Raleigh, Tony Hadland (2011)

An excellent one-volume history of the company that had a reasonable claim to having been the world’s biggest and best cycle manufacturer

Cycle Publishing/Van Der Plas Publications 9781892495685 $49

Company histories do not have much of a reputation. Even when professional historians are given free reign with the corporate archives, it is rare that they extract more than a turgid timeline of managers, meetings and mergers. Hadland’s Raleigh is different for any number of reasons.

It is in no sense official. Its author has written enjoyably and definitively on much of the rest of the British cycle industry. And, the production is up to Van Der Plas recent, exceptionally high, standards. There are colour illustrations on nearly every page and a positive wealth of archival material reproduced, including lots of delicious period advertisements, such as that on the cover.

Raleigh’s is an extraordinary story. Like dozens, if not hundreds of other tiny British manufacturers, it started life in a back-street workshop in the 1880s. Unusually, it was taken over by Frank Bowden, who turned out to be a visionary industrialist who by 1891 was employing 200 people. By 1908 the company was making 32,000 bicycles a year.

During the twentieth century some of its competitors – Sunbeam and Rover – diverted their attention to motor manufacturing. Many, many others, Rudge, Carlton, BSA and Triumph to name just a few – merged with, or were taken over by the Nottingham firm. It somehow navigated the dramatic decline of utility cycling at the end of the 1950s, and by the 1970s completely dominated British cycle manufacture and was considered by many foreigners to be the greatest cycle manufacturer in the world.

This extraordinary corporate adventure is relayed both in narrative form, and via interviews with workers, managers and customers of the company. Hadland ranges widely other Raleigh’s foreign operations, buildings, industrial relations, broader cultural references – such as Saturday Night Sunday Morning – and much, much more. Several chapters are contributed by other acclaimed experts in their fields – such as Scotford Lawrence’s entry on the company’s advertising materials.

It is a fabulous book that delivers, both as an end-to-end read and as a trove into which to dip. There are worthwhile questions, however, that it leaves unanswered.

To grow and sustain such an industrial edifice was a spectacular achievement – but was it the genius of the Bowden’s and their staff – or that many others gave up on bikes? Raleigh achieved a commanding position in the UK – and yet, from the 1970s onwards, the company appeared flat footed. They mucked up the Moulton, rejected the Brompton, largely missed BMX and were very late to mountain bikes. Never in my lifetime were they considered cool. Even owners of their very best bikes – like the Romany – usually had to explain that the special products division ‘really did make good bikes’.

Despite all this, Raleighs were manufacturing in the UK until 2002 and ‘at the time of writing, the business still exists’ as Hadland notes. Still designed and marketed in Nottinghamshire, they are ‘as British as Dyson, Roberts or Hornby’, he says.

Maybe a book of this kind is not the place to consider tangenital questions such as how forsaking actual manufacture affects the UK’s industrial capacity. The appearance of such an excellent work ought to be the prompt for others to take up such conundrums, however.

PS Dec 11

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