Choppers, burners and boneshakers: the rise of British cycling

Steve Humphries traces the rise of British cycling over the past 150 years through the fortunes of its best known manufacturer, Raleigh...

A group of women cycling along the beach at Newquay, c1923. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

1) Born-again biker

A Victorian entrepreneur found a new lease of life – and all-conquering bikes – in the backstreets of Nottingham

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The story of British cycling’s rise to global domination begins with the adventures of Frank Bowden, a young British lawyer, born in Exeter in 1848. He made his fortune in property development in Hong Kong during the 1870s, but became seriously ill. When he returned to England he was told by his doctor he probably only had six months to live, but that riding a bike might prolong his life.

Frank took up cycling with a passion and, a year later, was healthier than ever before. In the true spirit of the Victorian entrepreneur, he wanted to share the health benefits of the bicycle – and at the same time make a tidy profit. He found the perfect match when he came across a small bicycle company based in Raleigh Street, Nottingham. Frank was so impressed by the bikes they made he bought the business and in 1888 the Raleigh Bicycle Company was born.

Rapid expansion followed as the company replaced big-wheeled boneshakers with safety bicycles. They acquired gear manufacturer Sturmey-Archer who pioneered the three-speed hub, enabling Raleigh riders to change gear at the turn of a lever. By 1896 they occupied a five-acre factory in Nottingham, and had such confidence in their bikes that they offered a lifetime guarantee with every one they sold.

Frank Bowden died in 1921. By that time he’d transformed a backstreet workshop into the biggest bicycle manufacturer in the world, inspiring thousands of people to enjoy the health benefits of the pastime that had once saved his life.

2) Cycling’s golden age

From 1900 to 1950, the bike became the essential mode of transport for men and women, young and old

The first half of the 20th century was a boom time for cycling, especially Raleigh. They marshalled some of the top art, design and engineering talent in the country to create some of the best mass-produced bikes in the world.

Raleigh dominated the bicycle market at home and across the Commonwealth and empire. In doing so, they helped create a vibrant cycling culture in Britain. At first it was largely male – women riders were regarded as ‘fast’ and unladylike. But, gradually, more women took up cycling and there were women’s racing clubs too, like the trailblazing Rosslyn Ladies Cycling Club formed in Essex in 1922, which pioneered women’s competitive racing.

More and more men and women saw the bike as an essential purchase to get them to and from work, often cycling into their offices or factories from the new interwar suburbs. The bike was also an essential form of individual transport for many occupations like the postman, the policeman, the midwife and the district nurse. And with the new vogue for fresh air and exercise, many people saw the bike as a means to enjoy themselves with long cycle rides to the countryside and coast at weekends.

During these boom years, Raleigh grew and prospered, courtesy ofits reliable, sturdy bikes – many of them ‘sit-up-and-beg’ roadsters with a strong middle-class appeal. And the company developed a range of children’s bikes too, so that, by the 1930s, a bicycle had become one of the most popular birthday presents. In the Second World War the Raleigh factory became a supplier of munitions to the government. But when the war ended, it returned to bicycle manufacture, making bikes very similar to the ones they produced before the war.

3) A racing superstar

Some of the best cyclists in the world helped power Raleigh’s relentless growth

From the beginning, Raleigh understood that the best marketing tool of all to help sell their bikes was to sign up cycle racing champions. In the 1890s American cyclist Arthur Zimmerman, or ‘Zimmy’ – one of the world’s greatest cycling sprint riders and winner of the first world championship in 1893 – won more than a thousand races riding for Raleigh.

The company regularly made attempts on long distance cycling records, and in July 1908 Harry Green rode from Land’s End to John O’ Groats in a spectacular two days, 19 hours and 50 minutes on his Raleigh. But their greatest signing of all was amateur champion and cycling legend Reg Harris, whose statue overlooks the Manchester velodrome. Reg was a working-class boy who escaped the Lancashire mills to dominate track racing for decades. He began racing professionally for Raleigh in 1949 and that same year he won the first of four World Professional Sprint Championship titles, gaining victory on his famous ‘Red Raleigh’ and launching the slogan: ‘Reg Rides a Raleigh’.

With his charm and good looks, Reg was soon as popular as sporting heroes like Stanley Matthews and Stirling Moss. His name was associated with one of the company’s best-loved and bestselling postwar models, the Lenton Sports. His Raleigh bicycle played a starring role again in 1974 when he came out of retirement to win the British Professional Sprint Championship at Leicester.

4) Repetitive, noisy and dangerous

Raleigh garnered publicity for all the wrong reasons in the cult 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The Bowden family who owned and ran Raleigh were paternalistic employers, with a genuine concern for their workforce, and were keen to promote an image of Raleigh as one big happy family. They knew that much of the work on the assembly line in their Nottingham factory was repetitive, noisy and sometimes dangerous too. So to encourage the wellbeing and loyalty of their workers they paid for sports facilities, dances in the company ballroom and away days to Blackpool. They also had their own medical centre and convalescent home.

Many worked at Raleigh throughout their lives. But all this changed in the postwar years, especially when Raleigh merged with Tube Investments, owner of the giant British Cycle Corporation. As the old bonds of loyalty started to break down, discontent on the factory floor was on the rise. This was reflected in the gritty feature film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which told the story of Arthur Seaton – played by Albert Finney – a rebellious anti-hero bored with life on the production line.

Filmed in part in the Raleigh factory, it was based on a book written by ex-worker Alan Sillitoe. In the real world, power was shifting to the unions and over the next two decades Raleigh would be hit by strikes over pay and conditions that would cost millions and weaken their position on the international market.

5) The Chopper proves a hit with the kids

As car ownership soared, small-wheeled bikes breathed life into an ailing cycling market

There was a revolution in bicycle design in the early 1960s when a slump hit the cycle market. As living standards increased, so too did car ownership, and the bike fell out of favour. With the new town planning and motorway building schemes that took hold in the 1960s and 70s, everything was designed around the culture of the car. The bicycle became marginalised and more dangerous to ride, with an ever rising injury and death rate on the roads.

Raleigh’s sales figures were falling fast and it would take something special to revive their fortunes. It came with the small-wheeled bike, designed for city living, and first pioneered by the inventor Alex Moulton. These bikes proved incredibly popular. Raleigh made their own version, the RSW16, while a later foldable model became a huge hit with shoppers and commuters, especially women.

The RSW paved the way for other small-wheeled cycles, which ultimately led to the development of the iconic Raleigh Chopper, first produced in 1970. It was an instant hit with children and teenagers alike. They loved its revolutionary high-rise handlebars, large rear reflector and the trademark elongated seat. The gear stick mechanism was also very distinctive. It all showed that Raleigh was now catering for a younger market that prized fashion above the more traditional values reflected in the sit-up-and-beg or drop-handlebar models that had dominated in the past.

Most Choppers were given to kids as Christmas presents, so the Raleigh production process was geared up to fulfilling the huge demand created by Christmas lists every December.

6) BMX mania sweeps Britain

Stunts and jumps on small, agile bikes were all the rage in the 1980s

In the early 1970s children started racing on dirt tracks in California, helping to create a new sport called Bicycle Motocross, or BMX for short. Soon the BMX craze was sweeping across Britain, and creating a demand for small and agile bikes. They brought a new level of fun to cycling, their lightweight design enabling riders to perform jumps and tricks with ease.

Raleigh were slow to pick up on this new trend but, by the early eighties, they started making their own BMX bikes – and, in 1982, launched the Raleigh Burner. The bikes flew off the production lines, with big sales to boys and young men.

To give their publicity an extra push, Raleigh began to sign up the best riders in the country for a new team that included Andy Ruffell, a teenager from Walthamstow who had been national racing and freestyle champion. He was also contracted to travel to Raleigh dealerships around the country, performing stunts for his fans, and signing autographs. In doing so, Ruffell helped sell thousands of Burners nationwide.

Over the next few years Raleigh formed a new mountain bike racing team and launched an upmarket model called the M-Trax. They would go on to sell more than 3 million mountain bikes.

7) A battle for survival

In the past 30 years, Raleigh has felt the squeeze from mountain bikes and competition from the far east

The drop off in demand for Raleigh’s traditional bikes meant it desperately needed to sell more modern machines. The quickest route to sales was through a successful racing team. So, in 1974, Raleigh opened a new factory in Ilkeston, called the Specialist Bike Development Unit. Here, bespoke, hand-crafted racing bikes were produced for a brand new racing team.

The bikes Raleigh made at the SBDU were among the best in the world, and in a short time the team began to win some of Europe’s top races, including the Tour de France in 1977 and 1980. Cycle dealers across Europe now began stocking Raleigh bikes.

But this didn’t result in a significant sales boost because the mountain bike boom had led to the decline of the traditional racer. Raleigh was falling out of fashion fast and the rise in much cheaper (but high-quality) bikes imported from the far east spelt the beginning of the end for bicycle production in Nottingham. The main factory closed in 1994 and ownership of the Raleigh brand changed several times over the following years. It is currently owned by a Dutch company, Accell.

Raleigh bike sales in the UK currently stand at around half a million a year, and look set to increase with the growing popularity of cycling. And there’s also a new racing bike team, hoping to emulate past glories. But whatever the future holds for Raleigh, to the thousands of us who have spent hours sat on one – whether learning to cycle or touring the British countryside – it will always be the people’s bike.

Steve Humphries is an award-winning film-maker specialising in social history documentaries.

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This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine