Britannia may rule the waves (although that’s debatable these days), but how close are we to ruling the roads?
WORDS: SIMON ‘ROOTSY’ ROOTS
If you want some foam cut, these are the tools for the job...
PIC: SIMON ‘ROOTSY’ ROOTS, CHARLIE ‘SHERIFF’ OAKMAN
The Union Jack is one of the world’s finer flags, so if there’s ever an opportunity to wave it then we’re right at the front of the queue. But gone are the days when Britain was at the bastion of bike building. Yes, the boom times are back at Triumph, and we salute every effort made at the Hinckley factories, but we were once a nation full of the likes of Triumph...
Too many firms have disappeared forever – or just been resurrected in some sick, twisted guise. Of all the success stories, Norton has yet to rise above the status of boutique builder and for a nation with an innate relationship with bikes it seems amiss that we have to trawl for our success stories. But success stories exist, and in some unlikely places.
While countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia have swallowed up the mass produced market, and will remain at the forefront of churning out the big numbers (China produces nearly 30 million bikes a year. Triumph? More like 50k...), there remains a core group of UK manufacturers that are specialising in world-leading bike products and these have forged a renewed reputation for innovative solutions to age-old biking problems. From the racetrack and beyond, these companies may not be the biggest in the world, but they are some of the best.
It’s not the products that are the story – it’s the people behind them. China may churn out a million graduates a year, but that means nothing if they have no real experience of the world and its problems. So the key to these successful companies are the people who identify a problem and find the solution for it. Their intention may not have been to build a big company, but the results speak for themselves. And it’s not just the founders – throughout these companies are skilled workers busily toiling who are able to produce goods that are simply better than anyone else’s. They may not be the cheapest in the market place, but if you want a premium product you have to pay a premium price.
We’re not quite at cottage industry levels yet, but we’re not far from it. As ever, it is motorsport that leads the way, and where racers go, the market usually follows. In our search for the best of British, we travelled nearly the entire length of England to see two of the most innovative and successful British companies in business today, then scoured the rest of the land to see who really is flying the flag. We were encouraged by what we saw, and these are a few of the stories out there...
Perhaps if Geoff Travell hadn’t crashed so much while racing we wouldn’t be at his busy Cumbrian factory – the home of Knox. It was while this aspiring GP racer was waiting for his broken bones to mend that he declared he’d had enough of the injuries that were at that time an accepted part of racing.
Stuck in hospital with a shattered elbow, Geoff had to face up to months off his work as an upholsterer. He realised that the body needed cushioning against the hard parts that protruded out of the era’s racetracks.
Hmm, cushion. Having raced in the same paddock as Barry Sheene, it had become folklore that he’d stuffed one of his Mum’s cushions down his back for some form of protection after his big Daytona accident of 1975. Hmm, cushion. “Hang about,” said Travell, “I’m an upholsterer. I make cushions!” and from that he set about work using some thermoformed foam and made the world’s first back protector in 1981.
Proof of a viable product came at the British GP in 1982 when a queue of racers, the Lorenzos and Rossis of the age, formed outside Travell’s caravan where he was selling the world’s first commercially available back protector. Calling his fledgling company Pro-Tek, Travell concentrated on the race paddock in the first few years, but he quickly realised that would only get him so far. He needed to get his products into the top leathers of the time. He was laughed out of their offices, so started to produce his own range of clothing, struggling to get acceptance.
It was only after Pro-Tek won an industry award that the business shifted gear. Buoyed by this success, the company was bought out, before the parent company was taken over by Hein Gerike – who didn’t want to dirty its hands with manufacturing back then – so sold the company back to Travell in 1992.
At the same time, the UK industry trade association, the MCIA, made Travell aware of an upcoming Personal Protective Equipment directive coming out of Europe, the forefather of CE approval. Travell was a member of a European Standards committee, so could see first hand where the legislation was going. This gave him an opportunity to be first on the market with CE approved protection products – gaining a two year head start on the competition. Around the same time, Travell wanted a new face and name for the company, and came up with Knox.
Knox today has essentially two sides to it. 45 per cent of the business supplies products to clothing manufacturers. Today, this could mean producing over a million pieces of protection to be fitted into a huge range of products. It’s a cut throat business, where business can be lost over just a few pennies per piece, but Knox’s quality has stood it in good stead, and only the day before had a shipment on 40,000 back protectors been sent off to Ixon for use in its own clothing.
The other side of the business is the design, development and manufacturing of Knox’s own protection. This began as Pro-Tek’s back protectors, chest guards and knuckle protectors, but has branched out and includes all manner of body armour, the revolutionary Handroid gloves as well as the familiar Cold Killers and Dry Inside clothing ranges.
Like so many British manufacturers, Knox was caught in the middle of a price war, so naturally looked East to reduce costs. But thanks to the recession, this formula started to look less attractive. Wages in China were on the rise, transport costs were growing hugely, and Knox was having to deal with distributors and dealers who couldn’t order big numbers at the start of each year. It soon became apparent that bringing back a lot of the manufacturing to Britain would bring benefits.
Investing in skills and processes now sees the Cold Killers and Dry Inside range made entirely in the UK, all OE back protectors are made in house, as are items like the intricate Cross shirt – which uses over 60 separate parts in its construction and takes 112 minutes to make. Proof of the quality of the product is measured by the returns rate. Only well under 0.1 per cent ever gets sent back.
With further expansion of the CE regulations, Knox is in a prime position to take grow the business beyond its current 27 employees. There are plenty of plans being grown within the in house R&D department, but Travell is keen to let the motorcycling market improve before he unveils his next big thing. The Handroid glove was a big success after investing a small fortune into it, but was launched just as biking nosedived into the recession – once bitten...
Not even the flooding of Cockermouth could slow the firm’s success. With extensive testing facilities housed within the factory, you can bet that whatever emerges will have been rigorously tested and will breeze through the expensive CE regulation program. But as a keen biker himself, Travell is keen to keep a healthy relationship between safety and comfort to ensure that Knox products remain the most functional in the business.
Once upon a time, the addition of an end can could release a stampede of ponies from an engine. But thanks to tight emissions regulations, improved OE equipment and difficult to access electronic systems, the days of banging on a can and rejetting to get double figure power gains are well and truly over.
Exhaust technology has had to up its game and beating current outputs is a tough enough task in its own right. But there are bands of manufacturers, big and small alike, that are one step ahead of the game – bringing solutions to the market that make extra power, lose dramatic amounts of weight and add new style to the seemingly simple process of getting rid of exhaust gasses.
Austin Racing is one such company, and this small outfit based on the South Coast is making big waves in the market, offering an alternative to the established players in the market, like Yoshimura, Akrapovic and Leo Vinci.
We used AR’s products last year, with a system stuck on our longterm BMW S 1000 RR, to amazing effect. Not only did the system add 8bhp at peak power, but it also released masses of grunt in the midrange and lopped off around 10 per cent of the bike’s weight.
But how can a small British company build objects of such beauty? Last year, Fast Bikes had a tour of the Akrapovic factory and got access to its massive R&D department. To compete with this is surely an impossible task – but this seems two letters too long for Rich Austin, the boss of the eponymously named firm.
First and foremost, Austin only builds bits for bikes he likes. The firm was born from tinkering with exhausts on his beloved Aprilia RSV4. He stuck a picture of it up on an Aprilia forum and the rest is, as they say, history. Austin got over 50 private messages from forum members wanting the product, so unwittingly Austin suddenly had a business on his hands. Expansion followed in a similar form, with word of mouth and owning evangelists doing all the talking for the product. Picking the right bikes is key, and in sticking to the higher end of the market, Austin has almost recession-proofed his business, with deliveries being made everyday to all four corners of the globe. Over 1,000 systems have been shipped out for RSV4s alone – impressive stuff.
Much of the success of the product comes from the material used. Austin Racing produces exhausts in many guises, but the big hitter is the Inconel systems. Inconel is a nickel-chromium superalloy that was developed in the 1940s for use in the nascent jet industry. It’s oxidation and corrosion resistant and when it gets heated it forms a stabilizing oxide layer that prevents it from further heat damage. It remains strong regardless of heat (up to 1000 degrees centigrade) and pressure, thus making it ideal for the sort of work we’re looking at here as it’s also got good fatigue strength properties and is resistant to stress cracking (unlike titanium). It’s not all good news, because it’s hard to work with, meaning shaping and welding requires expertise and experience – and given the price of Inconel you don’t want to be doing too much practising with it...
Inconel is used in the nuclear industry, aeronautics and it’s liberally sprinkled all over F1 cars, but its use in bikes has been limited – until now. Austin Racing uses it because you simply need less of it for the same strength as titanium. Add to this, brilliant thermal properties mean that you can touch an Inconel system a few minutes after it’s been in use, so race mechanics love it as it means no more burnt forearms while taking shocks out.
The product is designed by Austin using Ricardo software to analyse expected flow rates and predicated power. Exhaust gasses are predictable, all you then need to do is learn how to exploit them.
A mule is knocked up, torn apart, rejigged and experimented on in the dyno room. Experiments are conducted for step pulsing, where gasses hit little walls to create pressure, then balance tubes are played with. There’s plenty of trial and error, but the look of the product remains an integral part of the Austin Racing offering.
Jigs are then made and then final production is completed in factories that supply the F1 industry – pretty much the pinnacle of all automotive engineering. Using swaging machines to open the material up, purged Tig welding joins the metals together. This is a process where the gas flows internally so that the weld is as clean on the internal side as it is on the external one to improve flow gains. There are three welders working on the AR product, and each is capable of turning welding into an art form. Timing is crucial, and welding doesn’t start first thing because rig temperatures need to be just right.
For a bike, the Inconel is 0.5-0.7mm thick. In F1 it’s used down to 0.3mm, but there’s no appreciable benefit at this level – and titanium simply isn’t used in F1 any more. Even at 0.5mm, this still outlasts titanium of twice the thickness because of its thermal properties.
This finished product is amazing – in every respect, and is testament to the little guy still being able to produce an exquisite product that meets the market’s demands.