Posted on 01 July 2020
To understand why a Brompton is best is to understand the history of Brompton - which in many ways is the history of the folding bike. And, the story of the folding bike really begins and ends with Brompton. Understanding this helps situate both Brompton versus Brompton's competitors. What are the problems that each company is trying to answer? To what level of engineering was each company willing to commit? And, what solution offers the greatest amount of practical and joyful answers?
We might say that in every product life-cycle there is usually a company that starts something, that sparks the idea, that makes people say "aha!" and then - for whatever reason (usually something that didn't work) - that company completely vanishes. The company that appears after usually gets it perfect. Unfortunately, the companies that come later usually get the idea, but then commodify, dilute and often destroy it.
FOLDING BIKE HISTORY
The story unfolds
From train travel to under your desk.
The first folding bikes were British and were designed to reduce the footprint when stored in small London apartments. The problem with these bikes is that even if they folded, they didn't get much smaller. They were also remarkably heavy. Classic apartment bikes like the Raleigh 20 or the Dawes Kingpin folded in half, but whereas the mass was once a matter of length it now cloned this mass across width. Worse off, these bikes didn't decrease the height of folded size. In short, these first generation folding bikes indeed folded, but didn't really get any smaller.
The first bike to truly shrink in terms of length, width and height was Bickerton. Bickerton was also a British company, but their bike wasn't only designed for small apartments but another sort of British problem: train transport.
Unlike North American cities, London's suburbs were built on the train - and this created a problem that transportaton engineers call the last mile. The last mile refers to the shortest (but also the 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 grew 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 the short distance to the train station. You could take a taxi. But, that's expensive. That's the problem of last mile.
So, the great genius of the Bickerton folding bike was that you could 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 their 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. Not surprisingly, they went bust.
MAKING THINGS RIGHT
Math, engineering, tolerances
Made for cities. Made for travel. Made for your shoebox condo.
It was 1976 and Andrew Ritchie, fresh out of enginering school and working odd jobs, saw the Bickerton and decided he wanted to do better. And so, Brompton was born, named after the Brompton Oratory, a large church across from Andrew Ritchies small apartment.
Andrew Ritchie was a Cambridge-trained engineer with an eccentric, obsessive and stubborn streak. He would develop prototypes deep into the night in his tiny apartment and would work during the day as a landscape gardener. After many rejections from various banks he launched the company with loans from his friends. Today the company sells over 40,000 bikes a year.
The first production Brompton doesn't look all that different from the Brompton you see today. It's as if Andrew Ritchie pulled the Platonic form from the sky and made it concrete. Even today, Bromptons from the 80's can take parts from 2018, the parts have improved but the basic math, geometry, engineering and form is unchanged. That's because it's perfect.
With Andrew Ritchie in charge, Brompton was always going to be an engineering company before it was a marketing company - and Andrew Ritchie had no problem with this. After all, 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.
MATERIALS, CONSTRUCTION, AND PARTS
Nose to tail commitment
Proper tolerances is a question of materials, process, and engineering. Unlike companies like Dahon or Tern, Bromptons are made of steel. That's a good thing. Steel is 30% stronger than aluminum and if you use the good stuff - which Brompton does - it can be almost as light. Materials are especially important on a folding bike.
Unlike other bikes, folding bikes have articulated joints in the middle of high-stress areas and these need to be strong. Moreover, aluminum frames warp very easily at welding temperatures, causing more weakness in the frame joints (where strength is required) and inaccuracy in the fold. If you fold up a Tern or a Dahon you'll see huge gaps that show sloppy engineering tolerances and only increase the folded size. Brompton chooses to braze their frames, a process that uses brass. Brass is much stickier than steel and because it bonds at lower heat there is no chance of warpage. However, brazing requires 18 month master-apprentice schooling, three times the material cost, and three times more time to produce. But, it helps contribute to Brompton's down-to-the-millimeter fold.
One of the biggest reasons Brompton's competitors can't compete is because they use parts used on regular bikes. Andrew Ritchie realized very early on that he wasn't only designing a clever frame, but a series of supporting parts that all contributed to the bikes quality of ride, ease of foldability, and engineered tolerances that produce its compact folded size. So, he made those too. There are 1200 proprietary parts on a Brompton, a staggering commitment that few competitors would dare reproduce.
FOLDABILITY, TRANSPORTABILITY, RIDEABILITY
The holy trinity of a folding bike
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. Here they are:
- 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?
It doesn't matter whether you use a Brompton to commute or not, but you can appreciate why these criteria had to work for anyone taking a commuter train into London. In the UK, the trains are small, so the bike must fold small. Bringing it on or off a busy crowded 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 packages all three features into one bike without compromise. That means it's great for travelling, walking around with, and storing - whether in an airplane hold or under your desk.
Things changed as the folding bike immigrated to the United States and Brompton's competition reflects this change. The core set of responsibilities moved away from commuter train travel to automobile travel. Companies like Dahon and Tern 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. The ride quality was only built around infrequent recreational use, the fold assumed in-and-out-of-the-car rather than work, coffee shop, gallery, airplane, and the storability assumed a large American car.
Let's start with ride quality. 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. And, this is where Brompton is impressive. A Brompton unfolds to a longer wheelbase than a standard hybrid bike. A Devinci Oslo has a wheelbase of 155cm while a Brompton has a wheelbase of 170cm. A Dahon or Tern folding bike typically has a wheelbase of 140cm, making for a squirrely ride. That means a Brompton is more stable than most regular bikes.
But, what about foldability? If a Brompton unfolds big we would also expect its 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).
And is it easy to fold and unfold? It's really easy! Whereas brands like Tern and Dahon often require frustrating reach-into-the-frame adjustments to the bike during the fold, a Brompton is really just click-click-bang; a series of definitive, easy-to-learn steps that aren't overly mechanical nor fussy.
A medieval guild?
At the end of the day, all of this talk of ride and engineering comes down to company culture. Brompton takes quality engineering seriously. To achieve that perfect ride quality, the easy fold, and the tight tolerances required for its compact fold means they have to braze frames, run master-apprentice schooling that compares to a medieval guild, make their own parts, make their own tooling to make those parts, and control quality 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 "Curbside Brompton" (you can read more about this here) built on years of experience, but if you want something custom, Brompton has tuned their entire operation just for you.
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 in vogue. 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 clever frame, with a ton of proprietary parts, all crafted in England, for the same price - and generally under six weeks. (Want to learn more about this? Click here). If you want to beat Brompton at their game, you have to figure out how to do that. And most companies won'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.