ISSUE 02 | COMPANY PROFILE
Brompton: together in electric dreams
After years of development and a £2m investment plan, the city commuter’s friend is going electric.
By Clare Dowdy | Photography by Trent McMinn
In years to come, will push-bikes go the way of the quill - an obsolete piece of kit only used by eccentric hobbyists?
Will Butler-Adams thinks so. His money is on electric bikes. As chief executive of the Brompton Bicycle Company, he’s invested five years and £2m developing a folding e-bike, which launched this year with a retail price of £2,595. “If we’re trying to change how people live in cities, we need to use technology,” he says of the Brompton Electric. His team at Brompton worked with Formula 1 team Williams Racing to develop an electric batterypowered motor light enough for a fold-up bike. Butler-Adams, 43, exudes bonhomie and enthusiasm on the December morning of Furnace’s visit to the Brompton factory in west London: he happily plucks his Brompton e-bike out of the boot of his electric car, unfurls it and cycles around the car park, with only a padded gilet to protect him from the pelting rain.
Listening to him explain Brompton’s role in urban transport sounds a bit like Jamie Oliver taking ownership of the diet of the nation’s school children. Both are pedaling solutions to problems rather than offering mere products.
“Our aim is to change how people live in cities,” says Butler-Adams, who loathes the idea of commuters “going down a hole like a rat. We are trying to make a product that makes your life better. It happens to be a bicycle, but we don’t look at it in that way, we look at it as an urban tool.”
And there’s more: “It’s no surprise that we have physical and mental health problems (in cities). We need to rethink how we live.” Brompton exports 80 per cent of its bikes to 44 countries. “I see this trajectory in cities around the world, and governments are waking up to the idea that they’ve created a society that they can’t afford to look after.”
The Brompton bike was born out of one man’s frustration with city life. “The reason we have this bike is because of Andrew Ritchie who designed it from his flat overlooking Brompton Oratory (in the mid-1970s). He was frustrated by cycling in London. If he’d lived in some rural idyll it would never have even come into his brain.”
Which goes some way to explaining why Brompton’s 280 staff are still based in London, albeit in zone 4. “London created the bike, the city demanded the bike.” They did consider moving out of the capital but he insists that many other places are “totally un-bike friendly. We’d be a company making a product for which we (at Brompton) have no use.” Although he admits that it’s “a bloody expensive solution”.
(Butler-Adams, a mechanical engineer by training who joined Brompton in 2002 as a project manager, makes an effort to rein in his swearing during the interview. But a few good-natured bloodys and shittys slip out.)
Meanwhile, keeping production in the UK is a quality control issue. “If you outsourced it, how can you know about how it’s made?”
Brompton moved out of two Chiswick sites to its new £2.5m HQ and factory in Greenford – complete with pool and ping-pong tables and a piano in mezzanine break-out space - because “we were bursting at the seams,” says Butler-Adams. Technically they could have produced more bikes there, but the business was becoming more multifaceted. “We’d taken back distribution, R&D had got more complex, and we needed testing facilities.” The aim now is to produce 100,000 bikes a year by 2020.
If Oliver can get Thai fish curry on to school menus, then Brompton can surely get more city-dwellers cycling. “We know we can do it because we’ve had a sufficient impact in London (where 100,000 have been sold), Brussels and Barcelona. We have made half a million bikes to date and we haven’t even started.” Certainly the wind is already blowing in cyclists’ direction. Motorists entering central London during the morning peak in 2000 outnumbered cyclists by more than 11 to 1. By 2014, the ratio was 1.7 to 1, according to TfL.
But now it’s all about electricity. Butler-Adams says Brompton started thinking about this ten years ago, because some people are put off cycling up a hill, or turning up to meetings dripping with sweat. Now the technology of the electric drive “breaks down these barriers to entry”. The market has not only grown, it’s exploding. Just 12 years ago, Germans spent €20m on e-bikes; that jumped to €1.2bn last year. In the UK, sales grew by 20 per cent in 2016. According to Butler- Adams, this means that“if you’re not in (e-bikes), you’ll die.” And the sector is getting crowded - in Furnace 01, we reported on how Gtech, best known for its cordless vacuum cleaners, has launched an e-bike.
Even though Brompton spotted the trend early, it’s taken a good while to develop their own drive system (a removable lithium-ion battery which powers a motor in the front wheel hub) with Williams. Many other folding e-bikes use offthe- shelf drive systems, but these would have made a Brompton too heavy for Butler- Adams’ liking. The bespoke system adds just 2.9kg to the Brompton Electric, making its total weight 16.6kg.
The initial work was done at Williams’ facility in Oxford, then Brompton built a capability at Greenford. Butler-Adams admits it’s a big risk, and has meant “a huge investment of our savings”. Yet he expects (or hopes) that the Brompton Electric will double the size of the business in the next three to five years.
But that’s not the end of the story. Now that they’re en route from being a just mechanical company to incorporating electronics and software, off-piste ideas can be developed faster. “I’m impatient with all the ideas, we’ve got a whole bloody war-chest,” though he declines to be specific. But the implication is that, one day, Brompton could mean more than bicycles.
Take-out: A bespoke take on new technology has the potential to give a product the edge