Whenever he is cycling on the streets of London, Will Carleysmith always keeps an eye out for fellow Brompton bike riders. After all, as the chief design and engineering officer of the British cult folding bicycle brand, it is the “best bit of the job” to see people using a product he has had a hand in creating.
But what gives him the greatest joy, he says, is when he spots a furkid along for the ride as well.
“We get people with small dogs or cats who customise their bags for their pets. So when you get close, you realise there is a furry thing on the bike. That always makes me laugh,” says Carleysmith.
By his own account, the Brompton is a “strange product” as it was invented for the utilitarian purpose of enhancing the portability of a bike. City dwellers, in particular, fell in love with its compact foldable design, which allows it to be easily stowed in small spaces such as office cubicles, car trunks and train luggage racks.
Its unmatched functionality is thanks to an intricate design and manufacturing process. The team designs, engineers and sources each of the Brompton’s 1,200 parts. They then assemble the bicycle by hand. So it is no surprise that this is one of the most sought after foldable bikes around the globe, premium prices notwithstanding.
But it is truly the brand’s devoted international following that has given it its #ifyouknowyouknow cachet in urban capitals like London, Singapore and Tokyo.
“People all over the world create fan clubs and personalise their bikes. As a designer, it is really rewarding to build a product that people have fun using every day,” says Carleysmith.
He joined Brompton straight out of university over 16 years ago and has been there since, working and leading the team on many of the bike’s designs.
“There is a nice scale to working on a bicycle. You can build the whole bikewith your team. If you work on a car or an aeroplane, you would only get to do a small part of it,” he says of his longevity at the company.
This year, Bromptom wants to reinvent the wheel once again with the launch of the T Line. This is the first time the brand has redesigned the bike since it was first made in 1975 by inventor Andrew Ritchie.
The T Line is Brompton’s lightest bike ever at 7.45kg, a feat achieved through the use of precision-engineered titanium for the frame, and is light enough to be carried up the stairs without breaking a sweat. The iconic silhouette of the Brompton and the way it folds remains the same.
It took the team three years of research and development to create the T Line from scratch. The company had to forge new construction techniques and design over 150 components. It even built a dedicated factory to create the bike.
“The only thing that has been carried over from our classic model is the brake system. Everything else has been finessed, pared back, upgraded,” says Carleysmith. “We used expensive materials and the best engineering techniques to make a product that is light but durable.”
Learning to work with titanium, which is typically used for military equipment or in the aerospace industry, was an interesting learning curve too. “A lot of the innovation is in how you use the material,” he says.
To master it, Brompton partnered with a company that makes parts for jet engines in the United Kingdom and focused on developing new construction, as well as casting and welding techniques to use titanium appropriately.
For instance, simply substituting the steel frame with titanium would have resulted in a bike that would “flex” when riding. “It wouldn’t have been nice to ride and the handling would not feel good,” he says.
“To achieve the engineering targets, we built the product in a virtual environment to understand its performance and made lots of iterations and improvements. Then we 3D-printed titanium parts to create a prototype to test it out.”
The result is a significantly lighter bicycle, compared to its predecessor. Anyone weighing up to 110kg can comfortably ride it. From a rider’s perspective, the T Line has been engineered with a one-piece carbon fork and wider carbon handlebars to be even more responsive. “When you start, it takes off and speeds up really quickly,” says Carleysmith.
The T Line is available in two specifications, each with the option of a low- or mid-rise handlebar fit. Brompton launched the first batch via a ballot system on its website earlier this year. With over 10,000 people in Singapore alone registering their interest, this was the brand’s way of allocating the bikes as fairly as possible.
“While we have invested a lot in manufacturing, hiring and building a new factory, we cannot produce quickly enough to keep everybody happy. So the ballot is to make this first period fair rather than it being friends of people in the bike shop getting it first,” explains Carleysmith.
This demand will not be surprising to longtime fans of the brand who have always subscribed to the adage that good things come to those who wait. For instance, in the pre-Covid days and before Brompton’s store opening in Funan, Singaporeans had to travel to Hong Kong to get their hands on the bike. Even now, Brompton limits sales to one per customer in Singapore.
This is not a play to induce artificial scarcity. Rather, the team is intent on scaling at a pace that will not compromise on quality.
When he first joined the company, it had about 40 employees and made about 30,000 bikes a year. Now, they have about 800 employees and are looking at producing close to 100,000 bikes this year.
“We have grown production by about 40 to 45 per cent, which is quick for a manufacturing company. This requires a lot of investment. But even though we have grown our production, our demand has gone ahead of it. We are working as hard as we can to catch up,” he observes.
“These are not limited-edition bikes and everyone who wants one will get one.”