Recently both the Government and the West Midlands Combined Authority have been outlining their industrial strategies. Not to be outdone the Bike West Midlands Network has always promoted the economic value of the cycle industry in all its manifestations and we want to encourage a revival of cycle and component manufacturing in the area. When so much of the "growth" funding coming into the Midlands being tied to Local Enterprise Partnerships and now the "Devo-deal" it is useful for cycle campaigners to be able to also engage with local politicians and supporters in terms of investment, jobs, skills, engineering and sustainability. Making the West Midlands Great Again need not only be about HS2 and Jaguar Land Rover's photogenic luxury cars or the bubble around electric vehicles (EVs) and speculation about autonomous vehicles (AVs). When government ministers and journalists want a quick visit and photo opportunity at a "manufacturer" they often seem to pop down to Chiswick to visit Brompton's handy new factory. Brompton are now the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the UK with great brand recognition among the chattering classes and an enviable export market. They have recently announced an e-bike version of the iconic little bike.
The West Midlands was where the bicycle was invented and cycles were mass produced here for world markets until corporate restructures, asset stripping and competition from new low waged industrial economies in Taiwan and mainland China made them the very successful world centres of cycle manufacture. Even the bright orange, Raleigh badged, Big Birmingham Bikes are manufactured overseas at a factory in the USA. As cycling has again become more popular big on-line retailers like Wiggle (with a vast warehouse in Wolverhampton) have boomed and prestigious cycle showrooms have appeared in City Centre shopping centres. While many local bike shops struggle to survive as retailers of bikes, accessories and clothing, others succeed with skilled servicing and repairs. Often this includes final assembly and essential safety checking of bikes bought over the internet. We have also seen the growth of charities and community interest companies recycling bikes and offering skills training and employment.
What is the potential for "reshoring" and the re-emergence of an innovative, entrepreneurial, sustainable cluster of cycling manufacturers in and around the West Midlands - perhaps replicating the success of Brompton in London? There is no doubt that the Far Eastern manufacturers are successful with both mass market and specialist cycles and top quality (usually Japanese designed) as well as cheap components. But wages are rising across the Far East as production shifts from Taiwan to mainland China and then further afield, transport costs must rise and, even with CAD and modern communications, keeping design and manufacturing close together has advantages in terms of flexibility, quality and innovation. In May 2016 BWM Network organised a seminar with Isla Rowntree, whose IslaBikes brand of children's bikes is based in Ludlow but hitherto relying on Taiwanese factories. Isla described their new Imagine project where high quality sustainable bikes will be manufactured locally and rented to parents who then exchange them for larger bikes as their children grow. No bike need ever end up in landfill as the company takes responsibility for maintenance and creates a circular economy. Andrew Ritchie the inventor and founder of the Brompton company was the discussant.
Local cycle manufacture never entirely went away. Brompton wheels were in part supplied from Wolverhampton and may still be (they maintain a degree of commercial confidentiality). High quality steel and titanium cycle tubing and frame components are still made by Reynolds Technology in Hall Green Birmingham and used to build frames by mainly bespoke and small batch manufactures including Mercian in nearby Derby. Reynolds were exhibiting 3D printed lugs and bottom brackets at the Bespoked bicycle show in Bristol in April 2017 alongside their famous tubing types, the successors to the legendary Reynolds 531. Pashley based in Stratford on Avon continue to manufacture a large range of traditionally styled bicycles and tricycles as well as utility bikes including the latest Santander bike share bikes for Transport for London. In Smethwick the Brooks company has continued to make its famous leather saddles by traditional methods since the first bike boom of 1866. However, the company is now owned in Italy and their latest Cambium all weather rubber fabric saddles are imported.
I've been a regular visitor at Bespoked and the vast NEC Cycle Show looking for signs of a West Midlands area cycle manufacturing revival. I don't take the WMCA boundaries too seriously. Most of the surrounding local authorities and LEPs are "non-constituent" members of the Authority so I cast my net at bit wider, defining the "West" Midlands as anywhere I can cycle in a morning. Thus we can include Leamington, home of Trillion Cycles using Reynolds tubing in mountain bikes, now taking off with investment from Liberty and using innovative telemetric testing rigs learning techniques from the motor racing industry. Also in Leamington, industrial designer Graham Poulton has produced a prototype high performance folding bike, the Whippet which has been well reviewed and is moving towards production. A little further down the M40 (or through the lanes) is Pro Drive (more motor racing) but hosting the amazing light and hi-tech Hummingbird carbon folding bike which, at a price, might challenge the market dominance of the Brompton. Meanwhile, Bullfinch Cycles have started up in Marston Green producing a small range of bespoke and limited production high quality sports bikes from Reynolds tubing. In Hatton there is Meteor Works (named in a homage to the original Starley factory in Coventry) also producing top quality sports cycles on a small scale. Further away in Jackfield in Shropshire, Swallow have long been making hand-built and bespoke touring bikes and tandems.
WMCA and the new Mayor Andy Street have been very positive in their support of cycling as a key sustainable transport mode and promised to invest in new infrastructure. It would be great if this also led to their endorsement and encouragement of a growing cycle industry cluster of investment, expertise, skills and at the heart of the Midlands Engine.