Not so long ago, before Britain began its rapid retreat from the world of industry, the city of Birmingham was known as the workshop of the world. In part, this came about because most of the industrial giants were based there, churning out everything from nuts and bolts to trains and cars. But the region also has a tradition of small, family-run workshops, often playing a supporting role as sub- contractors to the big industries.The number of small fry in the Black Country (generally speaking, Birmingham and its satellite towns and cities) once ran into many thousands.Today, the number of factories is much smaller, but despite three decades of wholesale industrial decline, the tradition lives on.
The cycle industry is symptomatic of many others: Once there were tens of big manufacturers in the region, but by the 1990s this assortment had been whittled down to just Raleigh and Sturmey Archer, both in Nottingham, in the East Midlands.Today – although a rump Raleigh marketing organisation survives – both have ceased manufacture, leaving only tube-maker Reynolds, and a few dozen small specialists making forgings, tools and assorted cycle widgets in Birmingham.
The Black Country is littered with buildings left over from the great manufacturing era. Many are ugly, dark, squalid sheds, but not all…The Tower Works in Wolverhampton is actually quite an attractive building with a priceless transport pedigree. Built towards the end of the 19th century, the factory is thought to have churned out Humber bicycles for Rudge Wedge & Co (the history is byzantine in the extreme), before being sold in 1910 to the Stevens family, early motorcycle engine pioneers, who went on to produce the AJS. Very much following the pattern of the times, the building was adapted for manufacture of Clyno motorbikes and finally cars, until 1928, when Clyno moved up and out, only to disappear without a trace in the Great Depression.
…the last full-time employee left five years ago… his wheel-building jig makes a handy coat-rack…
More recently, the Tower Works was bought by the local authority and split into units for small industries, including Knight Cycles – not as one might suppose, established in the heyday of the ‘ordinary’, but in the 1970s.
Knight Cycles is currently run by Mike Hesson and his daughter Angie, although there were more staff here in busier days and there may be again if business picks up. John, the last full-time employee, left five years ago, but his wheel-building jig remains on the bench (it makes a handy coat-rack), and it could be dusted down tomorrow. It’s this sort of flexibility that has allowed the very tiny industrial concerns to survive, against seemingly overwhelming global odds.
The company currently builds wheels, but it wasn’t always so. Back in 1965, Mike was an electrician by trade, but a racing cyclist by inclination. As an impetuous young man, he decided to follow his heart, purchasing Hales Cycles, a small shop in Tipton, near Wolverhampton.Ten years later the premises were compulsorily purchased, and Mike nearly bought another shop in nearby Wednesbury. But he had by this time established a reputation as a wheel and frame-builder and in 1975 went into partnership with Barry Moore, a fellow racing cyclist, and Frank Clements, then owner of Orbit Cycles.
Hesson & Moore established quite a reputation, building and selling racing bikes under the Knight Cycles brand, but it was a competitive and unpredictable business. On the contrary, the wheel-building side had some lucky breaks, winning the contract to supply wheels for the popular Bickerton in 1980, a contract that soon pushed output to around 1,000 wheels a week.
Thus, quite by chance, Knight Cycles became a wheel-builder, specialising in large production runs of small wheels, which were difficult to make by machine.These days, whether in Taiwan or Britain, most cycle wheels are built by machine. But hand-made wheels – even the mass-produced kind – are better than machine-made examples, so the top-end specialist cycle manufacturers generally choose the traditional kind too.These two different specialities were the twin niches that Knight Cycles found, almost by accident in the 1980s.
The Brompton Connection
The Bickerton sold in big numbers for a few years and led to another niche contract. In the early 1980s the delivery girl of the time phoned the factory from outside a rather unpromising workshop in leafy West London. She was delivering a batch of a hundred 16- inch wheels to a new customer based at ‘The Powerhouse’ in Kew, and although a neighbour had agreed to accept the delivery, the tiny workshop was locked and empty. Back in Wolverhampton, Mike took a deep breath and agreed to leave the batch on trust.
Today, he’s very glad he did, because that initial order of wheels was destined for the Mark 1 Brompton.Today, Brompton is easily Knight Cycle’s biggest customer, purchasing between 400 and 600 wheels a week. By the mid ‘90s, the Bickerton and the frame- building business had gone, but by then the Brompton was becoming firmly established, neatly filling the void. Other smaller contracts currently include wheel building for Condor racing cycles (Knight used to make some of the frames too), and Whyte Cycle’s sophisticated mountain bikes, but Brompton is by far the biggest.
…problems with Brompton wheels are rare… that’s the advantage of building by hand…
As anyone who has wrestled with spokes and rims will know, wheel-building is a tricky and time-consuming black art.The spokes need to be ‘laced’ into the hub and rim, screwed loosely into place, then brought to full tension and ‘trued’ to produce a rim that runs accurately relative to the central hub.Thanks to years of experience, Mike and Angie turn out an impressive number of wheels to a high standard, and Brompton – renowned amongst sub-contractors for attention to detail – is certainly happy with the quality. As we often report in our road tests, wheel-building accuracy is often compromised on small- wheeled bikes, and some examples (mentioning no names) require careful truing work before the bike can be ridden. Buy a cheap folder by mail-order and you can be in trouble. But problems with Brompton wheels are quite rare – that’s the advantage of building everything in Britain, and building by hand.
For the Brompton contract, spokes are bought in, but the pricey bits – the rims and hubs – are owned by Brompton and delivered by the lorry-load direct from Holland and Germany respectively.This eases cashflow complications for the sub- contractor and enables Brompton to keep a close eye on stock levels. If the Brentford factory were to run out of wheels, production would dry up quite rapidly, but a stock of several thousand inWolverhampton ensures continuity of supply.
Wheels are built in batches of 50, with Angie lacing the assemblies together and Mike tensioning and truing the finished wheels. Each batch takes about 21/2 hours to lace, an hour to tension and another couple of hours to true, so Angie usually works a slightly shorter day, getting away early to pick the kids up from school.
Lacing is predictable, but trueing can vary batch by batch. Deciding how many rims to reject is a vital part of the quality control operation. Knight Cycles scraps about 1% of the alloy Rigida rims delivered from Holland. It could accept almost all of them, but the time taken to true that last 1% would make the operation uneconomic. On the other hand, a greater percentage of rims could be rejected, saving truing time, but wasting rims.With a keenly priced contract, this sort of decision can make the difference between profit and loss. And this is where a skilled hand- builder can return a profit and turn out first-class wheels.
Initial spoke tensioning is the only part of the operation done by machine, with the rim secured in a home-made air-powered jig, but it’s a skilled job.The spokes are not, as one might expect, adjusted to a preset tension, but wound in to a preset depth with an air drill. Building the more complex rear wheel, Knight Cycles use 152mm spokes one side and 153mm the other, which when precisely wound onto their threads by the tensioning machine, will automatically give the correct ‘offset’ to place the tyre dead centre between the frame drop-outs.
Experienced cyclists have been known to re-true the Brompton wheel to sit centrally within the rear frame – an understandable error. In fact, it’s the frame that’s offset to one side: the wheel should sit within a millimetre or so of the bicycle centre line.
When removed from the tensioning machine, the spokes should be more or less at their final tension and the wheel pretty true – you could certainly ride off on one if you really needed to. From this point, it’s all done by eye and by feel – the wheel sitting in a jig and the spokes adjusted up or down to give a near-perfect wheel. Once again, perfection is available, but at a price.The expensive racing wheels take longer to true than the Brompton wheels, but cost a lot more. Finally, the wheel is removed from the jig, the offset checked, and another unit is ready for the long journey down to London to be built into a Brompton.Wheels plop off the production line every 21/2 minutes.
Although Bromptons have suffered spoke failures in the past, when using different rim/spoke/hub combinations, the current set-up appears to be quite strong.The only maintenance required is a check of the spoke tension after a ‘running-in’ period of a few months, or less for heavier and/or high mileage riders. A well-adjusted and maintained wheel should last for years or even decades, but rim wear is a big problem with 16-inch wheels, and few survive for more than five thousand miles or so.There’s no easy answer to this one, apart from regular inspection and cleaning, although new materials might help.
Today, with just two staff, Knight Cycles is set to move to a smaller and tidier workshop in the same building. Running a small operation – as we know at A to B – has its compensations, including the freedom to arrange working hours to suit personal circumstances, but Mike sometimes laughs about his little factory. ‘We had a guy come in last week asking for Goods Inwards. I said ‘this is Goods Inwards, Good Outwards,Tool Setting, and I make the tea.What can I do for you?’
Mike Hesson, Knight Cycles,Tower Works, Pelham St,Wolverhampton WV3 0BW tel 01902 420305