Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Brooks saddles - keep springing up as firm favourites

Brooks England Saddles - hand finished in leather
"All our leather bicycle saddles are hand-finished. They're being made today as they have been for the best part of 150 years," says Steve Green, Office Manager, Brooks Saddles.

I'm being shown around the Brooks Saddles' factory in Smethwick as the machines, many of which are antiques in their own right, strain, crash and crunch steelwire and rolls to form up to 20 parts for saddle bases.

It's not always appreciated that until the 1950s Brooks was the largest manufacturer of saddles in the world. Around this time the West Midlands was producing at least 50% of UK bicycles through two leading businesses, Phillips Bicycles and Tube Investments.

"The company was founded by John Boultbee Brooks in 1866 after he left his home in Hinckley at the age of 16 to make his fortune in Birmingham by making leather saddles for the horse trade.

"It was only in 1878 after the horse he was using to get to and from home died and he wasn't able to afford a new one that a friend lent him a bike. The bicycle saddles at the time were made of carved wood and horribly uncomfortable, so he decided to try making them in leather. It was all about finding more comfortable alternatives for the rider and this is still very much at heart our ethos."

The leather saddle is a fusion of crafted metal bases with leather tops culminating in a final process known as 'springing up' to form the finished product, immortalised through the words of the company's founder JB Brooks, when he wrote with some foresight in his early brochures, "It is not the name of Brooks which makes the Saddles good but the Saddle and its excellence which makes the name."

Brooks famous B17 - narrow saddle
JB Brooks also had the foresight to patent his designs, with the first one being patented in 1882,a process he pursued with vigour, registering many subsequent designs. A good number of todays designs are rooted in this early period with the B17 being the oldest model in the current range, having been featured in the 1890's catalogue.

The main reason it's never gone out of production is simple: it's all about comfort. A total of 20 models have survived over the decades and some products are even being revived, such as the 'Challenge Toolbag', first patented in 1876.

The machines in the Brooks factory are almost sculptural in appearance. And, despite their age they're agile enough, with the operators speaking fondly of each one for its personality and temperament. There's an oily down-to-earth rawness, the strong odour of leather and metal and a friendly camaraderie as the craftsmen and women ply their skills and the machines cut, stamp, bend and shape the steel and leather.

Many of the staff have been with the business for twenty, thirty or more years. "We have a very loyal team here," says Steve. "We realise that our saddles depend on craftsmanship, attention to detail and an authenticity delivered by staff, who know our machines and processes but who also know each other.

"We choose to keep running with traditional machines - partly because this is our tradition - the heritage we've inherited and are proud of - and partly because if we used new machines it would change the quality and feel of the saddles we're producing.

Brooks England Islington Rucksack
"We re-started a range of bicycle bags and accessories around 5 years ago. Initially many of these were sourced from the Far East. Now we're trying to pull production back to the UK. But when we first started looking at UK sources they were very expensive, or not up to our exacting quality requirements.

"After sometime we found a sewing shop in Salford and now they're making all our leather bags. We'd like to move our canvas bags there over the coming months. We feel we have found people who want to grow with us.

"Two years ago we had 25 staff. Today we have 34 with a further 8 or 9 working on our accessories range in Salford.

"It takes about 3 days to produce a saddle. We're running at 700 saddles per day or around 3,500 per week. We're operating at pretty near to full capacity at present unless we invest in new machinery."

"Our promise to customers has always been about producing the best of everything - The best materials, the best designs and the best constructions that experience, skill and money can procure.

"Retro trends have certainly helped our business and recently we have produced options with pre-aged leather and have been producing saddle frames with ageing effects.

"Quality leather is very important as the saddle top provides a comfortable ride by moulding to the individual rider's shape, unlike modern saddles made from contemporary materials. It's very hard to get hold of quality hides and there are only two tanneries producing the finish we require.

"We use only British and Irish cattle which have tougher hides taking the rear back or butt of the cattle hides as they have to be at least 5ml thick. We've started looking at a Swedish tannery and Swedish cattle for a select range of organically reared leather. We are not dyeing this leather, but leaving it entirely natural.

"During the BSE crisis we had a problem because they started to slaughter animals younger and we prefer their hides when they are older and the hides are that bit harder.

"We were bought by Italians in 2002 and they have really focussed on telling our story. They have seen that value can be created through innovative approaches to marketing, promotion and re-inforcing our identity.

"They've drawn on our unique heritage, creating striking advertising campaigns and new point of sale materials emphasising our authenticity. It's been interesting to see how they have looked at the business, finding value in much that could have easily been taken for granted.

Brooks saddles, like other West Midlands businesses including - Pashley Cycles, AGA, Rangemaster and Rayburn cookers, Morgan, Jaguar and Land Rover cars, Brintons Carpets, Emma Bridgewater, Steelite and Dudson potteries to name a few - displays the qualities outlined by Professor Beverland at Bath University as essential to authentic brands - they have product quality built-in, a reputation based on heritage or a historical narrative and a sincerity based on a love of the product.

Why, when we have this rich brand heritage have we not celebrated our achievements in improving people's lifestyles as a means of distinguishing ourselves from our competition?

Irish Economist, David McWilliams has said, "Far from drowing that which makes you different in a sea of bland, fake and generic consumerist product, globalisation allows difference to thrive. The difference is key: this is where the real value is and it is what people are striving for. The reaction to rampant consumerism has been a 'keeping it real' backlash..."

With such a unique productive heritage why do we not celebrate our achievements to create a collective market authority for our businesses - both older and younger emerging businesses - as we seek to create new opportunities for our graduates as they leave university?

Ian Callum, Design Director Jaguar Cars, has called this a 'considered approach to design'. "People need time to consider and use something after they have bought it to be sure of its quality," he says. "The real test is whether people like something after consideration. Depth of design and engineering can pave the way for products making them more sustainable."

Brooks England Colt Saddle, Turquoise

Well, almost 150 years on the Brooks' customer has given their saddles a resounding thumbs up - or as they might put it - a resounding 'bums down'!

To see more of the Brooks Saddles production process visit:http://www.theoldbicycleshowroom.co.uk/brooks-saddles-factory-film-115-c.asp

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