Not so long ago, the idea of a push bike that is fun to ride but can be easily folded into a package smaller than an average suitcase was madness. But for Brompton founder Andrew Ritchie, there was something unique in the idea that spurred him on to create Brompton.
Back in the 1970s, he was a young engineering graduate enjoying a stint as a landscape gardener. A chance encounter with an early investor of Bickerton, another maker of foldable bicycles rekindled the engineer in him. Within hours of the meeting he was drawing back-of-the-envelope designs in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington.
Start-up capital was scarce – the once mighty bike manufacturing industry was on its knees. He managed to find ten friends who would each loan him £100. With that, he built a prototype. With the prototype he inspired another 30 people to order the very first model at £250 a piece.
Within two years he had made 500 bikes – with just one other employee. Despite his achievements, investors didn’t think Ritchie was much of an entrepreneur. But it was this passion that some investors found so unattractive that kept him going.
He convinced his father to lend him some cash, and opened up a factory in an old railway arch in Brentford in 1988. Some 25-years later, Brompton is the UK’s biggest bicycle manufacturer, with 190 workers producing 40,000 bikes a year. Each one is custom-crafted, taking six hours and some 1,200 parts to build. Including colours, there are 13 billion possible permutations of his bikes, handlebars, gears, and lighting. But it has come at a cost to Ritchie. “I have worked bloody hard. I’ve remained single. I haven’t had a family – this is my family in a sense.”
Today he has taken a back seat in the everyday running of Brompton, and gone back to tinkering, not with bikes, but in his garden, where this journey all began. But the obsession, passion, and attention to detail can be seen in every single bike that Brompton builds.