By Vintagent Contributor Peter Henshaw

 

If asked about iconic British transportation brands still producing vehicles, you might say Norton, Triumph, Morgan, or Jaguar, as all of them (give or take a few bankruptcies) are still going strong in the 21st century. You could add Brompton to that list, as it ticks many of the same boxes. Britain’s biggest cycle manufacturer is quintessentially, well, British. It’s survived against all odds and builds a bike that engenders fierce loyalty among its thousands of owners. They also happen to build one of the best folding bikes ever produced, and now there’s an electric version. Britain’s cycle industry followed its motorcycle kin into the gloom in the 1970s and ’80s, with factories closed down and workers laid off, but many big names survived, finding it profitable to re-badge imports. What manufacturing was left included a few low-volume specialists like Moulton. But a Cambridge engineering graduate named Andrew Ritchie designed a cool folding bike in the 1980s, and began to build it in small numbers out of a railway arch workshop in West London. He named it after the nearest main highway – Brompton Road.

Spot the difference between a regular Brompton and this e-bike? No major redesign, just a discreet add-on. [Peter Henshaw]
Folding bikes are a very tricky design challenge – they have to be light enough to carry, quick and simple to fold, sturdy enough to ride, and compact. Countless attempts have come and gone over the decades, all in search of perfection, but very few have come close. They were either too heavy or too flimsy, too cumbersome or too tricky. I had an all-aluminium Bickerton once – light as a feather, but ride it hard and it flexed like a willow in a hurricane. You know the phrase ‘hinged in the middle’ as applied to motorcycles? The Bickerton actually had a hinge in its middle, and handled like it. The genius of Andrew Ritchie’s Brompton was that it ticked all the boxes, folding down really small, was light enough to carry, and was still a practical little bike to ride. Word got round, Brompton moved out of its railway arch into a proper factory, then a bigger one, and built 44,000 bikes last year. They’re aiming for 100,000 bikes in 2020, and Brompton is that rare thing in the early 21st century, a British manufacturing success story, by capturing a timeless urban chic.

The e-Brompton

Brompton couldn’t ignore the electric bike revolution, and for years there were rumours the company was working on an e-bike. While a great folding bike, the Brompton had a limited range of gears that made for hard work in hilly cities. Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries and compact motors were making e-bikes, or pedelecs, a no-brainer solution for commuters. Last year, the Brompton e-bike finally started production. Typical for the company, it includes quirky touches: rather than buy a well-proven Chinese hub motor, Brompton developed its own, in partnership with the Williams Formula One race team.

Still packable into a trunk or train, plus the power pack. Longer distance commuting is possible now [Peter Henshaw]
At first glance, the e-Brompton looks like a standard model, and apart from the front hub motor, no clues reveal this bike has an extra boost: there are no wires, switches or bulky battery to interfere with the all-important foldability. The battery clips onto the bike’s standard front luggage carrier, and the controls are integral into its top surface. In a way, that’s very neat, because there are no straggling wires up to a console on the handlebars, but it’s also very tricky to change power levels or switch the lights on while on the move, as you have to lean right over the front of the bike to reach the controls. In fact, I’m sure there’s a warning the handbook prohibiting just such foolish behaviour.

The pedelec present: currently electric-boost bicycles are the largest EV segment worldwide, with Yamaha alone having sold 4 Million of their PAS pedelecs worldwide [Brompton]
The Brompton conforms to European e-bike legislation in that there’s no throttle, so power only kicks in when you turn the pedals – a torque sensor by the bottom bracket does the trick here. So from rest you select power level 1, 2 or 3 and set off. Within one revolution of the pedals the motor comes on stream and you’re away. It might all sound seamless, but an entire pedal stroke without power feels like a long time on a hill start, or when pulling away from the lights with traffic breathing down your neck.

In action! Same old Brompton cool/geek vibe: utterly practical and now a little more flexible. [Peter Henshaw]
Everything you’ve heard about e-bikes is true, and the Brompton is no exception, endowing you with supercharged legs, wafting you up hills and taking the sting out of headwinds. Level 1 is a bit weak, but OK on easy going, but 2 gives a real boost and 3 appears to be in warp drive territory – I even got torque steer a few times on loose surfaces. Whichever level you’re on, the power tails off at 15.5mph, in line with the law – this is bicycle, not a moped.

As compact as a suit bag, but a bit heavier [Brompton]
Neat touches to the e-Brompton include powerful LED lights that work directly off the battery, and they take so little power they won’t go dim when the battery’s low. The battery itself clips on and off easily, only weighs about three kilos and has a USB charge point for phones. And being a Brompton, the bike folds down into a neat compact package in about 20 seconds (much less with practice). Five blue LEDs atop the battery tell how much juice you’ve got left, the last one flashing when you’re down to about 3 miles worth – the test bike managed 27 miles in all, and of course you can charge it at any domestic socket, or top it up over lunch. Just remember to take the charger with you.

No restrictions on carrying an e-Brompton on public transportation [Brompton]
It’s not all good news. Thanks to that motor, the bike without battery weighs 14kg, which is far from lightweight if you need to carry it any distance. Bromptons have always been famed for their decent front bag space, but the standard bag on the e-bike is 90% battery – a bigger bag costs £130 extra. Talking of money, the Brompton isn’t a cheap bike any more. The basic non-electric range starts at £745 and the e-Brompton costs £2595 for the two-speed version. What you get is a well-engineered little bike that looks cool, goes really well, and as a folder, is compatible with just about any other mode of transport you care to name. Is this the birth of another British transport dynasty?

Not so easy access to the controls – don’t try this on the move! [Peter Henshaw]
SPECS

Brompton Electric

Price: £2595

Motor: 250 watts

Battery: 300Wh

Transmission: 2-speed

Weight (with battery): 16.6kg

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