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Raleigh Bicycle History

First off, the Raleigh logo is a heron that is often called “Little Bird.”  Okay?

 

The Raleigh bicycle’s history began over 100 years ago in 1887 when Frank Bowden purchased a small bike shop on Raleigh Street in Nottingham, England.  A year later he founded the Raleigh Cycle Company.  In 1886 the small bike shop was producing at a rate of 150 bikes per year.  Forty years later Raleigh was producing 100,000 bicycles annually.  They were also manufacturing 15,000 motorcycles.  By the mid 1930’s Raleigh was even producing a three-wheeled car.  By 1938, the company had divested itself of all but bicycle production and was turning out close to 500,000 every year.

 

Similar to Schwinn, Raleigh switched easily to munitions during WWII, but by 1949 Raleigh was back to bicycles and production had reached 750,000.  Two years later it was 1 million.  Raleigh’s 7000 employees were supplying the world.  While Schwinn and the American cycle companies had been forced to compete with the car early in the century, Raleigh’s chance didn’t come until the 1950’s.  By the end of the decade bicycle production in the UK had fallen dramatically.  Raleigh’s international customer base helped insulate it against the hard times falling on the UK, and Raleigh managed slight growth throughout the decade, increasing its UK market share to 75%.  Raleigh also resumed production of its moped (through 1970), launched a motor scooter, and purchased some of its rivals, namely Triumph and BSA.  But before the end of the decade Raleigh itself was purchased by Tube Investments, merging Raleigh with the Hercules, Phillips, Sun, and Norman brands.

 

Having focused mainly on the commuter customer, continued expansion meant a wider product range.  In 1960 Raleigh purchased racing cycle specialists Carlton Cycle a highly respected name.

 

It was also in 1960 when Raleigh obtained the rights to manufacture Alex Moulton’s aptly named Moulton  This odd commuter spent a year on the drawing board before Raleigh finally killed it without putting it into production.  Alex spent another year getting his own factory together and began rolling out his Moulton in 1962.

 

The Moulton design was the first real challenge to the diamond frame still heavily used in bicycle manufacturing today.  The Moulton’s unisex design allowed the rider to “step through” the frame when mounting (similar to women’s frames).  A Moulton had high pressure 16 inch tires, 10 inches smaller than the average bike of the day.  It also featured suspension and more luggage carrying capacity than other commuters.  The Moulton was a dramatic step away from any of its predecessors.  The original Moultons were produced until 1974 and have quite the cult following.  Graeme Walker, 24 Limes Avenue, Alfreton, Derby, England, DE55 7DY, is said to maintain a registry of all known Moultons and their owners.  If you are in possession of a Moulton, please look him up.  (http://www.moultoneers.net/moulthis.html)

 

Raleigh’s attempts to expand its product line following its own purchase by Tube Investments were not enough to offset the decline of the cycling industry in the UK as demand for utility cycles, Raleigh’s bread and butter, virtually collapsed.  After 1960, Raleigh’s UK sales began to slump.  Raleigh’s market share dropped to around 50% and sales continued to decline until the middle of the decade when, bolstered by an industry turnaround, Raleigh’s growth rate began to recover.  From 1965 to 1975 Raleigh managed to do reasonably well through no real fault of their own.  Raleigh rode the waves of demand and followed the trends (usually behind the competition).  In 1975 Raleigh was manufacturing 200,000 bicycles in Africa, large numbers of which were still old fashioned roadsters.

 

The launch of the Moulton in 62 brought about a bit of a small wheel boom and Raleigh managed to see the light around 1965 when it introduced the RSW16, a copy of Moulton’s bike.  It was a huge success and helped begin Raleigh’s turnaround from half a decade in decline, but not before going head to head with the original Moulton in a vicious trade war.  Both companies suffered greatly despite the success of their designs.  The battle was finally brought to a close in 1967 when Raleigh purchased Moulton outright.  Raleigh brought RSW and Moulton production to a close just seven years later in 1974, choosing instead to focus on the Twenty (1968-) released with 18 inch wheels in 1972.

 

During the second half of the 60’s California saw a swell of interest in high-rise cycles for adolescents and the major manufacturers chased this opportunity with new products specifically designed for these kids.  Schwinn had just rolled out the Sting-Ray in 1964 and in 1969 Raleigh finally got in the game with a high-priced chopper design That was too late to capitalize on the California boom.  However, the 1970 release of the chopper in the UK was a huge success and it remained in production for most of the 70’s as the most expensive children’s bike ever.  It was priced more than a third above Raleigh’s next kid’s bike.  The chopper helped inform the industry about just how much money was to be made outside of the mainstream adult market.

 

1970 also saw the advent of the famous (in some circles) 1970’s US bike boom.  Immediately following the success of Schwinn’s Sting-Ray and Raleigh’s chopper cycling again went mainstream in the US, this time as a mode of transportation, a vehicle to good health, and a method of recreation.  There was a now legendary forty-fold jump in adult bike sales in the United States.  High quality bikes could be produced at such large volumes that manufacturers could afford to drop prices considerably.  This of course fueled higher demand and even more affordable higher quality bikes and so on.  The US market was flooded with road bikes that not only remain on the road today, but have little trouble keeping up with the midrange bikes sold in new bike shops.

 

Raleigh was manufacturing the Raleigh Record and Grand Prix not only in Nottingham, but also in Worksop, the Netherlands, Ireland, and rumors suggest even Malaysia.  Even so, it wasn’t until 1975 that Raleigh finally managed to return to the production levels of the early 50’s (1 million bikes per year).  At this time Raleigh’s Nottingham facilities covered 76 acres of land.

 

The US bike boom was a perfect storm of exactly the right variables coming together at just the right time.  Unfortunately it was also a house of cards that came crashing down upon those that hadn’t prepared for the end of this upturn.  As the boom was closing in 1975 Raleigh also had factories in the US, Canada, and even Nigeria.  As soon as even one part of the trend slowed down volume declined and costs began to rise.  As prices followed demand waned and the process reversed itself.

 

Demand of bikes in the UK continued a slow growth curve throughout the 70’s and well into the 80’s.  Raleigh’s exports remained flat.  Raleigh’s UK sales remained flat.   For two decades of industry growth Raleigh was in a holding pattern as it slowly lost market share to the competition.  Raleigh’s position dropped to 25% of the UK market by 1995 as imports slowly came to dominate UK sales.  Then things got worse.

 

If BMX had been a mere fad, Raleigh would have missed it and been glad to see it go.  As things were, the Sting-Ray of the 60’s became the BMX of the 70’s and Raleigh’s 3-speed Grifter of 1976, while a strong seller, was really only a compromise.  BMX bikes were stripped down and cheap.  Raleigh was reluctant to present a low cost design for fear that it would cannibalize sales of its higher profit margin 3-speeds.

 

Raleigh launched the Bomber in 1981, but this was more of a cheap precursor to the mountain bike than a straight BMX.  In 1982 Raleigh finally got it right with the Burner and it quickly sold more than a million units.  While this was a vital move for Raleigh to make, it did cause some cannibalization of their multi-speed rides, but then the entire BMX market was doing this just fine before the Burner came along.  Yvonne Rix was largely responsible for pulling Raleigh into the BMX market and she was quick to see the rise of the mountain bike craze as well.  Unfortunately for Raleigh, it took her three more years of internal marketing to get the board to agree to put a full fledged mountain bike into production.  The 1985 UK launch of the Maverick, while well timed for the US trend, was disappointing.

 

Finally, on April Fools Day of 1987, TI sold Raleigh and brought a quarter century of bureaucracy and over management of one of the world’s premier volume bicycle manufacturers to an end.  Raleigh had fallen from a 75% market dominating position in the UK to a mere 40%.  Raleigh’s slide halted immediately under new owner, Derby International.  Raleigh saw modest sales growth through 1990 while Derby spent shed a layer of management and returned the company to a more open and free culture.  Derby introduced just in time manufacturing and dropped lead time for a complete bike from a lethargic 233 days to an astounding 9 days!  Raleigh’s manufacturing floor was cut in half as almost 2/3 of the work in progress inventory was eliminated.  In 1990 Raleigh was producing at 1950’s levels (1 million frames per year) with one tenth the employees (700).  By 1992 Raleigh had become the largest cycle group in the world mainly through acquisition of other brands.

 

Part of Raleigh’s turnaround was due to an industry that was finally turning around again as the BMX crowd grew up.  And these kids wanted adult bikes that performed like their old off-roaders.  The mountain bike found its market and, thanks largely to Yvonne Rix, Raleigh was perfectly positioned to take advantage.

 

This time it was Schwinn that missed the boat.  Still cocky from the wild success of the Sting-Ray and their road bikes, Schwinn called the mountain bike a fad just as Raleigh had decided BMX craze would be fleeting.  Raleigh’s price for failure was a sale to a more bicycle friendly company while Schwinn was forced into bankruptcy by their error.  The entire industry shifted as the mountain bike dominated the road bike in sales.

 

Again Yvonne Rix, now Marketing Director, was watching the horizon.  She anticipated the end of the mountain bike life-cycle and made the bet that these BMX born riders would never return to the narrow tires and hunched positioning of road bikes (in 1997 she was the one who pushed Raleigh onto the web).  She took the best of the mountain bike, an upright riding position with a wider and more comfortable saddle and wider more durable tires for more versatile terrain and less vulnerability to flats, and set about to minimize the mountain bikes biggest liabilities, the heavy frame needs more man power to get it up momentum and the wide tires cause more friction with the riding surface which makes it difficult to keep momentum.  Mountain bikes are not fun over the long haul.  The hybrid was born.  It had a lighter frame and more narrow tires.  Raleigh was ready with their hybrid in 1991 just as the mountain bike cycle was waning and initial sales suggested that riders would easily transition.

 

Not as light as a road bike and not as narrow as road bike tires, “hybrid” was a natural name for the new iteration in cycling, but it has never caught on with riders.  Perhaps it implies that a hybrid will never quite do what you want on the road or quite what you want off-road either.  Either way, it doesn’t sound like the bike for serious riders.  Bicycle manufacturers have re-dubbed it “comfort” bike, a similarly limiting moniker.

 

In my own experience with bicycle sales, hybrids or comfort bikes sell very well to people who have had a mountain bike and know about its limitations.  A lighter faster bike makes a lot of sense, while hunching over to grip the curve of drop handlebars on a road bike seems like too much to ask.

 

While the mountain bike “craze” came to a close, the mountain bike is still alive and well.  The length and breadth of the mountain bike niche showed promise for companies willing to innovate.  Drawing on the Moulton designs, Raleigh put front fork suspension on their models starting with the Activator in 1992.  In 1993 the Activator II was launched with dual suspension.  Then came the high end rides.  The M-Trax was a Raleigh sub-brand that sought to satisfy the very serious off-road rider.  A few years down the trail companies began to really experiment.  Raleigh released the Max models with large frame tubes that differed only in look from the frame sections of narrow tube mountain bikes.  The market loved the look.  Yvonne Rix was again designing fashion statements.

 

Rix retired in 1998 amid a slow decline for Raleigh.  Her successor immediately hired a new ad agency and Raleigh’s image was changed dramatically.  Sales dropped an astounding 30% and market share was a mere 15%.  The century ended with a slight recovery, but the company was a far cry from the market maker that brought in the 20th century.

 

At the turn of the century Raleigh UK stopped volume production of bicycle frames and vacated Nottingham where it had resided for more than a century and relocated to the USA.  The general decline continued and Derby filed for bankruptcy on Aug 20, 2001.  Raleigh has been busy restructuring and moving the headquarters from Washington state to Connecticut and back to Nottingham, England.  Management has gone through as much turbulence and the Raleigh logo even got a makeover.  Not much has been done to support the Raleigh brand and it has since gained a reputation as not quite a department store bike, but not for serious riders.  Raleigh has put a lot of emphasis on styling and tends to rely on 100 years of cycling heritage rather than pushing innovative technologies forward.

 

The following models and dates are early estimates gathered from a fair amount of Googleing.  If you have better info than I, please forward it to me Cutter@Re-Cycle.com.  Also, please send me pictures of bikes (include make, model, and serial number).  Thanks.

 

Activator (1992-) Raleigh’s first mountain bike with suspension

Activator II (1993) Raleigh’s first mountain bike with dual suspension

Bomber (1981-) Launched to compete in the BMX range, the Bomber was more of a cheap precursor to the mountain bike

BSA () Purchased by Tube Investments, Phillips became a sub-brand of Raleigh

Burner (1982-)

Cameo () Part of Yvonne Rix’s fashion line

Carlton (1960-) A Raleigh acquisition purchased to fill the high performance gap where Raleigh had nothing available.  Carlton was left pretty much to itself and the designs bore little resemblance to true Raleigh bikes.

Caprice () Raleigh’s “shopping” bike

Chopper (1969-19) First Raleigh bike designed exclusively for kids (vs. scaled down versions of adult bikes).  A very successful model.

Commando (1973-)

Compact (1987-19) The new name of the Safari, this U-frame folding bike was the descendent of the Stowaway of the Twenty line (name borrowed from RSW16)

Cycle Pro () A Raleigh acquisition following the Derby purchase

Diamondback (2000) US manufacturer purchased by Raleigh in 1999 to broaden the Raleigh brand image which had become synonymous with family.  Born of the BMX, Diamondback had a grittier, more extreme brand image.

Grifter (1976-) A follow up to the Chopper, it was heavily influenced by the growing BMX movement.  A strong seller.

Haro  () A Raleigh acquisition following the Derby purchase

Hercules ()Purchased by Tube Investments, Phillips became a sub-brand of Raleigh

Kalkhoff ()A Raleigh acquisition following the Derby purchase

Maverick (1985-) Raleigh’s first mountain bike, it’s initial sales were a disappointment.

Misty ()Part of Yvonne Rix’s fashion line

Nishiki () A Raleigh acquisition following the Derby purchase

Phillips () Purchased by Tube Investments, Phillips became a sub-brand of Raleigh

Pioneer (1991-)

Randonneur () High end Raleigh

Rudge

Montague (1989-) Bi-frame folding cycle.  It was too expensive and poorly promoted (despite a large budget)

Safari (1984-1987) U-frame folding bike that replaced the Stowaway (name borrowed from a Moulton model) renamed Compact in 1987

Stowaway (1971-1984) folding version of the Twenty.  Replaced by the Safari.

Street Wolf () Children’s bike targeted toward 6-7 year olds

Twenty (1968-1980-) Reputedly Raleigh’s best seller of all time.

Univega () A Raleigh acquisition following the Derby purchase

Vektar () A children’s bike featuring plastic moldings and electronic sound effects

Wild Cat () for 7-9 year olds

Wisp (1983-) Yvonne Rix’s attempt to show that bicycles were also a fashion accessory

Wolf Cub () Children’s bike that set the record as the most expensive bike (at the time) sold with training wheels

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