is being replaced by a wide range of exciting and functional cycling products in many specialist stores throughout the UK. Sales and bike usage are on the increase, helped by the UK Government's "Cycle to Work" scheme [employees getting substantial discounts on bike / accessory purchases], increases in fuel and travel charges, a greater environmental awareness and a healthier lifestyle choice. On top of this the sun is out, which always helps.

Bespoke: Have you ridden a bike in North America? What are the challenges in North America compared to the UK?

Adrian: I have ridden a Pashley "Princess" along Venice Beach, a delivery bike around The Lot at Warner Brothers, a Counterpoint "Presto" recumbent at Anaheim, a Moulton whilst visiting Steve and Annie Hed near Minneapolis, a Roadster around Vancouver Island and a Pashley "GUV'NOR" at Boulder City, so as you can see, I am strictly a laid back, leisure cyclist. Dan [Farrell] our Design Manager is the serious long distance rider, who happily takes Death Valley in his stride. I am not very knowledgeable on the North American market, but although the transport infrastructure has historically paved the way for the motor vehicle, there would seem to be a really vibrant bicycle market. Bikes are fighting back! Like the UK, there is a move toward utility bikes and also classic cycles with steel tubing and lugged frames - something we've been doing for the past 80 years.

Bespoke: Pashley bikes are almost certainly described as a romantic product. Programs like Paris' Velib have also offered a romantic product that have generated a spike in daily cycle usage. What do you think creates more cyclists, better bikes or better city infastructure? What does a Pashley buyer love about a Pashley?

Adrian: A cultural shift, the infrastructure to match and a product that sings.  In the past few years there has been a major shift in attitude towards cycling. The infrastructure is being put in place and customers - who are more discerning when making their purchase decisions - have a great range of products to select from. What helps those people looking to get into cycling is a move away from speed, technology and special clothing to bikes that are stylish, comfortable and can be ridden in a skirt or a suit without fear of oil, mud or water. It is important to us that the product satisfies the needs of the owner, looks good and rides well. I think that our customers appreciate the effort we put into making their bikes and that we continue to do this here in the heart of England.

Bespoke: As the owner of England's oldest bicycle company producing finely crafted city bikes, what is your view of the North American bicycle industry? Backwards, forwards, stagnant?

Adrian: I am not sure what is left of your bicycle "industry". I believe that it is similar to the UK where 99% of bikes sold come in from overseas (Far East / Asian) suppliers in cartons, so that those once proud brands have become "box shifters" with little soul. I see some really progressive North American companies with original ideas that will excite the market sectors they serve, but there are also those that just don't seem to get it and cannot copy it from others very well. It is good however, to see more specialist frame builders emerging.

Bespoke: The classic English bike is certainly quite different from the city bikes developed on the European continent. What makes Pashley so pre-eminently British, and what design principles are different from companies in other cycling-centric places like Holland? How do the Pashley bikes feel different?

Adrian: We have stayed with the classic design that Pashley made 80 years ago – from the relaxed frame geometry and the English wheel sizes, right down to the 'D' section 'bottle top' cranked rear stays and the tubular fork crown.  In contrast to the traditional English Roadster, Northern European city bicycles are becoming increasingly technically complicated, but Pashley eschews this 'creeping featurism' with models such as the 'Guv'nor' and the 'Poppy'.

Bespoke: Many companies have imitated Pashley in the last couple of years. Is imitation really the truest form of flattery? What sets Pashley apart from its competitors? What's in the pipeline for years to come?

Adrian: Some have imitated. Some have sent our bikes to be copied offshore. I suppose we could feel flattered and equally annoyed, especially when the lookalikes are unsafe, but we really just get on with the job. We have the 80 year heritage, the loyal team - many who have been with us for over 25 years - and the capability to design, make, paint and assemble the bikes under our own roof. That cannot be copied. As for the future... well we might have been around for a while, but we have really only just started.

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