Last year I was very pleased to be given one of the new Brompton toolkits as a birthday present. It is a beautiful thing, cleverly designed to fit together into a neat package that slots into the open end of the bike’s frame tube when unfolded. I wanted one as soon as they were announced, not because I needed it but because it seemed to be an elegant way of removing clutter (bag of tools under the saddle) from an elegant bike.
The photos come from the website of the design company, Goodwin Hartshorn, who created the product and are to be congratulated on an elegant assembly. Whether they or Brompton were responsible for making sure the product actually worked is not clear so it might be only one and a half cheers for Goodwin Hartshorn.
Sadly the product does not work. The first time I used it I encountered two serious problems. I wanted to remove a wheel, then change a tyre, probably the most common use for this kit.
Removing the wheel was impossible and I had to get out a normal spanner. I may have overtightened the wheel nuts when installing the wheel but that’s not unusual and I have never had a problem removing the nuts with my usual tool, a small adjustable spanner slightly longer than the one in the Brompton kit. When I applied force to the Brompton spanner the little black knurled wheel on the hand end bit into my hand very painfully. (you can see the wheel at the right hand end of the spanner in the photograph)
This problem was so bad that I just couldn’t move the nut. The combination of a short lever and sharp protrusion brought me to a halt and I had to go back to my trusty adjustable spanner. It’s worth commenting that one of Brompton’s folding bike competitors, Tern Bicycles, produce a very elegant and highly regarded integrated toolkit suitable for most bikes. They have solved this problem by designing the tool to fold out and create more leverage, then they provide a soft sleeve to store the kit and it is intended to slide over the extended part to ensure a comfortable grip. Not sure how well that works but they make a very clear claim that it does. Incidentally I have reasonably strong hands but at 65 years old my hands and wrists are more sensitive to stress than when I was younger, so I’m probably a good representative of the less able majority rather than fit young mechanics.
NB, I’ve since found a way round this. Although the toolkit instructions don’t mention it, you can use the spanner while it’s still inside the plastic case and that make a comfortable handle. I never considered that option as the head of the spanner is set quite well into the case but from a quick check it looks like you can apply it top the Brompton wheelnuts without a problem.
So on to the tyre fitting problem. I was replacing an old Marathon Tyre with a new very tough Marathon Plus, which is quite a stiff piece of rubber. The old one came off without tools, although small wheel tyres are more difficult (big tyres have more stretch in them). It’s quite easy to remove them when you have the knack of holding the bead on one side down into the wheel rim while working the tyre bead over the rim at the opposite side of the wheel.
However the Marathon plus was a tougher proposition altogether and I use the levers included in the kit. Almost immediately one of them snapped, there’s an obvious point of weakness where the metal core of the lever stops short of the tip and the short plastic tip just snapped off exactly at that point.
You can see from the photos (click for bigger ones) that the plastic tip extends quite far beyond the metal core, around 5mm.
Apparently Brompton have acknowledged that they have a problem with this and have a solution, from photos I have seen of replacement levers their answer seems to be to make the lever with the narrow tip wider and the wider lever narrower to compensate. That sounds sensible but my broken tip was on the wider lever so it’s not a solution. Luckily I had some old metal levers which did the job. If I had been out on the road relying on the Brompton kit I might have been stranded by these two defects. Worth noting that the Tern toolkit has metal levers.
One of the things I learned in my career as a designer was that a weak point, in this case because there is an abrupt change in the structure, cannot be fixed by strengthening the material. You have to change the mechanical feature that is causing the problem. Maybe Brompton have extended the metal right to the tip but since they have not said anything about it, just keeping the design but making it wider will not help as my experience with the wider lever shows.
So sadly this toolkit is an elegant confection but, as it just doesn’t work, that’s all it is. It costs £48 in the UK, a lot of money for one of my family to spend on me and I am embarrassed now that I put it on my birthday present list. The problems I have encountered seem to be down to testing, if Brompton are not prepared to give their products serious testing before launch they don’t deserve our support. If they had given one to an owner like me it looks like they would have found the flaws in minutes.
At the moment it appears that the toolkit is not available in the shops, I looked at several of the UK shops that specialise in Brompton products online and it’s out of stock or not listed. If it’s been withdrawn so they can fix it well and good but meanwhile I feel ripped off and won’t be interested in a replacement. I now feel very attached to the little bag of assorted tools in my saddlebag. I’ve chosen them all based on my experience and have complete confidence that I’m ready for any problem.
You can find a good descriptive review of the toolkit, explaining all its features, on the Dirty Brompton Blog by Fernando Ma in Arizona.
Here’s a good video review of the Tern toolkit.
Update 28 November 2013
Earlier this year Brompton supplied me with replacement (identical) levers with instructions on how to avoid breakages. Today I’ve had a phone call from Brilliant Bikes saying that they now have the new improved design levers from Brompton and a pair are on their way to me free to replace the old ones.
So this has been a sorry one year saga but Brompton haven’t walked away from the problem. My general feeling is that I would still not buy the Brompton toolkit as it’s a bit too inflexible compared to a general kit but it’s still a beautiful thing and if you like the idea of a purpose-built kit that hides away in the frame this is the one that there is.