The Brompton folding bike: gimmick or British design classic?


For commuters with little time and cramped apartments, one bike has become both an indispensable mode of transport and an icon of British design  

It seems fitting that one of the TV programmes of the last year featured prominently one of the defining objects of our time, too. The show was the brilliant Twenty Twelve, the so-true-it-hurts comedy that satirised the actions of the team working on the delivery of the Olympic Games, a group led by the long suffering Ian Fletcher, who turned up for work on a bike that sums up perfectly the modern urban experience: the Brompton. 

The Brompton folding bicycle, built in a factory in Brentford, west London, is a beautifully designed riding machine – a bike that goes from nippy road runner to hand luggage in less time than it says, “Actually, it's not as heavy as you think.” 

With cycle crime at epidemic levels (533,000 offences in 2010) this piece of fiendishly clever British engineering can be carried from meeting to coffee shop to office desk without having to give London's bike snarers the chance to prove their skills. Sure, if you drop it in the canal it's not going to float, but the Brompton offers a freedom that no other bike can match.

It also, once you get over the shock of its small 16-in wheels and curved crossbar, looks fantastic – taking it from utilitarian mode of transport to object of desire in just a few moments. See a Brompton, want a Brompton. 

Folding bikes have been with us since the late 1880s, but the Brompton takes the idea and reduces it down to its most beautifully basic level. On a Brompton, nothing, from the tiny wheel on top of the mud guard (for ease of portability) to the folding pedal on the left side, is superfluous. There are other folding bikes around, but they look clunky and ungainly – especially in their folded state – compared to the Brompton.  

Brompton began life in 1975, when engineer Andrew Ritchie began designing folding bikes in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in west London. In 1980, after several prototypes had been produced and tested, Ritchie manufactured his first 30 machines for sale. When large scale investment arrived in 1986, the new bike company was ready to enter the mainstream  market. By 1987 the Brompton was in full production. 

Our possessions say a great deal about us, and this is particularly true of the Brompton. Riding to work on one is like shopping at Waitrose – it shows that you're willing pay more money than is necessary for an experience that chimes with your values. It also says that you either live in a tiny flat where's there's no room to store a bike or so far out of town that riding all the way in is an impossibility – but you're happy to have a quick pedal to the station. In short, there are few more succinct definitions of how modern urbanites lives. And with the Brompton Dock cycle hire scheme starting next year at 17 UK train and tube stations, its visibility can only grow. 

Whether you choose the lightweight S1E-X model, or customise your M3L with touring bars and front-loading bag, owning a Brompton immediately makes you part of a bigger, and pleasingly sophisticated, group. Like that other bicycle lifestyle brand Rapha, owning Brompton is merely the first step toward a more rounded existence, or so its owners like to think. Us? We just feel that like every classic object, it combines form and function perfectly to make something greater than the sum of of its parts. Whether you work at the Olympics or not. 

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