STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England (Reuters Life!) - They may look as if they were plucked straight from a sepia-toned photograph of your great-grandfather’s years as a student at Cambridge, but vintage bicycles are all the rage at the moment.
Traditionally styled bicycles with names like the Roadster Sovereign, Princess, Guv'nor and the Sonnet Pure are flying out the factory doors of England's longest-running bicycle manufacturer, Pashley Cycles (www.pashley.co.uk).
Orders for Pashley bikes have defied the recession by increasing 100 percent over the previous year in June, driven by growth in overseas enquiries and a raised level of interest at home for authentic British craftsmanship.
“There’s a growing trend for the classically styled bike,” Pashley Managing Director Adrian Williams told Reuters. “And we’ve been doing ‘retro’ for the past 80 years.”
The “sit-up and beg” bikes, so named for the upright position of the rider, mostly come with classic handbuilt frames in black and green, wicker baskets and sturdy construction.
But don’t be fooled by the retro styling and the leather saddles. These bicycles also come with some very mod-cons.
The classic black, five-speed Roadster Sovereign and its female equivalent the Princess come with gears, brakes and the dynamo for the front headlamp built into the hubs of the wheels.
The chain is fully enclosed in its own housing in most models to keep the muck and grit out and the grease in -- so no need to tuck your trousers into your socks. A fitted rear lock secures many Pashley bikes with the push of a lever.
Pashley also make a contemporary line of bicycles called “Tube Rider,” various types of tricycles for children and the handicapped and a whole range of popular work bikes for postal workers, shop deliveries and even ice cream sellers.
While Britain buys around 2.5 million bikes mainly from China and Taiwan each year, Pashley makes up about one percent of the British market with fellow cycle companies Brompton and Moulton.
And in a bizarre reversal of a trend, the British manufacturer, founded in 1926 by William “Rath” Pashley, is attracting fresh interest abroad, including in the Far East.
“We used to be a bit of a curiosity at international bike shows,” said Williams. “But now they’re starting to ‘get us’ -- people are looking for something more distinctive.”
A weaker British pound has also boosted overseas enquiries at an already busy time.
Around 25 percent of Pashley’s cycles are exported to over 50 countries worldwide, including destinations as diverse as Abu Dhabi, Sierra Leone and Kazakhstan.
“I’ve even sold three ice cream tricycles to Iceland this year,” Williams said.
At the small factory in Stratford-upon-Avon, where eight to 10 thousand bicycles are made annually, employees are working flat out to process the influx of orders. The manufacturer has had to build additional storage as it deals with rising demand.
Williams led a management buyout of the debt-ridden bicycle maker 15 years ago and has turned the firm into a British manufacturing success with turnover set to reach the four million pound mark this year.
Around a quarter of Pashley’s production is devoted to producing work bikes for more than 200 businesses.
The firm has notably provided Britain’s Royal Mail with delivery bikes for the past 35 years, but also supplies automotive, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies, all of whom rely on the two-wheeled vehicle to transport employees around large sites.
About 42 percent of the British population owned a bicycle in 2007, according to the Department for Transport.
While bicycle journeys accounted for just two percent of all trips in 2008, the British public is gradually shifting up a gear when it comes to the economical, environmental and health benefits of cycling. In London the averaged cycling distance has risen by about 60 percent since 1995.
A government cycle to work scheme has helped the British cycle trade and lifted the average selling price of bicycles according to Williams.
Williams sees consumer discontent with mountain bikes as a reason for the renaissance of the English bicycle industry.
“There’s dissatisfaction from the general consumer for cheap imports that are neither comfortable nor practical,” Williams said.
Admirers of the elegant consumer cycles include fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and model and presenter Kelly Brook.
Defiant in the depth of recession, the firm launched a new line of cycles, the Poppy, to brighten up its portfolio.
“I was fed up with all the negativity at the start of the year,” said Williams. “I thought, why not bring a bit of color into our lives.”
Available in blush pink and pastel blue the Poppy cycles, retailing at just under 400 pounds, have sold well attracting a younger consumer.
Despite Pashley’s popularity, Williams remains disinterested in propositions of joint ventures and product endorsements.
“I see us as just a manufacturing company that’s trying to make a living by producing bikes.”
Editing by Paul Casciato