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“It’s for people who really care about materials, design, manufacturing,” says Andy Richman about the Chater-Lea bicycle pedal, launched today in Bristol.
“The analogy we use – and we think about this a lot – is high-end watches.”
The Grand Tour bicycle pedal is not your ordinary crank-arm appendage. It’s precision engineered, hand-crafted in England and sports a laser-cut “CL,” the signature flourish that once decorated many of Britain’s upscale custom-built bicycles.
Chater-Lea has returned to its roots and is again producing cycle parts. The company was founded in 1890, later went on to make motor cars and also produced high-quality cycle components, including pedals and chainsets. The company ceased trading in 1987, ending up a shell of its former self.
The wait is now over and the resurrector of the brand is revealed to be a partner in a U.S. product strategy firm. Andy Richman, however, is a Brit, and one who loves classic British bicycles.
He lives and works in Washington, DC, but is currently in the U.K. relaunching Chater-Lea at Bespoked, a handmade bicycle show being staged from today until Sunday.
Richman has plans for many Chater-Lea bicycle components, but he’s starting with a pedal.
This is made with marine grade 316 and hardened 17-4PH stainless steels studded with brass rivets. It’s a work of art. While most high-end race bikes are today fitted with click-in-twist-out “clipless” pedals, Richman is aiming the Grand Tour pedal at the connoisseur.
“We’re aiming away from the peloton. Somebody enjoying the view, enjoying the ride, enjoying what’s on the bike in the same way that when you buy a high-end watch you really enjoy telling the time,” says Richman.
He moved to the U.S. eleven years ago.
“My American friends usually ride on Italian steel bikes or carbon fiber bikes, I’ve always been the guy who turns up on a nice old English steel bicycle, usually handmade.”
During a shopping trip in Brighton, Richman eyed up a Condor bicycle frame dating from 1948, the same year that this London bike shop was founded. (It’s today one of London’s premier bicycle shops.)
“I managed to persuade [the owner] to sell me this frame. And as I was about to leave the store, he said to me, ‘You do know there’s really only one set of components worthy of going on this bike? Chater-Lea.’”
Richman had heard of the brand – it’s famed among cognoscenti – but he didn’t know its full backstory.
The firm had been founded in 1890 by cycle racer William Chater-Lea. It started out making bicycle parts, progressing to bicycle frames and then parts for motorbikes and finally full machines. In 1907 the firm, like many other bicycle companies of the time, made an automobile.
The firm halted bicycle and auto-parts manufacturing during World War II to support the war effort – it made parts for the Mosquito fighter-bomber – and relaunched in 1946 with a bicycle “bottom bracket” spindle assembly. Chater-Lea prospered in the 1950s but, along with much of the rest of British manufacturing, floundered in the 1960s and 1970s, finally giving up the ghost in the 1980s.
Richman pored over old catalogs in the National Archives at Kew in London.
“The stuff Chater-Lea made was beautiful. And I had no idea that they had not only made bicycle components they had made bikes, motorbikes, they’d make cars, they had this enormous factory, one of the largest factories in Hertfordshire. I couldn’t believe [all of this heritage] just disappeared.”
He determined to bring Chater-Lea back to life, but not as a brand rebadging products made in Asia.
“This is the kind of stuff that needs to be made in the U.K.,” he says.
“High-end, beautiful, artisanal – if jobs are going to come back to the U.K, it’s got to be for making this kind of stuff.”
He acquired the rights to the brand and started piecing together a business plan.
“I had to find a designer, someone who could work with me to come up with some initial designs.”
He found electrical engineer Gary Spanbok, now the firm’s head of production and who has spent two years criss-crossing the U.K. finding specialist workshops which can manufacture to Chater-Lea’s fine tolerances.
“We’re starting with pedals because the fitting is universal,” says Richman.
“It’s one of the only fittings on a bike that have not changed. On a crank arm from the 1920s I can attach a pedal from 2019. That’s not the case for other parts of a bike, with the standards always changing. Second, you can have the best bike in the world, but without pedals, you can’t go anywhere – pedals are critical, but overlooked.”
Richman won’t reveal how much the Chater-Lea pedals are going to cost but, then, if you’ve got to ask, you probably can’t afford them.
Contracting out to precision engineering workshops isn’t cheap.
“We’re working with workshops using advanced laser cutting technologies,” says Richman.
And this, he says, is in keeping with the brand’s heritage:
We asked ourselves, if Chater-Lea hadn’t gone out of business, what would they be making and how would they be making it? In their heyday they adopted the very latest manufacturing processes.”
Chater-Lea products won’t be available in bike shops or specified as original equipment on off-the-shelf bicycles. They will be available online only, direct from the website of the resurrected Chater-Lea.
Richman, partner in a business which advises others how to brand build, opted to make Chater-Lea a DNVB, or digitally native vertical brand. Coined in 2016 by Andy Dunn, founder of the NYC-based Bonobos clothing brand, a DNVB is “maniacally focused on the customer experience and they interact, transact, and story-tell to consumers primarily on the web.”
Richman is up for that.
“You’ve to tell the story directly to your customer,” he agrees.
And a key part of this story is bringing back – and also improving upon – the glory days of British manufacturing.
“The story I really want to tell is the untold story of British bicycle manufacturing,” states Richman.
“In Coventry alone, there were once 400 or so bicycle manufacturing companies. It was extraordinary. And then it just went to zero.”
Richman’s resurrection of Chater-Lea might be a labor of love, but it’s not a vanity project.
“It’s a business, it has to make money, it needs to be sustainable,” he says.
“The plan is to keep British workshops busy by making beautiful products. Chater-Lea embodies Britain’s re-emerging prowess in advanced manufacturing while championing our island’s illustrious cycling heritage.”
May 3, 2019 at 09:42AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs