The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Raleigh Cycles

From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 10 & 11

January - February 1981 &  March - April 1981

The Raleigh Story

On the Factory Floor - Raleigh in 1912. Photograph courtesy of Nottingham Local Studies Library

The Raleigh Story: Part 1

Lenton is the home of Raleigh the world's largest manufacturer of cycles and cycle components. The Raleigh trade name has become a household word the world over. So much so that in Nigeria for instance a bicycle is referred t as a Raleigh in much the same way a vacuum cleaner is called a Hoover in this country.

This two part article briefly sketches the history of this great firm. Inevitably we cannot cover everything. If you wish to learn more of the history of Raleigh a very readable account published by W.H. Allen in 1975 is The Story of the Raleigh Cycle by Gregory Bowden, great grandson of the founder.

Sir Frank Bowden


The Story of the origins of the Raleigh Company has been told many times but will bear retelling. Frank Bowden was a lawyer who spent fifteen years in Hong Kong dealing in real estate and stocks and shares before being advised to return to England on grounds of ill health. None of the prescribed medicines were having any lasting effect and various doctors gave him only a short time to live. However a Harrogate doctor suggested Bowden try cycling as a restorative of his health. This he did, spending the winter of 1886 tri-cycling around South West France. This daily exercise had a remarkable effect in restoring his health and vigour. So much so that on his return to England in 1887 he was a dedicated cyclist. He now felt confident enough to try two wheels instead of three and after examining the available machines on the market selected one made by a firm called Woodhead and Angois, of Raleigh Street here in Nottingham. He spent the summer cycling, once more on the continent. Impressed by his 'Raleigh' bicycle he felt that if the firm was greatly expanded (at the time of his purchase of a bicycle, twelve men were turning out three a week) there was a potentially enormous market for its products. Therefore he entered into negotiations with Woodhead and Angois and in December 1888 founded the Raleigh Company.

Russell Street

Changes were soon effected. The tiny workshop in Raleigh Street was transferred to five-storey premises, formerly a lace factory in nearby Russell Street. Once the factory was equipped, production rose to sixty bicycles a week, with a workforce of 200. Several more premises in Russell Street were taken over but demand for Raleigh cycles was so great that a completely new and much enlarged factory was planned. This factory was built on a five-acre site off Faraday Road here in Lenton and was opened in 1896.

Early Raleigh Poster

Technical Advances

Frank Bowden was always very keen to maintain the technical excellence of Raleigh products and such improvements as the tubular fork crown, cross frame designs, silent free wheel hubs, back pedalling brake systems were quickly introduced. However Raleigh's major breakthrough came with the perfecting of the 3-speed gear hub. Gears were already available on bicycles but required the cyclist to replace the chain wheel every time he wished to change gear. Alfred Pellant and Henry Sturmey came up with an original idea for bicycling gearing. They took their basic design to Frank Bowden and he immediately took an option on their patents. A lot of production development was needed before the gear system was satisfactory. The breakthrough was achieved, however, by James Archer foreman of the department set up to produce the gears. By 1903 the Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gears were offered to a delighted public. Although Raleigh were producing 10,000 cycles a year by 1900, the first years of the twentieth century were not easy ones for the cycle industry. The craze for cycling had ebbed somewhat and total sales were down. Bowden insisted that Raleigh's reputation rested on a quality product and if the company were forced to reduce prices it must be by means other than lowering standards. Developments were soon introduced which did in fact allow Raleigh to reduce the cost of a cycle. Furthermore, the public were offered lifetime guarantees on their Raleigh bicycles along with a scheme of graduated payments - an early form of hire purchase. The firm even began to think about diversification into motorcycle and cycle car manufacture but no great commitment was made before the First World War. Other cycle manufacturers suffered a downturn in sales in the early part of this century but Raleigh continued to make a very adequate profit. By 1913 production had risen to 60,000 a year.

Drawing of Raleigh Factory c.1910

World War 1

At the outbreak of hostilities, the company immediately brought out special new models such as 'Scout' and 'Military' finished in Khaki enamel. Bowden offered to turn a large part of the factory over to munitions manufacture and the offer was accepted by the War Office. The change to war-work was not quite so formidable as one might expect, as the automatic machinery used to make Sturmey-Archer gears was ideally suited for the manufacture of fuses and other munitions. Though bicycle production was severely curtailed the workforce was increased to about 5,000 working round the clock, the factory was considerably enlarged to cope with the war-work and a vast amount of highly sophisticated automatic machinery installed. The net result was to increase potential output to 150% of the 1914 level. At the conclusion of the war Raleigh decided to enter the motorcycle and motorcycle gears market on a large scale to make the most of this increased potential.

The Interwar Years

The advent of peace brought with it a tremendous increase in the demand for bicycles and motorcycles - touring and ordinary pleasure cycling were more popular than ever. In 1922 enormous extensions to the factory were opened officially and the Lenton site increased to 11 acres with a labour force of 5,000. As a result the company was able to separate its motorcycle operations form its pedal cycle division. Now that Raleigh was the largest firm of its kind in the world, was there a sufficient market for its output? Raleigh embarked on a massive advertising campaign the like of which had never been seen before in the cycle industry. This campaign and the quality range of products it advertised helped Raleigh fight off foreign competition.

Artist's Drawing of Lenton Boulevard Offices opened 1931

In 1931 the Raleigh offices on Lenton Boulevard were opened and won a national award as the most beautiful commercial building of that year. The lower half was designed for the directors; the upper storey included a ballroom complete with sprung dance floor, cinema projection equipment and a stage for entertainments. The ballroom had a seating capacity of over 1,000 and was intended for the use of the company's employees. These offices were built at the height of the depression and although the company did not escape its effects completely it did not suffer as badly as many firms in other industries. The economic situation had forced a lot of people to return to the bicycle as a cheaper alternative to motor transport. Moreover Raleigh were able to reduce costs by introducing factory conveyor belt processes. In 1935 the firm made the decision to restrict its business to the production of bicycles and cycle parts. This meant that the car, motorcycle and delivery van divisions built up since the First World War were closed down. The car division was bought up by its manager T.L. Williams who moved the business to a factory in Tamworth and this became the Reliant Company. Concentrating on bicycle production Raleigh turned out 400,000 in 1936. The increased available space was used to produce parts previously bought in from outside the firm.

World War 2

In the late 1930s the War office had made discreet approaches to a number of major companies to arrange for the manufacture of munitions in the event of war. Raleigh had played a major role during the First World War and was among the first to be approached in this way. Having ceased motorcycle production Raleigh did have a certain amount of spare productive capacity and was quite willing to set aside an area of the factory to produce empty shells. From 1936 onwards a considerable area of new munitions plant was installed there. Ironically much of it was bought from Germany and installed by German engineers. When war broke out in 1939 the factory was camouflaged, blackout curtains made for all the windows and air raid precautions introduced including numerous shelters constructed for the work force. Production of bicycles was cut to 5% of normal and most of these were intended for the forces.

Throughout the war 8,000 men and women worked to produce the country's major source of fuses as well as other munitions. Fortunately and perhaps surprisingly the factory never suffered any bomb damage. When the war ended, the Raleigh company was left with much new spare capacity again and much new machinery which could be converted to bicycle production. So once more Raleigh emerged from war in a position to renew its market domination in the years to come.

Here we must leave the history of the Raleigh. In the next issue we shall bring the story up to date.

The Raleigh Story: Part 2

In the last issue we left the history of the Raleigh company as World War Two was ending. The company was now able to resume cycle production and, it was hoped, to continue its pre-war success.

The years immediately following the Second World War were indeed successful. Raleigh turned out over a million cycles in 1951 and found that the works were too small to handle such a large production. A new factory was opened in 1952 stretching from Faraday Road to Triumph Road. The site area of Raleigh now covered 40 acres. The bridge across Faraday Road which links the old and new factories and carries the complex overhead conveyor system dates from this period. Yet within a few years further expansion was considered necessary and in 1957 another vast extension was opened which took the site to the edge of Wollaton Park. Even as this latest building project was nearing completion sales figures for cycles and component parts began to fall and the 20 acre extension was to remain empty for some time to come.


From 1957 onwards a serious slump in Raleigh sales set in. Only gradually did the reasons become apparent. Car ownership was rising rapidly (owing in great part to the increased social acceptability of hire purchase buying) and the young people who might have been out on their Raleigh bicycles for long rides at weekends now were going off with their parents in cars. Even as the bicycle declined as a basic means of transport, as a way of getting from A to B, so did it lose out as a craze and its appeal to the adolescent began to dim. In an attempt to tap new markets Raleigh turned once more to motorised transport production. They bought out the Raleigh moped and a scooter called the Raleigh Roma. The first was quite successful but not enough to raise the gloom. The latter never really caught on and production was soon discontinued.

The rest of the cycle industry was in similar straits and inevitably rationalisation was to come. In 1960 Raleigh was bought out by Tube Investments, owners of the British Cycle Corporation its chief British rival. The Raleigh management was kept on in overall charge of the company. Tube Investments already had trade names such as Philips, Hercules, Norman and Sun, but chose to use Raleigh as their sole brand name for cycles - an obvious testament to Raleigh's world-wide reputation.

An aerial view of the Raleigh site in the 1970s which stretches from Lenton
Boulevard to the edge of the Wollaton Park housing estate. Photograph courtesy of
Nottingham Local Studies Library


The industry remained in recession until the arrival of Alex Moulton and his adult unisex cycle. Moulton had made earlier approaches to Raleigh but the Board just couldn't believe the public would ever accept his extraordinary modifications to the traditional two-wheeler. But once it was clear how well the Moulton cycle was selling, Raleigh brought out its own small wheel model, the RSW 16 in 1965. This was a great success and the new designs which followed - the RSW 14, the Raleigh 20 (the numbers referred to the wheel size) and the Chopper - all helped to boost the cycle boom.

In 1967 Raleigh took over Cox of Watford and diversified into car seat manufacture and in 1969 successfully launched the Dreamline range of prams and pushchairs. Another success story of the 1960s was Raleigh Toys, the renamed Sunbeam range of two and three wheelers for small children which came with the British Cycle Corporation merger and was later expanded to include pedal cars and trundle toys.

Export or Die!

Among the world's great cycle manufacturers, Raleigh places a particularly strong emphasis on overseas sales. About 60% of its present K production goes for export. To date an astonishing 140 countries import Raleigh cycles and even in 1910 the number was 26 - mostly European or British Empire countries. Since the Second World War some countries have shown an increased reluctance to import completed cycles for obvious reasons of home employment and balance of payments. Consequently Raleigh has set up factories in many parts of the world to manufacture or assemble cycles locally.

The USA had already been an especially hard market for Raleigh to crack but in the 1960s the company made a concerted and very determined effort. Having thus laid the groundwork they were in just the position to make the most of the craze for cycling for health and leisure which hit the United States in the early 70s. In 1973 Raleigh sales in the USA alone were an astonishing 15 million. But the following year sales fell back to 6½ million and Raleigh was left with surplus production capacity for which they needed to find new markets. At the same time exporters abroad began to look towards the UK as a possible market for their cycles and Raleigh was hit by a suddenly increased threat to its home sales. By 1976 foreign cycles accounted for 20% of UK sales when only a few years previously imports had been negligible. Today at the start of the 80s Raleigh still dominates the home market - 60% of bikes bought in the UK are Raleigh and further 25% are other British brands.

Faced with problems in the United States and at home Raleigh resolved to make a forceful impression on European markets and the strategy they chose was the formation of a racing team good enough to win the Tour de France. In 1979 the team prize went to Raleigh and last year Joop Zoetemelk won the coveted first place on a Raleigh bike. TI management feel the expenditure of several millions has been worth while for the beneficial publicity, press coverage and TV advertising in Europe. Sales within Europe are climbing steeply although the present strength of the pound appears to be depressing sales in the rest of the world. As a result TI Raleigh plants at Trowell and Birmingham have recently closed. The recession was felt locally when Raleigh workers at the main Lenton factory were put on short time last November. As the decline in sales has continued (even over the normally buoyant Christmas period) the Raleigh management has been forced to serve 650 of its workers redundancy notices.

Poster of Arthur Zimmerman, champion of the world in 1892 on his
Raleigh cycle.

Company Re-organised

At the present time Raleigh management categorises its cycle manufacture under two broad headings: 1. Relatively labour intensive frame making and assembly and 2. Capital intensive components manufacture. To underline the difference between the two, a recent company reorganisation saw the creation of TI Raleigh with responsibilities for cycles, and of TI Sturmey-Archer with responsibilities for supply of cycle component parts. Each of these is answerable to TI Raleigh Industries, the holding company. It is inevitable that Third World countries, as their industry develops, will establish their own frame making and assembly capabilities. There should, however, be a demand for some time to come for kits for assembly in these countries and for the more sophisticated components that they are unlikely to produce themselves in the foreseeable future. TI Sturmey-Archer is therefore seen as the growth area as it manufactures a whole range of components including gears, hubs, lights and saddles. A large proportion of its output goes of course to TI Raleigh, but the plan is that Sturmey-Archer will continue to supply Raleigh and at the same time break new territories in selling to manufacturers abroad.

And he rode a Raleigh

Raleigh have always been rightly proud of their successes in racing and conscious of the advertising potential they bring. As far back as the 1890s Raleigh cycles were in demand because of outstanding success in competitions throughout the world. Raleigh was then as always on its toes in publicising a successful model. In 1908 a distinguished cyclist called Harry Green broke one of the most coveted records in the cycling world on a Raleigh bike - the Land's End to John O'Groats route record. Overcoming no end of difficulties and physical hardships suffered on the way (he fell off early in the attempt, injuring his knee) he covered the distance of 873 miles in two days, 19 hours and 50 minutes, almost three hours faster than the previous best. Raleigh were quick off the mark in bringing out their 'Harry green' model for all budding record breakers. Nor did their image take a knock when in 1929 Jack Rossiter broke the same record with a time of two days, 13 hours and 2 minutes - for he too was riding a Raleigh cycle. At much the same time F.J. Davar was circling the globe with the Raleigh name on his round-the-world bike tour. After 47,000 miles he could report that his Raleigh cycle was giving fine service and was in amazingly good order in spite of its lone and laborious journey. Raleigh were quick to promote Reg Harris when in 1949 he became the first ever Englishman to be World professional Sprint Champion - on his Raleigh cycle of course. More recently in 1970 Hugh porter became World Pursuit Champion on a set of Raleigh wheels.

Of course bikes like those ridden by the likes of Reg Harris and Joop Zoetemelk are custom made by hand in a special division of Raleigh and do not appear in the general sales catalogues. Yet spectacular as they are, they are the product of the same longstanding tradition of excellence and reliability which characterises the Raleigh bike-in-the-street.

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