Raleigh Chopper Owners Club     ( www.rcoc.co.uk )                     



        THE SHOP




                  This is taken from THE GUARDIAN on Friday May 10, 2002 

Here comes the chopper

For over 100 years Raleigh has built bicycles in Nottingham. But at the end of this year the Midlands factory will close for good and production will switch to the Far East. Matt Seaton on how the wheels came off one of Britain's best-loved companies

"It's a hard job, but it was a dependable one," says John Wingfield. Now 55, he has worked in the wheel shop at the Raleigh bicycle factory ever since he left the army 25 years ago. "Most people under 40 can't hack it. But originally, this was women's work." He has a craggy but pleasant face, topped by a thick shock of rolex replica watches grey hair. With a couple of front teeth missing, he bears a passing resemblance to the 70s footballer Joe Jordan. When Wingfield joined Raleigh, the managers still wore bowler hats. He used to do gear-shaping. You were only supposed to work six machines at a time, but on a late shift, when the foreman had gone, he found he could work a dozen at once, doubling his money in the days of piecework. He made 튠 a week then. As the writer Alan Sillitoe remarked in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the kitchen-sink classic set in the Nottingham factory where he, his mother and father, and his sisters all worked at different times: "The thousands that worked there took home good wages."

Those days are gone. At the end of this year, the Raleigh factory will close for good. The last bicycle to be built in Nottingham will come off the line, and the remaining 280 people who made it will empty their lockers for the last time. With his experience as a chef in the fake rolex territorial army, Wingfield is thinking of moving to the coast and opening a chip shop. I find myself wondering whether anyone has told him that the North Sea is fished out.

As with any institution of sufficient vintage in Britain, the Raleigh bicycle factory in Triumph Road, Nottingham, is rich in heritage and historical irony. Raleigh bikes have been manufactured in the city since 1887. The "heron" incorporated into the "R" emblem, which still features on the front of every Raleigh bike, was derived from a heraldic device of the firm's founder, Sir Frank Bowden. Barely a decade after its foundation, in the first great golden age of the bicycle, Raleigh employed nearly 1,000 workers and was turning out 30,000 bikes a year.

The present factory building is 50 years old almost to the day: a plaque memorialises its opening in 1952 by the Duke of Edinburgh. It was here that Albert Finney played Arthur Seaton (no relation), hero of Karel Reisz's 1960 adaptation of Sillitoe's novel. In a scene that shows Arthur Seaton working his drill, Finney stood at the very machine, Sillitoe tells me, at which he had stood as a 14-year-old school-leaver in 1942.

Less romantically, another plaque inside the works commemorates the visit in 1984 of Norman (since Lord) Tebbit to open a state-of-the-art paint shop. Could that visit, one wonders, have been inspired by his notorious admonition to jobless northerners to "get on their bikes" to find employment?

At the end, there will be no more ironies; the heritage will be just so much rubble. In 2003, the factory will be razed. The university, which now owns the land, will build. Higher education is a growth sector; manufacturing industry is not.

It is not the bitter end for Raleigh. You will still be able to buy a Raleigh bike, but it will be made entirely in Vietnam, Korea or Bangladesh. The Raleigh brand will live on, and Nottingham will still be home to a design and distribution centre. But the closure signals the end of a century-old tradition of bicycle manufacture, which, at its height, employed 8,000 people and sent bikes from the East Midlands all over the world. "I think it's a great pity," says Sillitoe today. "It's part of Nottingham's identity."

Raleigh is one of those talismanic names - like Rover cars or Triumph motorcycles - in which an old-fashioned pride in British engineering resides. Talk to anyone at Raleigh, from management to assembly line, and they will wax lyrical about a Raleigh bike's paintwork. Guaranteed for 15 years, apparently.

But the sentiment goes deeper - and much further - than that. For generations of us, our first proper bicycle was a Raleigh. Raleigh's reputation for quality and reliability - its advertising slogan, unchanged in decades: "Raleigh, the All-Steel Bicycle" - made it an object of desire for kids everywhere, boys especially. In his recollection of a childhood in the 30s, Oliver Postgate (creator of Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and the Clangers) celebrated the thrill of getting a Raleigh for his 13th birthday. Twenty years on, John Lennon was snapped posing proudly with his new Raleigh.

But Raleigh was not just the people's bike. It bore the lustre of cycle sport: Laurent Fignon rode a Raleigh, as did Joop Zoetemelk. He was Raleigh's last winner of the Tour de France in 1986, before the shrinking market for racing bikes forced the firm to pull its sponsorship in the early 90s.

Even I have my own Raleigh memory: a nearly new five-speed racer that my dad bought, which was the first bike I can remember. It was a special edition produced for the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977, and painted - fabulously, as I thought - silver all over, with red, white and blue decals. For me, as for millions of people throughout the 20th century, the name Raleigh was synonymous with a first taste of speed and freedom.

So what went wrong?

The narrative of manufacturing decline at Raleigh is, in many respects, a sadly familiar one. There was a time when Raleigh made every one of the 120 components that goes into a bike - tubing, frames, rims, hubs, bearings, chains, brakes... even the washers. As long as few foreign competitors could match Raleigh's quality, all was well: "The factory sent crated bicycles each year from the despatch department to waiting railway trucks over Eddison Road, boosting postwar export trade and trying to sling pontoons over a turbulent unbridgeable river called the Sterling Balance," wrote Sillitoe in 1958.

By the 1980s, however, the Far East, and in particular China, was catching up fast, making bikes that were of comparable quality and cheaper. The biggest winners in the game now were us, the consumers.

"The average selling price of our cheapest bike, about 㰬 hasn't changed," explains Phillip Darnton, Raleigh's deputy executive chairman, soon - like the majority of his workforce - to be out of a job. "Until the late 80s, it was about the same as the average weekly wage in the UK. Now it's close to half."

Raleigh's market share began to shrink at a catastrophic rate: from a massive two-thirds in 1966 to less than two-fifths in 1981. To cut costs, Raleigh began "outsourcing" more and more production, but retained the huge overhead structure and overcapacity from its glory days as market leader. As 52-year-old Allan Spencer - the firm's operations director who joined the shop floor as a work-study engineer in 1973 - recalls, Raleigh then occupied a 64-acre site and had 15 different canteens - one for every grade of manager, foreman and worker.

At that time, the firm was owned by a multinational engineering company, Tubing Investments - or the TI Group, as it became. Its management knew production, but understood little about retailing. After losing ୠin five years, it sold Raleigh in 1987 to an entrepreneur named Alan Finden-Crofts for a mere 㭮 By luck or judgment, his company, the Derby Cycle Corporation, took over just as the first real excitement in the bike market arrived since Raleigh's successes in the early 70s with the Chopper and Grifter: the mountain bike.

Spencer says that his 20-year-old son tells people his dad works at Diamondback (Raleigh's mountain-bike brand), not at Raleigh. That wouldn't be cool. From this you can deduce that, whatever its corporate woes, Raleigh had also lost the plot in product innovation and brand values. Sturdy, three-speed, all-steel bicycles were no longer what kids wanted: they wanted mountain bikes, with chunky aluminium frames and 21 gears, full suspension, disc brakes... all the gizmos.

"Raleigh wasn't first in [with mountain bikes]," says Darnton, "but it did all right."

Having restored Raleigh to profitability, Finden-Crofts sold the business in 1997 for $180m (⵭) to two venture-capital groups from Washington DC. Three years later, after selling the site to Nottingham University in a bid to solve its worsening cashflow crisis, the new owners of the Derby Cycle Corporation invited Finden-Crofts to return as a consul tant; and less than a year after that, he bought the business back for $70m (譩 - in practice, for very much omega replica less, since the figure included the paper value of all the stock.

Finden-Crofts, of course, inherited the problem that, come January 1 2003 - when the company's leaseback arrangement with the university was to end - he would have a business without a home. A project to build a new 孠factory was held up by planning disputes and then finally abandoned: as Darnton explains, the move was no longer a viable option. Raleigh found that it could send a specification for a new bike and ask for a quote from a manufacturer in, say, Vietnam, and get back a unit price 25% lower than anything they could achieve by assembling the same bike in Nottingham.

"It's not so much a factory closure," says local Labour MP Alan Simpson, "as a bereavement." "There's a mourning phase," echoes Darnton. I should be wary of intruding on private grief, he warns me: "People may talk in a guarded way."

In fact, people seem very willing to talk, but they sound like guests at the wake of an aged relative whose funeral notice read, "After long illness..." It is as if they've already done all the stages of bereavement - numbness, denial, anger, guilt, acceptance - even while they're still turning out a gleaming bicycle every 22 seconds.

Simpson is swift with his diagnosis: "The fatalism of workers in a place like Raleigh is a sense of having given up a belief - not in their ability to make bikes, but in a government that even cares about making things."

In the wheel shop, a few yards from where John Wingfield works, is Ivan Lowe, 50. He, too, has been at Raleigh for 25 years - the average length of service among Raleigh's workforce is 21 years. "It was a bombshell: nobody expected the closure," says Lowe. "I had assumed I'd be here till I retired."

When he started in the wheelshop, everything was done by hand; wheelbuilding was a skilled job. Now the artisan's craft of lacing and trueing is done by computer-controlled machine. Lowe simply sits at a jig that turns the wheel as he places each spoke from the ready-laced hub for the machine to fasten the nipple that ties the spoke to the rim. What will he do? "I'll worry about that when I go from here," he says. "It won't really affect people until it finishes... but what I'll miss is the lads you work with."

Even the union men reflect the wider mood. "It's come as a blow," says Dave Timson, 51, a GMB steward who wears a closely trimmed moustache and a crucifix earring. He has 30 years at the plant behind him. "It's just a question of seeing it through as smoothly as possible to the very end."

When he started at Raleigh in the early 70s, there was a company culture: Raleigh had a bowling green, a fishing pond, a sports ground, even a ballroom. He used to assemble the bearings in bottom brackets as a pieceworker. There were days when he was so busy that he would wake at night and see a rail of half- finished bikes coming out of the wardrobe. "It's part of your life and your family," he says, "but it's been diminishing and diminishing."

People's passivity in the face of closure is not altogether surprising. PR mishandling of the company's decision in 1999 to stop making its own steel frames on site led to a popular misconception - widespread even in Nottingham - that Raleigh had already ceased making bikes. As he shows me round the factory floor, Spencer has an almost permanent note of resignation in his voice. "All we can do is make bikes well, because that's what we've always done."

In the past, through all the upheavals and restructuring, Spencer has prided himself on saving as many people's jobs as possible. Now there are no jobs to save: "All I can really do is look after folks until the end of the year."

         Form the GUARDIAN report from Saturday  March 16, 2002 Click here