There are a million folding bikes out there. Some smaller, some larger, but all of a similar design. The are only a few that break the mold and start out in a new direction. The Brompton was one of the first to defy convention and approach folding in an entirely new way. This fresh approach, born of a struggle for acceptance with Britain's cycling industry of the late 1970s, set a new standard for lightweight and compact folding bicycles which has yet to be bested. The simplicity, practicality, and sheer genius of the Brompton's folding mechanism developed over the course of several long years of experimentation.
Traditionally, the folding bike has been an adaptation of the regular bicycle. Most early folding bicycles were simply a regular bicycle with a hinge upon which they would fold in half. This simple and straight forward approach certainly reduces the size of these bicycles considerably, but the folded package is often too cumbersome to be handled easily and not quite small enough to be carried by hand.
Enter the Brompton. Andrew Ritchey, finding the folding bikes of his day to be all too complex and unsatisfactory set out to create the best folding bike possible. His goal was to create a folding bike with the dimensions of a normal bike but of a weight and size which could be carried on a bus or train with ease. This was no simple challenge; it meant abandoning the old and starting with a fresh approach. Luckily, Ritchey had a few tricks up his sleeve. To start he would throw all of the old rules of folding bikes.
The perfect compact bike would fit into cars, trains, and busses without tiring out the rider or getting fellow passengers covered in chain grease. The first two Brompton innovations made short work of these problems. Instead of adapting the traditional 2 piece folding design where a bike folded in half on itself, the Brompton would fold in 3rds. This seemingly impossible task was achieved via Ritchey's 2nd great idea: a rear wheel which flipped under the bike, rather than folding horizontally. These two strokes of genius allow the Brompton to fold with its two 16 inch wheels next to each other, neatly hiding the chain in between and reducing the folded bike's height and length to only a few inches greater than the wheels themselves.
While there were many incarnations of the Brompton over the years, the final product incorporated several more innovative approaches the folding bike. Handlebars had long created problems for folding bicycle engineers. The Brompton yet again approached this aspect of the folding bicycle in a new way. Instead of long curved handlebars which wind-milled out and down to meet the front wheel the Brompton was designed with a skewed hinge which allowed a single handlebar stem to fold flat against the front wheel, saving a crucial inch or two in the process.
Speaking of the front wheel, here is another case where Ritchey's mastery really shines. Yet again defying conventional wisdom, the Brompton's front wheel remains facing forward when folded. This simple yet mind boggling feature once again pulls the whole package closer together and makes for a more compact folding bike. The final touch to the Brompton design, one which was part of the design from nearly the beginning is a retractable seat post which when fully lowered locks the frame together. This is what makes carrying the Brompton so practical. No matter how much it is jostled or shaken or bounced the frame will not unfold itself with the seat down. That means a lot when your running to catch the next train in the morning.
There's no mistaking the work of a master engineer and genius designer in the Brompton folding bicycle. Standing alone among countless redundant and copy cat designs, it remains unchallenged as the most compact and truly practical folding bike. It's incredible folding mechanism is so simple and elegant that once you've seen it you can hardly understand why anyone would do it differently. Yet this is a folding bicycle which defied convention, striking out boldly into new territory and laying down a new standard. The Brompton is by far the most well thought out and incredible folding bike to date. The secret is all in the design.