No easy ride: Brompton bicycle inventor explains its rocky road to success

By Thomas Woods

The fundamentals of the Brompton fold-up bike have not really changed in its lifespan, and the same could be said of its inventor, Andrew Ritchie. There is certainly an element of the eccentric inventor about him, and his flat in South Kensington is testament to his refusal to move with the times.

A wind-up clock from the Russian navy adorns his kitchen wall, a vintage iron from bygone days can be seen in the corner, and the stove boasts one of those whistle kettles from the 1960s. “If something is well made it should last forever,” says Ritchie, “but all too often these days things are made on the cheap and then break before long. It’s maddening.”

There is no doubt that Ritchie is qualified to speak on such terms. He has spent 40 years developing what is now a nationally loved and internationally renowned product, from a clunky and inelegant prototype made from welded metal on his bedroom floor. Indeed the early days showed little sign of the success to come.

Graduating from Cambridge with an engineering degree in 1968, Ritchie had short spells as a computer programmer and self-employed landscape gardener before coming across the Bickerton folding bicycle in 1976. Despite having little design experience he had a gut feeling he could do better, and set to work on his sketches straight away. With the initial backing of ten friends who invested £100 each, Ritchie was able to produce his first prototypes. However, when he approached established bike companies, including Raleigh, to offer his design for manufacture, they all turned him down.

The rejections spurred him to go it alone and Ritchie convinced 30 friends to order bikes and pay in £250 advance, not an insignificant amount of money, he admits. In the early 1980s he raised £8,000 from shareholders and worked flat out in his bedroom to produce 500 bikes in two years.

I ask Ritchie if there was ever a point in the early days when he felt like giving up. “Plenty. Every time there was a setback I wanted to call it quits. But I was unable to due to the unstinting support of friends, family, and investors. Everyone said how great they thought the idea was and so I couldn’t give in to despair with such positivity surrounding me.”

The turning point came in 1987 when Julian Vereker, founder of Naim Audio and an early Brompton bike admirer, agreed to guarantee a £40,000 overdraft. Ritchie also managed to raise over £50,000 in equity at this time ‘and we were off’. In 2002 Will Butler-Adams was brought on board as Managing Director at the age of just 28. While they have not always seen eye to eye, Ritchie admits that the younger man has brought a vigour and a vision to the enterprise that complements his keener attention to detail.

Today Brompton is the largest manufacturer of British bicycles in the UK and exports to 44 different countries. It employs 220 people, producing 45,000 bikes a year with an annual turnover of £28m. What is it about the Brompton that has captured the public’s imagination in such a way? “It’s the freedom it gives people, they can pack so much more into their lives. There are plenty of avid evangelists for the brand which is great, ” explains Ritchie.

Indeed the simplicity of the bike’s design allows it to be stored so easily on trains and in offices that word of mouth has been the most effective form of advertising.

The Brompton received the Prince Philip design award five years ago and Ritchie was made an MBE in 2008 for his accomplishments in British engineering. While he feels his bike can never be universal, he is searching for ways to reduce manufacturing costs in order to bring down the price by 10 per cent. “Of course,” Ritchie stresses, “we absolutely have to maintain quality in that process, that’s what we have always relied on.”

He named the bike after the Brompton Oratory, a Catholic church directly opposite his Kensington flat. It is perhaps fitting given the multitude of commuters across the world whose prayers Ritchie has answered.

Photo courtsy of by The Prime Minister’s Office, with thanks.
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