Wednesday, 15 June 2011

British Manufacturing - It is about the Bike.

I've just finished reading Rob Penn's It's all about the Bike, about one man's perfect bicycle, based around a hand-built British Frame. In doing so the book reveals the history of the Bicycle, and how the bicycle was the invention which built the modern world. Indeed the car would not have been possible without inventions which sprung from the Bike: Pneumatic tyres on wire spoked wheels, driven by chains. Nor would cars have been able to navigate pre-bicycle roads. Cyclists have long been agitators for smooth roads. Most of the early car makers sprung out of Bicycle makers: Pugeuot, Hillman and so on. Bicycles generated a corps of people skilled with metal & machinery which enabled the early unreliable cars to survive a journey. Even aviation owes its early days to the bicycle: Orville & Wilbur Wright were bicycle mechanics, and based the principles of stable flight on the self-centring mechanism a bike uses to stay upright.

Because I am in the market for a new Bicycle, I have been researching of the custom frame-builders. For the same reason I buy Tailored suits (I can highly recommend GD Golding of St. Albans) I would like a custom bicycle to replace my aging Condor (whose bikes are made in Italy). There are plenty of guys out there who can build bikes & make a living from it. Rob Penn went to Bob Jackson in Leeds, but there are others: Woodrup, also in Leeds, Wilson cycles in Sheffield, Mercian cycles in Derby, Roberts in Croyden, Villiers in Kent. Burls' steel frames are UK made, but their Titanium frames are Russian (the same company which used to make Soviet submarines). Only Enigma makes Titanium frames in the UK.

By far the most popular frame tubing for high-end bikes is made by a British company, Reynolds, who make their tubing in Birmingham, and remain along with Brooks, who make saddles, as the few remaining remnants of the once mighty West-Midlands bicycle industry.

So British manufacturing may have declined, but it ain't dead, and what's left is amongst the best in the world. Most volume bicycle production has moved to China & Taiwan, even Raleigh, and as a result, you can get a lot of bike for £500. However some companies have managed to maintain British volume manufacture, albeit in clearly defined niches, Pashley and Brompton are two, and have done so using design and commitment to quality and have developed a loyal following. I am a proud Bromptoneer, for example. But even in the list of fine companies listed above is perhaps the reason we, as a nation, by and large don't make things any more.

Have a look at the websites of the companies listed above. They are catalogues, not a shop window. They are utilitarian ways of saying "if you want it, this is how much you pay". The bespoke frame-builders have waiting lists and see little point, it seems, in SELLING. Compare the British frame-builder's shop-window with his Italian or American equivalent, whose websites ooze "lifestyle" and desirability. Mercian, Condor and Enigma at least make an effort, but they're still lacking in imagination. Roberts cycles may make beautiful bikes, but you'd hardly know it from the website, which does not linger on the details like the welds and lugwork which set them apart as objects of desire. It's not just frames, it's true of components too. Hub manufacturer, Royce whose beautifully machined wide-flange hubs come with a track & racing pedigree in excess of that of Chris King (whose hubs, by the way freeze in cold weather unless you use the right grease) could be a global components business, if he could get out of his machine shop comfort-zone and SELL with half the alacrity with which he MAKES. If you didn't know about Royce hubs through word of mouth, or reading Robert Penn's book, you'd quickly end up with Campagnolo, Chris King or SRAM. The British craftsman presumably thinks that 'selling thing' vulgar, and maybe he's right. Perhaps the British Frame-builder is happiest brazing tubes together, not creating an image.

But...

Business is, in part, creating the image. It's about creating desire for your product. If a British Frame Builder could make an image and sell a brand, he could sell 100,000 frames a year with his brand on (even if they're made in Taiwan) as Gary Fisher did and then he could charge even more for a frame hand-built by the MAN HIMSELF. Ralph Lauren doesn't tailor all his own suits. He does however still cut SOME for his most important clients. As a result of failing to invest in the most basic of marketing such as SEO, the guys with the real skills are missing out on business which is being taken by hipsters making for hipsters, and worse, people making the cheap mountain bike whose sole purpose is to put people off cycling. Try googling "British Frame Builder" First up is Wilson Cycles halfway down the page, whose informative but dated-looking site inspires beard-growth through talk of headset angles, rather than desire with high resolution picutres of his handiwork. The bicycle is coming back, whatever my co-blogger thinks. It's a British invention and we're bloody good at making it, but because there's little magic dust being sprinkled, the industry nearly died.

This is what went wrong with the British car industry. Who, really, honestly wanted a rover? Vauxhall is not an object of desire. This is more a problem of marketing than engineering. And where the craftsmen operate - really good engineers in TVR, Hillman, Marcos, Lotus they lacked the marketing & business skills to make their businesses really work. It's not about the product selling itself. It's not, unfortunately, about what you want to sell. The best businesses create their own desire, and make their customers feel a bit special. Ferarri do this. TVR didn't. Cielo does, Woodrup - well you wouldn't know, unless you walked into their Leeds shop.

The mountain-bike revolution was apparently led by a bunch of pot-smoking bums in Marin county California who enjoyed racing old balloon-tyred cruisers down a hill called Repack. Despite this background, Gary Fisher built a successful mass-production business, though eventually sold the bike busiess he started to Trek, who subsequently killed the brand, but Ritchie, the original MTB frame builder's business still lives on as do Orange, Specialized, Marin are all names from the early days of the MTB revolution, a revolution which changed the bike industry for good. Why are so few British craftsmen able to create a brand? Chris Boardman has made a brand, but on Bikes made in China - it's more an endorsement than a business. Now, with single-speed bikes fashionable, Oil pricey and exercise difficult to fit into the day, Car design crippled by environmental and safety legislation, the moment for the bike has arrived. It just needs a bit of thought from a few people to make a British hand-built bike as much an object of global desire as a British handmade suit or British hand made luggage. Or shoes. Or Cars.

I want to go to these British frame-builders and shake them for their spelling mistakes on their sites, for their cluttered and ugly web-pages. If they took half the care over their Internet shop-window as they did over their lug-work, the best guys could charge twice as much, and in doing so, there would be more people seeking the work, and so more choice for someone wanting a bike. Hand-build bikes needn't be a luxury out of reach. Bike shops across the land would not be selling on auto-pilot mass produced stuff from Taiwan, instead they would be selling beautiful objects which could be fixed, not thrown away. More frame-builders would create more demand. Carbon fibre may be great for the racer, but it's to brittle for everyday life - it's not the best you can buy. Tailoring your frame to your dimensions & riding style (like my first Condor - how I miss that bike, damned BMW) means comfort and stability. And you get a bike which lasts, and which no-one else has.

It's not just bikes, but the whole of British industry needs to have the self confidence to sell. 'Made in Britain' should be about quality and is, if the naturally diffident British craftsmen & engineers can be persuaded to shout about what they do so well.

Anyway. Seeing as you've read this far, and in the unlikely event that you're interested in my dream bike, here's what I'm going to go for, as and when I can afford it: Either an Enigma Ti or Mercian in reynolds 953 audax frame. British Racing Green as the main colour & Yellow details. Campagnolo 10 or 11-speed (depending on budget). Bottom bracket by Royce, Chris King or Campagnolo. I will go for a traditional Quill stem, unless someone can suggest a reason to not go for one. I already have a brooks saddle, but I might put that on the Brompton & splash out on a Green Ti Swift. Speedplay frog pedals. Wheels with Royce hubs, DT swiss spokes, Mavic rims with 2-cross front, crow's foot rear lacing and I'll build 'em myself. There's a "donate" button to the right if you want to help me get my dream bike sooner...



6 comments:

Steve said...

One correction to that, Boardman are made by Merida in Taiwan not China. Its a big difference as Taiwan has been making bikes for years, and can produce high quality stuff. China makes supermarket crap.

One company you did miss out was Sturmey-Archer, another great company who were destroyed by some real shady characters (http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/sturmey-archer-need-not-have-collapsed)

Anonymous said...

Why 'rover' not 'Rover'? Before the name was hijacked to cover the remnants of BMC, Rover stood for the Land Rover, Range Rover, turbine cars such as the JET 1, T4 and the Rover-BRM, the first UK 'safety' car, P6 and 'car of the year', SD1. All the products of a company led by engineers and enthusiasts.

You can wet yourself over over-priced tubing if you like but the bike is and remains of the 19th century. I believe one can still buy saddles, whips and bridles too but I wouldn't want to base my economy on producing them.

David Jones said...

Mercian for the win!

Anonymous has completely missed the point. This is an example of what is wrong with English companies not an argument for taking the economy back to Victorian times. (Mind you the Victorians knew a bit about business.)

Single acts of tyranny said...

Anon, the second contributor is missing the point. Anyone manufacturing anything will sell his stuff or go bust (or scurry off to the government for a subsidy), there is no need of instruction or opinion with regards what to produce.
But we must produce something, this much is clear.
I think one issue for UK manufacturing is the role of government, specifically
1. Regulatory burden, crushing on many a decent business, especially in employment law
2. Tax burden, tough to invest when all your money is stolen by the government
3. Energy costs, hard to compete when foreign competition have half your power costs

Given the choice, I would manufacture somewhere with less government so we can perhaps forgive bike makers for having bland websites. they maybe too busy filling in their tax forms and being taken to court over something.

lost_nurse said...

Great post - but, to be fair to the builders, many of them are very busy. IIRC, Robin Mather has actually closed his list!

Anonymous said...

Great post about British manufacturers! you should take a look at www.cyclexpress.co.uk they're doing a pretty good job!

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