The History of Raleigh Bicycles

Updated July 18, 2017

Raleigh Bicycles was founded in 1887 in Nottingham, UK. It started as a shop that made just three bicycles a week and has grown to be one of the largest bicycle manufacturers on the planet. Even though it produces things as varied as cars, motorcycles and munitions, Raleigh has always stayed true to the bicycle, its signature heron logo instantly recognisable and near-synonymous with classic cycling.

1887 to 1950s

Raleigh bicycles began when Frank Bowden was told by his physician that he should try cycling for his health. Riding his first bike in 1887, at the age of 38, Bowden was impressed and went to Raleigh Street, in Nottingham, to find its makers. There he met Woodhead, Angois and Ellis, the three-man team that built the bikes under their own names, and immediately offered to purchase their bicycle manufacturing business. Under Bowden's guidance, the company grew and just three years later needed a new home. Soon after that, Bowden would occupy a workshop that covered more than seven and a half acres and change the company's name to Raleigh Bicycles.

In 1887, the shop produced 150 bicycles per year. By 1937, when Raleigh opened another plant in Dublin, Ireland, production had risen to more than 100,000 bicycles a year. At the turn of the century the company also began building motorcycles and in 1903 came out with the Raleighette, a three-wheeled motorcycle that carried a passenger between the two front wheels. But the Raleighette was unprofitable, and the line was discontinued in 1908. It wasn't until 1930 that Raleigh came out with another motorcycle and a three-wheeled car. Soon after, Raleigh shut its motor vehicle department to concentrate on bicycle manufacturing. By 1938, concentrating purely on bicycle production, the company had increased its production rate to 500,000 per year.

With war on Britain's heels, Raleigh switched to munitions production during World War II, similar to its U.S. competitor, Schwinn. With more than 7,000 employees by the 1940s, Raleigh was able to keep ammunition flowing to the troops. By 1949, Raleigh had returned to bicycle production and increased its rate to 1 million bicycles per year by 1951. In 1946, Raleigh and other English bicycle manufacturers accounted for 95 per cent of the United State's bicycle import market.

1950s to 1980s

With the decrease in the price of automobiles came the decrease in bicycle sales. During the 1960s the Tube Investment Group acquired Raleigh. That, along with its other bicycle operations, allowed the firm to control 75 per cent of the UK's cycling market. The TI-Raleigh group came to own Reynolds (a steel tubing manufacturer), Brooks (a high-end leather bicycle saddle company) and Sturmey-Archer (a three-speed bicycle hub manufacturer). This gave it the ability to produce high-quality bikes at a low price. But the popularity of the automobile dropped Raleigh's market price by 50 per cent during the 1960s. However, Raleigh discovered in the mid-'60s just how well the children's bicycle market could do, particularly in the United States, and saw a resurgence of sales that kept the company producing. By this time, Raleigh was also exporting more than 200,000 bicycles to Africa each year.

Always associated with the sport end of cycling, Raleigh saw great success in the late 1970s with its TI-Raleigh team, with Joop Zoetemelk winning the 1980 Tour de France. The 1970s also brought a massive boom in the United States' interest in bicycle racing and brought about a large period of success for Raleigh's road racing bicycles. Quality was in such high demand that Raleigh was able to drop the price on many of its higher-end models just due to the quantity it had to produce to meet the United States' demand. The jump in production was 40 times more than Raleigh was producing before. By 1975, production was back up to 1 million bicycles per year worldwide.

In April 1987, TI sold Raleigh to Derby International, a company that would quickly change everything. Under Derby's management the production time of a complete bike was cut by more than one-twentieth. The company was also able to cut time spent on the floor by two-thirds and brought Raleigh back to the free-spirited company it was before. By 1990, Raleigh was producing 1 million bicycles per year again and with only 700 employees, one-tenth of its previous staff.

1990s to 2000s

By 1992, Raleigh had acquired so many brands that it had once again become the largest cycle group in the world. Also, Yvonne Rix, marketing director, realised that the next phase would be something past mountain biking and began to move the company in that direction. By the 1990s the kids who rode the 1970s children's cruiser bikes were growing up and wanted something like their cruisers, something different than road racing bikes, and a bicycle they could ride on the dirt like they were kids again. Raleigh birthed the first hybrid bicycle in 1991, a cross between mountain and road bicycles that could do well on both types of terrain. There were fun to ride, versatile and in the long run more comfortable than either of their predecessors.

Ever since this final craze, Raleigh has been declining in sales and production. In 2001, the group that owned Raleigh, Derby International, filed for bankruptcy. Raleigh has since been restructuring the way that it operates.

The Present

Since Raleigh's decline, the company has been attempting to rely on its heritage to keep it afloat. Unfortunately the Raleigh name has become known for being of less quality due to outsourcing and other attempts to cut production costs. Many bicycles are now imported from large-scale producers in Taiwain or China rather than built in factories near where they are going to be sold.

The Future

Raleigh maintains its mountain and road bicycle lines and has recently begun to break into the new fixed-gear market with the Raleigh Rush Hour. Pairing with Rainier Beer, it has been manufacturing bicycles with logos that merge the two brands in an attempt to capture the love affair that the single-speed cyclocross culture has with beer.

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About the Author

Chad Anderson began writing professionally in 2009. He primarily contributes articles on technology and outdoor topics for various websites. His areas of interest include Linux and open-source software along with cycling and other outdoor sports. Anderson holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Nevada in Reno.