Raleigh-Building Bikes for Over 130 Years

Part 1

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This is the first installment in a two-part series exploring the history and product developments of Raleigh Bicycles. With a brand story that spans over 130 years, it’s impossible to tell it all in a single entry. Please enjoy reading part one this month and visit us again next month to read the continuation and learn more about Raleigh.

When people hear the names Sherwood Forest and Nottingham, England the first thing that comes to mind for many may be the tale of Robin Hood, the fabled vigilante who sought justice in economic redistribution. Stealing from the powerful rich to give to the poor in an effort to give the common man a helping hand in world stacked against him. It’s a story that rings of positivity and social change.

Raleigh Runabout

Well there’s another chapter from this part of the world that also resonates with themes of doing good for people, and it’s the one written by Raleigh Bicycles. The company was founded as a bike shop by Richard Woodhead and Frenchman Paul Angois on Raleigh Street in the heart of Nottingham way back in 1885. For over 130 years since, Raleigh has made virtually every kind of bike sold including the modern-day electric bike.

In order to grow though, the young brand would need an investor. Sir Frank Bowden had come to know the Raleigh name through his recent conversion to cycling. He saw one of their bikes in a store window in London and soon took both a personal and financial interest in the brand.

He eventually stepped in and acquired the company in December of 1888 and officially named the enterprise Raleigh Cycle Company. From there the Raleigh brand grew in leaps and bounds, building the largest bicycle factory in the world by 1896. The facility covered seven and a half acres with 850 employees, and it pumped out 30,000 bicycles per year.

Those early days were certainly exciting times for Raleigh, and the passion to explore new territory couldn’t be contained. Looking for new challenges, the company expanded their offerings by venturing into the world of motorcycles. That’s right, a brand that has been synonymous with pedal power since the 1800s built gas-powered engines. Raleigh had a fair amount of success with this, manufacturing and selling two- and three-wheeled motor vehicles in two phases from 1899 all the way through to the early 1930s. They also produced engines and components for other brands as well, and one of these relationships spun off into the former Reliant car brand.

Raleigh Is All Steel

More change was on the horizon though as the World Wars ravaged Europe through the middle of the century. Raleigh did not escape the effects, and to aid in the war efforts, a large part of their manufacturing was refocused in the name of homeland defense. Bicycle production was ramped back up again after WWII, but the post-war era ushered in evolving consumer habits. The golden age of automobiles was dawning and more and more people were clambering to buy cars instead of bicycles.

With this downturn in consumer interest for pedal driven transportation, Raleigh again turned to motorization in hopes of meeting the demand they were seeing in the marketplace. They merged their generations of bicycle knowhow with their adjoining history of building engines to pioneer a new two-wheeled product for the masses—the moped. The first model, the RM 1, was launched at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1958. Like modern electric bikes, the RM 1 featured pedals, but it had a gas powered Sturmey-Archer engine instead of an electric motor. Like many new products, the RM 1 had it’s share of issues, not least of which was a network of dealers and mechanics who had both the parts and education to service it.

To be continued in PART 2...