Monday, April 11, 2016

Bike Shorts: How a Bicycle Is Made

The massive Raleigh complex in the 1950s.
(from Sheldon Brown's site - Retro Raleighs)
Throughout most of the 20th century, the Raleigh Bicycle Company was the true giant of the industry. As Raleigh grew, they did so at least in part by swallowing up or merging with much of the rest of the British bicycle industry. Throughout the decades, Raleigh had acquired hub gear maker Sturmey-Archer (and by extension, Brooks Saddles), Humber, Rudge-Whitworth, Triumph, BSA, and Carlton. Through mergers, they also came to control brands like Phillips, Hercules, Sun, Norman, and a few others -- many of which were built under the same roofs at the massive Raleigh factory. They even made bikes for USA-based Huffy. By their peak in the 1960s, the Raleigh factory complex in Nottingham covered about 40 acres and manufactured practically every part of their bicycles in-house. The closest thing to that kind of manufacturing might in the U.S. was the Schwinn factory in Chicago, and yet even though Schwinn did make their own tubing and frame fittings on-site, they brought in many of their bicycle components from other suppliers.

In the short educational film How A Bicycle Is Made from 1946, a father and son visit the giant Raleigh factory in Nottingham and get to see how a bicycle is made from start to finish. The mass-production on display is a real sight to behold, making this an interesting little film that proudly shows off Britain's industrial might from an era long gone, and in a way that may never be duplicated. Some of the manufacturing methods shown may be surprising, even to people already familiar with bicycle construction.

The film opens with a panning shot over the rooftops of the giant industrial complex in Nottingham. "Here is a factory in the heart of industrial Britain. A planned response to the world's demand for bicycles," says the narrator. 
Then the film takes us into the "chief designer's office" to "hear him tell two visitors just how a bicycle is made."
"I could go miles and miles on one of these, father," says the boy. "And so you should!" replies the proud designer. "There's a hundred years of bicycle manufacture behind that model." The designer then begins to explain the process of how the company mass-produces their bikes from the drawing board to the end of the final assembly line.
Here is a look at the tube-making part of the line. A huge spool of flat steel is fed into a machine where it's rolled into tubes, welded at the seam, and cut to length. The way I understand it, in the U.S., Schwinn made their own tubing in much the same way.

This sequence shows how a flat piece of steel is gradually shaped into a bottom bracket shell. The flat steel disc undergoes several pressings, eventually making a seamless shell ready to accept frame tubes and stays.
Two men put tubes and lugs into a jig and pin the joints to prepare the frame for brazing in a furnace. Notice the stacks of hundreds of frames behind the men.
They don't actually show the brazing operation - but a worker here pulls a hot, glowing frame from the furnace. I'm assuming that rings of brass were put into the joints, then the melted in the furnace, making it almost like an automated process.
After brazing, the frame is cleaned in a "special solution." They don't specify what the "special solution" is (probably some type of acid bath, I'd have to guess) but notice the huge cloud of vapors billowing out of the tank - and the worker with no kind of mask or even gloves. I wonder what that guy eventually died from?
After more cleaning, the frame is ready for paint. No spray booth here. Literally, the frame is dunked into a tank of enamel. It doesn't even look like the worker is wearing gloves as he dunks the frame - and he's even holding it right around the seat-tube. They don't mention how the frame doesn't have a huge hand-print in the paint job. Another scene shows female workers adding pinstriping to the painted frames.
Other scenes show the making of some of the components. In this case, the hot forging of Raleigh cranks - step by step from raw forgings, through final machining. Bottom bracket spindles, handlebars, fenders, and even some heat-treating processes are also shown.
After showing the process of building wheels - with its combination of manual labor and automation, we see the tubes and tires installed, almost entirely by "girls" (hey - that's the filmmaker's words, not mine).

"These girls are so expert that they can fit a tire and tube in under 50 seconds." 
When the frame and all the various components are complete, they are taken by conveyors from all their respective shops to the final assembly area.

Junior workers bring the partially assembled frame and the wheels to another part of the line where "skilled" workers fit the wheels and perform final assembly. Lastly, the finished and inspected bicycles go to a clearing department where we see what must be thousands of complete bikes -- "ready for dispatch to all parts of the world."
In the end, the Raleigh chief designer declares "Careful designing, reliable materials, and expert craftsmanship in every stage of manufacture turn out a British bicycle second to none."

"The bicycle is a comfortable and cheap way of getting about." says the narrator at the close of the film, with a series of shots showing people of all ages out on their bikes. "A great boon to man. Ideal for shopping, easy to park, handy for work. A faithful friend, ever ready to take tired workers back home. And after work, to bring relaxation, health and happiness."
With all those people on bikes at the end of the film, it's pretty clear that this film couldn't have been made in America, where in 1946, all anyone wanted after the war was to get a big, shiny, brand-new car.

There is a really nice copy of How a Bicycle is Made on YouTube, courtesy of the British Film Council.



  1. Thanks so much for posting this. Every couple of years when I'm visiting my dad I work on his Raleigh Sports. I'm always a bit taken aback by what a piece of junk it is. Crudely machined cranks, brakes, wheels, etc., poorly aligned bearing surfaces (dump enough grease in them, they're fine), misaligned dropouts and braze-ons. Give me a Dutch bike of the same era any day, at least they cared a little bit.

    1. Don't know what era your dad's Sports is from, but my '71 Sports is soldiering on, despite its dents and scrapes. Simple, low-tech,and heavy? Yes, and yes, the brakes leave much to be desired compared to today's designs - someday i'll fit up alloy rims- but it is perhaps one of the more reliable bikes i've owned. i ride it almost every day.

      i will allow that during the Mid-70's Bike Boom, Raleigh did turn out a lot of junk -i'm thinking specifically of the Record model. At our shop we observed that with the Record, Raleigh had perfected the brazeless lug... their Q.C. went out the window due to overproduction.

    2. I hear a lot of stories about bike-boom era bikes from Britain and Europe that were an abomination of quality control -- like they were just caught completely off-guard and unable to keep up. It's one of the reasons that Japanese brands were able to make such inroads to the quality bike market.

  2. Those bike-boom era Raleigh Records were pretty bad. (Trust me, I worked on a lot of them!) But the low-end Atalas from that era were really scary.

    It's interesting that after WWII, Britain and the US celebrated their industrial might. The US boasted about its automobile and then-nascent aerospace industry, while in the film you posted, the Brits did it with bikes.