"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
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
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
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."