Last summer Grant Robinson and Seb Kemp toured the UK trying to track down the remnants of domestic mountain bike production. Along the way they stopped in at Orange Bikes to find out how a dirty little family run sheet metal business nearly once took over the world and what is the future in a world of carbonized off-shore manufacturing. What they found was boobs. A lot of them. But amongst the Page 3 Bettys was some remarkable stories and inspiring tales. This story never got published but a shorter (and boob free) version appeared in Revolution Magazine in Australia.
The Industrial Revolution Is Long Gone And It Was Most Certainly Tiawanized.
By Seb Kemp
There are tits everywhere. Absolutely every direction I look there are boobs staring at me. I glance left or right and what catches my gaze every time is the twinkle of lusty eyes and a pair of perky nipples. Yellowed page three beauties pinned to walls encase me in a wanker’s wet dream. Like trying to maintain eye contact with a woman who is wearing a low cut top, I find myself unable to avoid stealing quick flashes of beautiful cleavage, strong doughy curves or taut pert mounds. It’s almost disconcerting. I am trying to concentrate on everything that is going on in the building and what Michael and Ash are telling me but it is proving to be a hard task whilst a barrage of blonde and brunette bombshells rain down on my eyeballs.
It is a man’s space. Unashamedly so. It’s not just the eye candy wallpaper though. It is the smell, the sounds and the work that is being done here. When I walked into the room at first all I could see was sharp, fearsome implements of harm that wanted to wrench my arms from their sockets, slice flesh like cold cuts of ham or crush bone like an empty beer can, leaving just the blood to dry up on the blackened floor. But after a little while spent in this place everything that was acute now feels more rounded, less fierce and tangy. The smell of grinding, sparking metal is like a warm night just before thunder strikes, the heat and flash of the welder’s gun has the surprising comfort of an old favored t-shirt on a hangover day and the sound of heavy metal presses and cutting stamps, although brutal and disconcerting at first, soon soothes into a rhythmic symphony.
However, I am fully aware that this isn’t my space. This isn’t me. I wish it was but I was raised as a softer southerner. I own a multi-tool but not much more that could be considered a tool. As a kid growing up I was never told about the inner workings of a car engine and even today I regard a car as a sort of quasi-magical device that is powered by a sort of occult sorcery to which I have no understanding. My idea of DIY is doing myself, not spending the weekend locked in a shed or garage fettling. All around me in this brick and corrugated building there is the no nonsense bustle of activity from industrious craftsmen who probably know about tools, engines and intimidatingly organized, dusty work sheds. Wearing sooted overalls, well shoed boots with reinforced snouts, and streaks of boot polish black dirt across their faces these men look like real men and I am a little nervous. I wonder what they think about some fresh faced journalist prancing around the place wanting to stick his tape recorder in everyones face and scribbling into a note pad like some nerdy tax auditor. I am apprehensive that they will be able to tell that I have no idea what the difference between TIG welding and arc welding is. I’m introduced to one welder named Nigel. I put my hand out to shake hands respectfully but as his paw clasps mine I remember that apart from a ridge line of callouses I have soft hands that are as tough as blancmange. To him, with his meaty leathery hands that reveal all the years of doing mens work, my hands must feel like a damp towel. I wonder if he got a cold shiver down his spine and feels repulsed by the wimp before him. I wonder if his idea of writers is of gentle creatures that are drawn to flowery beauty, pastel shades, corner cut sandwiches and a well iced drink. But he smiles warmly, is polite not gruff, and quite happy to entertain my inane and clueless questions.
I’m in this dirty building of male-dom because this is where machines are made. This is not a factory in the mysterious orient where product is churned out by faceless factories and arrives on our doorstep boxed for our convenience. This is something much closer to home. I’m in P. Bairstow Ltd, Sheet Metal somewhere in Halifax. And the machines to which I refer are of the bicycle variety. I’m excited to see how a plaything that I take for granted is born and raised. The best thing is I’m still no more than a short walk to a pub that sells good ale and a packet of pork scratchings. I might be out of my depth as a man but I’m still in familiar territory.
I’m sure Orange are pretty familiar to most people, but let’s do a quick summary of the life and times so that we are all on the same page and then we’ll get to deeper matters.
Orange began over twenty years ago by two windsurfing youngsters who enjoyed belting about on bikes when the wind was flat. Lester Noble and Steve Wade were a match made in heaven in many respects. Lester had already been designing and having bikes built under the Tushingham brand. Steve had a strength in engineering and manufacturing and owned and ran a sheet metal business that had been in the family for some time. At first they had bikes built for them overseas and they would assemble them in Bairstow’s. Then around 1999 they struck upon the idea of constructing their own frames using the skills and tools available to them in Steve’s sheet metal business. They used 6000 series sheet aluminum to construct monocoque suspension frames; something more forward thinking than what some of the world’s biggest brands were doing at the time. The frame’s distinct shape and focus towards the demands of the emerging gravity crowd made them a name almost overnight. But then when Greg Minnaar, Steve Peat and other great riders rode them to victory in numerous World Cup’s and even collected a few World Championships along the way it created a lot of hype about this little bike company who were squeezed into few spare meters in Bairstow’s Sheet Metal. There was a time when they were about to launch into the global market but at the last minute decided that it would be too much hassle and would change the fundamental reasons why they started Orange in the first place. In the end they want to be able to support themselves and their loyal workers. They wanted to give them some security in the job they had.
I’m here to absorb a bit of the pride in tradition that has exemplified British manufacturing long before bikes were even invented. I want to find out why, in an industry that seems to be all about churning out endless disposable crap, rebranded Tiawanese copies, with a dogmatic belief in building obsolescence rather than longevity and yet still costing a king’s ransom, Orange can actually afford to operate and why they are doing it their way when surely there is an easier way.
We follow Ashley Ball, the chap in charge of Bairstow’s these days after taking over from Orange co-founder Steve Wade 12 years ago. He is not that keen to have us here it seems. He is anxious that we will get in the way of production and we will probably have our arms chewed off by one of his beastly machines. It’s just health and safety concerns really. Who would want a soft Southerner with a pencil and a guy with giant sideburns and a camera mincing around on a busy tuesday morning. This is a worker’s place, not a science museum with well laid out information boards that show how things work in neatly color coded simplicity. We manage to convince him that we will keep out hands in our pockets and we won’t get within striking distance of the machines. I try to joke that being a writer it would be pretty hard to continue without any fingers. He doesn’t exactly laugh along with my attempt at workplace injury humor.
Downstairs we are in the belly of the beast and I think we have descended into a war zone. We are taken over to a large machine making a noise like a machine gun. A deep thudding rat-atat-tat that sounds like rounds getting pumped into armored metal work. Slugs are spat from the machine like spent shells. Shards of metal like shrapnel cover the ground. Other machines hiss and groan metallic guttural tones; others boom and bellow. It’s dirty down here but as intimidating as it is, it still feels rather human. It is spit, sweat and blood.
The machine that is thudding away like a gunner in a rage is the machine that cuts the sheets of aluminum into the complex series of flat pieces which then go on to be bent and shaped like origami to form a frame. The flats are taken to giant presses where the skilled metal workers feed pieces under the press, twisting and turning the metal after each press to achieve the form that is required. Some sections of frame will require up to twelve different presses. Once the many different shapes of pieces that are required to make one frame have been produced they are taken upstairs to the porn walled welders room where they are placed in jigs, tacked, then welded before being taken downstairs again for alignment, heat treating, and realignment.
The incredible intricacies of folds, welds and pieces is astonishing. It is amazing to see flat pieces of metal become objects which are almost ready to be animated. I’ve appreciated the construction of, for instance, an Orange swing arm many times in passing but not till I saw one 90% complete before the shock mount was welded on that I could see inside at the internal shaping and the many pieces that it took to make it did I truly appreciate the craftsmanship and skill. You could be mistaken for thinking Orange bikes look crude and simple. They are far from it really. Just because they don’t have the swoops and many soft angles of the hydroformed frames, which are very in vogue for many manufacturers, doesn’t mean they are any less complex. Far from it. In fact, seeing all the handy bends and tidy joins made me admire even more that it wasn’t just raw material fed into a machine that pops out a complete frame. Instead, it was clearly evident all the craft and skill that goes into these frames. It was like thinking that all babies came from cabbage patches, only to witness the natural act of the beautiful sweaty, fluid dance of force and grace of human procreation.
I look around and notice that most of the men are older. Much older, certainly fathers and probably grandfathers. Where are the young men learning the ropes and gathering skills that will sit with them for a lifetime? I think I already know the answer to this one. I can see it in the high streets of Britain: all mobile phone stores, electronic goods and service industry. Britain has changed from being an global industrial powerhouse to just a scattering of work sheds.
“Perhaps it is a dying trade,” sighs Ash. “It’s hard getting people into it. It takes as long as it takes to become a doctor. Kids just want to play on a computer and sit on their arse. That’s not work. Manufacturing is work.”
I feel guilty. I’ve never considered manufacturing as something I wanted to pursue when I was younger. I am one of those people who has turned my back on real production in favor of consumption. To hide my guilty face from Ashley I turn to Michael Bonney, the man in charge of the day to day running of Orange bikes, and ask him whether this could mean the very end of production ever taking place in UK and it all being subcontracted to Asia.
“In some of the factories you see girls welding. You know, for the really fine stuff they have girl welders. There is a lot of skill there and it does exist there, but here, sadly, it’s gone. I don’t know whether we can get them back. We have become lazy. I’m not getting into the politics of that one…we were promised a dream. If you wanna hear about this find a track by Gill Scott-Heron called B-Movie. Read the lyrics. I’ll say no more. Just find the track, read the lyrics and there’s a couple lines in there you’ll get.
I feel like I’ve been handed a mysterious clue to a greater knowledge. Michael is smiling that smile that says, You’ll see. If you can see it that is. It is goading me to look deeper into this and at the same time offering a key to something more.
Just weeks before meeting Michael, Gil Scott-Heron had died. I remember driving through the States as I listened to the news and subsequent out pouring of adoration for his life’s work. I hadn’t known much about him, just the name and of course the immortal ‘The revolution will not be televised’ but I didn’t really know anything. I had wanted to hear more, listen to more, understand a little bit more about him but I had forgotten about that urge until Michael gave me this clue. It seemed like serendipity.
A few days after the interview Michael reminded me with an email that contained a link to the lyrics. The words where blistered onto my screen at 256kbit/s of immediacy, but it took several careful readings to decipher the meaning behind the playful and yet precise syntax. Here is an excerpt:
…What has happened is that in the last 20 years, America has changed from a producer to a consumer. And all consumers know that when the producer names the tune…the consumer has got to dance. That’s the way it is. We used to be a producer – very inflexible at that, and now we are consumers and, finding it difficult to understand. Natural resources and minerals will change your world. The Arabs used to be in the 3rd World. They have bought the 2nd World and put a firm down payment on the 1st one. Controlling your resources will control your world. This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don’t know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don’t know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy – of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain’t nothing but the name of an airport now…
The lyrics obviously are directed at American history, specifically in the 80s, but the themes he raises are shared across much of the Western globalized world: the outsourcing of production to the East at the cost of our own independence. Manufacturing becomes something that we are too good for now, so leave it to the poorer people, poorer than our own, the ones in the shanties. We sell our self-reliance for a smarter shinier life like those in the movies, but doing so our movie is onto a closing chapter. Now the producers we gave our dirty work to are rising and getting strong, all because we want to sit back and get fat, lazy and slow on ready meals, instant coffee and packets of grated cheese. It is as much about Britain as it is about the United States.
I want to explore this idea about how they can afford to do what they do in Britain whilst the whole world is outsourced to the cheaper East so I ask Ashley how it works.
“You could not produce these bikes without this kind of machinery. Even then the volumes of bikes [we produce] wouldn’t be able to pay for it. We would have to build bikes for 30 years just to pay for that one machine [pointing to the machine gun cutter that is still stamping away rounds of frame templates] and that machine has only got a seven or eight year life span. What we do here is true sheet metal construction. It has no tie to the mountain bike industry, where other manufacturers do, but this is sheet metal manufacturing. Orange has taken British ingenuity, top class machinery and sheet metal fabrication to a whole new level.”
So Orange is just a little sideline of P. Bairstow’s Ltd, Sheet Metal. What they deal with on a more day to day basis is produce metal work like the shelves you will see in supermarkets or filing cabinets. This is their bread and butter and Orange is just a passionate sideline.
“We will put a month’s worth of mountain bike componentry through in maybe a few days and then it’s back to making the other stuff. We have three guys down here that do the cutting and bending and seven welders up stairs then a bunch of fellas that do the jigging, aligning and heat treating. We produce about 45 suspension frames a week.”
I’m a little taken back by this. Sure I’m seeing with my own eyes the scale, or lack of, of Orange bikes production but this seems way too little. I must of screwed my face up in disbelief because Ash chuckles and follows on.
“That’s the thing. The people that ring Orange, speak to Orange, see Orange think it’s some massive organization, but we are a tiny company. Mike will tell you the numbers, we can’t even touch what other brands do in a year, but we have the reputation. We’ve had the World Cups, the big riders, you know. We have the image and we have the product. Our product performs but we aren’t a mass producer. We never have been, never will be. Producing a product like this, requiring coded welders and true fabricators, keep the skill level high – which is always good – because you have a product that is paying for that.”
Michael adds, “I don’t think anyone else does…[he pauses a moment] I’ve been all over in Tiawan, I’ve been to quite a lot of factories, but I’ve never seen anyone else doing what we do here. The Tiawanese would just approach it with a different mind set. They’d just make it as cheap as possible [laughter].”
So why isn’t more done here in Britain. Obviously not everyone happens to have a fully functioning metal fabrication business at your disposal but there has to be more examples than just Orange, Hope, Renthal and a scattering of small scale British manufacturers.
“Some things can be done. There are certain things that can be done, like forgings for example. You just need a major investment, but companies here can’t do that. Then there’s stuff like carbon production, which will never happen here because of the labour cost involved. It’s finding a balance, what we try and do is set a goal to do as much of our stuff here, when we can, if it’s the best and what we need. But then you have to look at what the rest of the world does and say ‘yeah thats really good’. Shimano, for example make good stuff.
“You have to take a look around at what’s around you. At the end of the day…right, if you wanna get into global sourcing, where did we get that aluminum from? I think that’s from Brazil. There’s somethings we can’t do here so we take a look around and use what is around us. As a business you have to survive, you have to do what you need to to survive and it’s up to you whether you retain the ethics. I think we have. Orange has retained some of the original ethics. Some businesses don’t. Ian (Hope co-owner) does, and I think Renthal do.”
I feel like I’m baiting them but I want to find out more about Tiawan and what they think about it. I know they have their lower end hardtails made over there because it allows them a little bit of the bottom line to support the business but I start by asking Michael what he thinks about catalogue companies. Brands that are just that: brands. They are a marketeers exercise that are supported by a glitzy sales pitches and spurious technological claims. The products have all been chosen from the big fat portfolios that Asia use as their menus. They flick through the catalogue, chose which particular type of gubbin they want and then have their logo stamped on them. There is no design, no link with how the product is made, just with how they sell it.
“If thats what they are comfortable doing. It’s the way of the world isn’t it. It’s about marketing isn’t it, marketing something from nothing. I think everyone has their own ethics with what they are prepared to do. I know what mine are. [laughs] We use Tiawan. I speak chinese. You know, I think if you are going to work in Tiawan you have to take your ethics and beliefs from here and use them there. So many people seek to exploit and make money. It’s not what we are about. Never has been and hopefully never will be. There’s companies that just go there to…I really can’t say much because we were one of the first companies in Tiawan. People thought we were made in the UK but we weren’t. I hope i wasn’t responsible for people thinking that. But when it’s a standarized Tiawanese part with a different logo on that’s bullshit! That really is bullshit. But people buy it, so hey if they wanna do it that way and make money then so be it. It’s not for me.”
I ask Michael what he feels about companies that build themselves up just so they can sell it on. Orange had an offer to take a large investment several years back but declined the offer. I wanted to know more about this situation and why they didn’t want to expand. After mikes last comments and earlier cryptic clues I had a feeling I knew the answer already but I wanted to hear the words for myself.
“A lot of our work revolves around pride but also it is about risk. If you wanna go big you have to borrow a lot of money and make those big decisions. But actually Steve and Lester have never been interested in making money; it’s not been a driving factor. We have a couple of owners whose driving motivation is to just not lose money. If the goal and motivation is that simple then you just do what you believe in. From doing that you find 5000 people that believe in the same thing and want to buy your bikes. That’s easy. However, if you turn that into 50,000 then it gets a bit harder. Then try turn that into 500,000 bikes each year and it gets much harder still. That’s where Specialized and Trek are. They are big guys that try and sell big quantities of bikes. So if you keep it small, you keep it under control. You choose what to do and when to do it. You will find in business that not many people have control.”
Listening to the tapes of that day again I realize something that I hadn’t noticed at the time. Maybe I was so focused on scribbling notes or just trying to not seem like a soft desk bound Southerner who wouldn’t know one end of a welding torch from the other, but what I didn’t hear at the time was how Michael and Ashley would break off mid sentence to say hi to someone in the factory and go on to inquire as to how their weekend was or how their day was going. They both knew each of these guys by name and the tone they had with them was of genuine friendship. Looking back I wonder how many company heads know the name of even one worker in the factory’s of the East, even more so do the managers of those factories know the names of their employees.
“Everyone here is from the local area and most of them ride. Vaughan is on his downhill bike all the time, even rides it to work each day. Dan, who heads the workshop, he is out riding, Dave will be out riding somewhere, John will be up with us when we go racing this weekend…People start working here already knowing who Orange is. In fact, for some it’s their dream job. Jay, who runs the factory, it is his dream job. All he ever wanted to do was work for Orange bikes. You have a responsibility to people. They have committed a lot to the business. We watch them grow. I’ve been here for 20 plus years and I’ve watched guys grow up from being kids to getting married and having kids. So there’s a responsibility we have to look after these guys. We think about it everyday. Like I said, our goal is to not lose money. So you can survive in the UK manufacturing, definitely. It’s just a case of do you want to make the same money some people do, or is that even important? At the end of the day this is sustainable.”
I have to admit upon hearing such sentiments my journalistic objectivity was starting to waiver. I liked hearing what Michael and Ashley had to say. Maybe I was falling into the trap like the Gil Scott-Heron song and I was just a nostalgist looking for something that I had a part in selling down the river but it was filling me with immense happiness that knowing there are people out there that put their heads down, are honest and open with what they do, and treat their employees as equals not disposable units.
I might not be totally objective about Tiawan. I’ve never been there and so perhaps I am demonizing certain elements of it but what I’d rather be doing is waving a flag over people like Ashley and Michael for their traditions and morals, for Steve and Lester for just doing it their way, and not in a bumptious way, and for each of the guys at Orange for doing it because that’s the way it always was and always should be.