Saturday, 24 January 2015

Why don't they make them like that anymore?

I've just finished rebuilding this classic old Raleigh Superbe bicycle for a friend..built between 1957-58 , I was amazed at the condition of the stainless steel rims and the brake cables which I'm sure are original and it got me thinking about the economics of building a bike that would last 50+ years. I know the bike was used regularly up until the turn of the 21st century and then shed bound until I stripped it last year. Apart from the pedals, which are worn badly, the majority of the components on the bike are very serviceable and probably last another 50 years!

This bike was built just at the end of a fantastic heyday for British cycling, in the 1950's Raleigh in Nottingham were building 1,000,000 bikes per year (many for export).
In 1951 the bike cost £22 16s 4d  and as the average weekly wage was £5, the Superbe represented just over a month's wages. Last year the average weekly wage was apparently about £470 which means the equivalent household outlay for a Raleigh Superbe would now be over £2000 and as we all know, you could buy a car for that!

It was the increasing popularity of the car that  led to the demise of the bicycle industry in the UK.
A Ford Popular could be bought for about £300 in 195, so although the Superbe was built to last and offered free daily transport the appeal of cheap motoring was too powerful to resist.
As a nation we turned our back on everyday cycling and took up everyday motoring.
UK bicycle manufacturers (much like the motorcycle makers) tried to combat the seemingly inevitable decline of  sales figures by cutting costs to build a cheaper product, a strategy that had limited success as those customers that had appreciated the value of build quality were ultimately disappointed by the inferior production standards and stopped buying them. In hindsight a better strategy might have been to maintain quality but adjust the business model toward lower sales volumes.
This might partially answer the question "Why we don't make them like that anymore?" we don't because we fell in love with cars and UK bicycle manufacturers arguably and understandably reacted negatively.

But did it have to be that way? How did the many countries of Northern Europe manage to maintain their everyday cycling habit faced with increasing car ownership. If you visit a bike showroom in Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands or Germany you'll see a whole host of  quality bikes, built for everyday use. Some still built to the exacting, though technically superior, standards of the Raleigh Superbe, these bikes command prices that reflect a serious investment on behalf of their owners.
Apart from making quality bikes for everyday use the other essential investment that was made by our continental cousins was in a road infrastructure that encouraged cycling, rather than actively ending it, as in the UK.

There are many good reasons in our resource limited future to readopt the build quality values of the early 20th Century. We must do more with less, we can no longer afford to invest energy and materials into products that perform badly and wear out quickly.
There needs to be a realignment of values in our culture, not just in cycling (but that's a good start) which means that we do better things with our time than be good consumers. 
We must build a truly sustainable society that is energy efficient, durable and well designed.... just like the Raleigh Superbe. (  so good they gave it an extra "e"!)