Video: How a Bicycle Is Made

Video: How a Bicycle Is Made

A reader sent a link to the video “How a Bicycle is Made,” filmed in the 1945 at the Raleigh factory in Britain. It’s definitely a period piece, but look beyond that, and the 17-minute movie has a lot of interesting content about how bikes were mass-produced. Some production methods have changed – TIG-welding has replaced stamped lugs – but many things remain the same. It’s amazing how everything is geared toward efficiency, especially when you compare it to making a hand-built frame and manufacturing top-tier components.

Click above to watch the movie. Here are a few things that I found interesting as I watched how Raleighs were made…

The movie starts with making the bottom bracket shell. A flat steel disc is pressed into the shape of a bottom bracket shell – it’s truly amazing how ductile steel can be! Raleigh’s tubing was made from flat steel, rolled into a tube and welded at the seam.

Today’s high-end lugs and bottom bracket shells are cast to ensure even wall thicknesses and a precise fit that’s required for silver-brazing. High-end tubes are drawn – meaning they are pushed through a mandrel to create the tube and then butted, so the ends are thicker for strength at the joints, while the center sections are thinner for light weight and just the right amount of flex.

You’ll be surprised how fast a frame can be made when all the tubes are cut to just the right length. It requires a lot of setup, but when you make hundreds of frames in the same size, every second saved in the assembly makes a difference.

With heavy-gauge tubing, overheating isn’t a big concern. So rather than use a torch, the joint is heated until it glows. It’s not explained in the movie, but there’s ring of brass inside the joint – placed there during the assembly on the jig. In the furnace, the brass melts and is drawn into the lug by capillary action. You can’t do this with thinwall tubing – the steel loses some of its strength when it’s heated this much.

Painting the frame takes just a few seconds – it’s just dipped in a big vat of paint. It’s impressive when you’ve seen old Raleighs – the paint is smooth and shiny. Of course, the paint has to be just the right consistency and temperature…

Despite all the labor-saving measures, even production frames had lining on the tubes – applied using these guides and a paint wheel, rather than the long brush and free-hand that on custom frames. (Making a guide like this for a curved seat tube would be quite a job!)

Raleigh made the components for their bikes in-house, too. The fenders start out as a roll of sheetmetal, which is formed into a spiral of fender shapes and then cut into individual fenders. That part isn’t too different from how Honjo in Japan makes our Rene Herse fenders (except we use aluminum instead of steel)…

… but spot-welding the stays onto the fenders is definitely a short-cut that saves labor and cost.

Stamping the chainring teeth is also something you find only on inexpensive parts… It’s fun to watch – and so much faster than CNC-machining each tooth in multiple steps.

Heat-treating steel has a relatively large window of acceptable temperatures. Aluminum has a much lower melting point, and you need better control of the temperatures.

The skill of the assemblers is remarkable. The spokes are threaded into the hub in one go…

… and tires are mounted on the rim in less than 50 seconds. Now you know why OEM rims traditionally are a bit undersized – it makes the tires go on easier. Recently, this has become a problem with tubeless tire setups, where the slightly loose tire fit can cause blow-offs.

It’s a fun movie, but the portrayal of gender roles is dated. Back then, men did jobs that required muscle, while women’s specialty was finesse – like drawing the lines on the tubes or threading the hubs. The three protagonists of the movie – the engineer, the visitor and his son, are all male.

Yet it’s encouraging to see the final scene: a group ride that includes both women and men. It shows that cyclists themselves were much less stuck in the traditional gender roles than the ad people who made the movie. As Jack Taylor’s wife Peggy explained in Bicycle Quarterly 28: Women were accepted as equals on club rides long before the rest of society caught up.

Enjoy the movie!

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Comments (13)

  • Bern

    The extraordinary thing about that era of Raleigh was how they owned outright or controlled production of every single component part, except perhaps the manufacture of the individual steel balls. Frames, tires, rims, spokes, hubs, saddles, seat pillars, bars, stems, grips, brake calipers, levers shifters…
    There is nothing remotely close to that in modern bicycle manufacturing.

    December 21, 2020 at 5:33 am
    • Jan Heine

      You are right. Steel rods, steel sheets, rubber, etc. went into the factory, and complete bicycles came out. It’s usually more efficient to work with suppliers who specialize in their craft, but it also means that you don’t control every aspect of the production.

      December 21, 2020 at 7:10 am
  • Bryan

    An absolute joy to watch! I love these period films. Thank you for posting!
    I am wondering about the long term health of those factory workers. No OSHA in post war Britain. Those bikes were certainly “hand painted” enamel, LOL!

    December 21, 2020 at 5:45 am
    • Jan Heine

      Some processes, like galvanizing and chrome-plating, cause fumes that you don’t want to breathe. However, most processes in the manufacture of a bicycle don’t emit toxic fumes. In all my visits to places that manufacture bikes and parts, I’ve never been asked to wear protective gear beyond white gloves to keep my hands clean.

      December 21, 2020 at 7:14 am
  • Brian Roth

    Raw material comes in one end, a bicycle rolls out the other. A production process never to be seen again.

    December 21, 2020 at 9:36 am

    Thanks for the movie and your comments were fantastic. I liked the end showing the finished bikes in the warehouse section, “ready to be shipped to all parts of the world” .

    December 21, 2020 at 5:44 pm
  • Brian Roth

    You ought to do an article on that tubular fork crown. A little bit of bicycle history that deserves to be remembered.

    December 22, 2020 at 7:23 am
  • Daniel M

    What a fantastic video – thank you for sharing it! My takeaway impression is a huge complex of buildings where the working-class employees assemble the bike, and a single building or smaller complex where the white-collar employees design the bikes. The father and son are clearly of the same class, the father can afford to buy the bike for his son, and the two of them plus the narrator all speak impeccable BBC English. Then we see the laborers without protective gear doing the hard work. We don’t get to hear from them, but I would guess their dialect would identify their position in society immediately, and that any one of them would have to save up for a while to afford the product they make hundreds of every day. I imagine the situation is much the same in today’s auto manufacturing.

    December 22, 2020 at 9:14 am
    • Jan Heine

      The three protagonists are just actors – and not very good ones at that! It would have been a much better movie if they had taken a real engineer and – as you say – have featured to the voices of the workers as they explain what they are doing in the movie.

      The reality was that in Britain, cycling had been a working-class sport ever since high-wheelers were replaced by safety bikes with two equal-sized wheels and chain drive. The high wheelers appealed to the upper classes, since you sat as high as on a horse, but with the added appeal of a ‘modern’ machine. The bent-over-the-handlebars position of the safety bike didn’t appeal in the same way. There were even discussions in the cycling literature whether a bent-over position was ‘undignified.’

      When you read about the Taylor Brothers (Jack, Ken and Norman) in BQ 28, you realize that the clubs and the builders all came from the working class. It was a completely different scene from motor racing – reading the stories of the Bentley Boys and others, they all were wealthy, and many were titled.

      It was a bit different in France, where cycling – at least cyclotouring – was a relatively class-less sport. Among Rene Herse’s customers were factory owners and factory workers – income disparity in France was at its lowest level during the 1940s, so great bikes were relatively affordable. Some riders saved many months for one great bike, others bought a new Rene Herse every year, but during the rides, you wouldn’t have noticed who was affluent and who was not. And according to the riders – I’ve spoken to many from both backgrounds – it didn’t matter on the road, either.

      December 22, 2020 at 10:36 am
      • Mark

        And didn’t many of the early car makers begin as cycling enthusiasts (Rolls, Ford, etc)?

        December 22, 2020 at 2:32 pm
      • John C. Wilson

        Early safety bicycles were completely bespoke. Even the ball bearings were made one at a time. It was American imports that brought prices down to where the middle class could ride. Working class rode black widows – cast off bikes that were impossible to properly repair as each part was unique.

        When bikes became affordable they lost all cachet with the toffs. And then the manufacturers had to build for a popular market. Accomplished by end of 1890s. Working class still could not afford new. Bikes remained a sizeable expenditure for a very long time.

        December 23, 2020 at 11:55 am
  • Angus

    I really enjoyed this video Jan.

    I work as an engineer in a manufacturing company, some manufacturing methods have changed and safety is certainly given more attention. They definitely relied heavy on the skill of the workforce than many companies do today.

    Small cost savings add up, we will make changes to save 50 cents on a $500 product. Not a big deal until you multiply by the 1 million products made each year. Mass production is certainly a different world had individually produced “custom” products.

    Thank you for posting.

    December 22, 2020 at 1:41 pm
  • Greyson

    I LOVE historical posts like these and the discussions they yield. Thank you for posting this wonderful video!

    December 22, 2020 at 3:11 pm

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