Evans Cycles is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year and in the spirit of that, we decided to look back on the last 90 years and relive important moments and talk about brands, events, partners. This post is part of a series of posts, you can check out the other articles here.
It was a surprisingly cold morning in February, when I met Terri-Ann and Mark from our purchasing department at Euston Station to pay a quick visit to the Brooks factory in Birmingham. The train ride was painless and short and we were soon greeted by Simon from Extra at the Hawthornes train station, who took us to the Brooks premises.
Entering the factory was a bit like travelling back in time – it looked like time was standing still and not much has happened in the last 40 years. While that might be true to a certain extent regarding the actual manufacturing process, there has been a lot of changes recently in the company’s ownership. On the brink of collapse in 2002, Selle Royal, the company is behind renowned Italian saddle brands like Selle and San Marco, came to the rescue and saved Brooks. Such moves in the business world often mean a sharp turn how things are run at the subject of the buyout, however, this wasn’t the case at Brooks – they were allowed to carry on manufacturing great saddles, they didn’t want to interfere what was working perfectly. But they got heavily involved in the business and marketing side and rejuvenated the brand.
They managed to transform the brand from and old and tired marquee into something that is hip and desirable, something that is cool to have on your bike. It also meant that they could venture into new grounds and started to widen the product portfolio, though the new additions, like the bag, for example, is made in Italy.
Entering the tiny office in the front of the factory feels like a set of movie about a British factory in the seventies. The furniture hasn’t changed much but the filing cabinets are now gone and are replaced by computers.
Steven from Brooks greeted us and we soon headed out to the loud and busy factory floor. The factory is divided into three major areas. The first section is responsible for creating all metallic components: saddles rails, coils, spanners, etc. The second section cuts up the large cow skin sheets and reshapes them into something that looks much more like a saddle. The third section is responsible for actually assembling the saddles and then packaging them.
The first area is populated by huge machines and it was quite surprising as I never would have thought that manufacturing a couple small pieces of metal could be that complicated. But, apparently, it was. All the machines looked fairly old but well maintained. Old machinery has a certain romantic appeal to me, the workers who operated them looked like heroes who can regulate the raw power of these mighty creatures.
The reality, however, is far less poetic – working in a factory is always mind-numbing, even if it happens to be a saddle factory. If you think you have a boring job, think twice: producing over 2000 small wrenches every single day is not the most interesting job in the world.
On the other hand, all this machinery means that Brooks manufactures everything in-house. Sure, they could outsource the production of the small wrenches that helps you to adjust the bolts of certain saddles to a factory in China, but in that case they wouldn’t have 100% control over the final product and they would have to comply with less details and lower standards. And they think it just doesn’t worth it.
Next, we were shown how the big leather sheets are transformed into saddles. The process is fairly simple: the first worker cuts out the right size base plate for the saddle and then it goes the 5-6 different pressing forms, that create the actual shape of the saddle. After the right shape has been achieved, it goes to the next station where the excess leather is cut off and the last step is when a little Brooks stamp is pressed against the leather and it creates a branded imprint on the surface.
The final step is the assembly of the saddles. This is where the metallic bits and the leather comes together – and this is the phase that requires the most skill. First, they hammer in very carefully the brass nails and then they smooth the surface of the nails. It is a very tricky task as the nails’ head needs to be rounded, but on the other hand, they cannot harm the leather surface – it’s not impossible, but it takes quite a lot of practicing before one becomes fairly good at it.
Having seen all stages of the production of a saddle, we went back to the office for a quick chat and a coffee and then we said goodbye – we had a train to catch. Having seen how the wonderful Brooks saddles are produced restored my faith that while the vast majority of the gear we use is coming from China and Taiwan, smaller companies can survive if they have a unique, outstanding and excellent quality product – though the massive history and heritage could only help.
Our trip back to the trains station brought us back to reality and we didn’t feel anymore in a little time capsule and thinking back to the passion and dedication of the workers back at the factory, I was a bit disappointed when the non-steam engine started to pull our modern coaches back to London.