Once a household name throughout the land, and now a resurgent chic brand, Brooks saddles are true works of art that are hand cut and riveted in Smethwick, Birmingham. There's a pretty turbulent story behind these modern classics too.
For those of us of a certain age who grew up in the era of flared trousers and tartan Rollermania in the 1970s – and probably even more so for those who came before us – Brooks saddles were something that just about everyone knew of. It could even be said that they were as synonymous with sitting on a bike as much as mushy peas were with fish & chips – and yet for us 'young 'uns', they were also things to be feared almost as much as the wrath of a headmaster’s cane. Both had the same reputation when it came to rear-end pain.
Even though Brooks were already somewhat past their leathered glory days by then, they were still held in great repute by elders – maybe even more so by non-cyclists over those who spent hours sitting on them. This 'image' was probably the issue – many of us considered them to be ancient and outdated instruments of torture used by our grandparents, things we’d not be seen dead sitting on, or at least not the classic leather and chromed Brooks saddles. Many Raleigh bikes and other bikes of the 1970s did come with cheap, mass-produced Brooks-branded plastic saddles with padding.
Personally speaking, that stigma stuck with me throughout my cycling life – until a few years back that was when I finally got hold of a Brooks B17, which is a true work of art and far from the 'instrument of torture' cycling myth I was led to believe.
Italian-branded saddles were the go-to for many decades, and largely still are (even if many are now made in Taiwan), and Brooks all but faded into post-punk era extinction.
Thankfully Selle Royal, one of the major Italian saddle brands, saw potential in the classic workmanship of Brooks and came to their financial rescue. By using that famous Italian flare for style, they mixed it up with a timely resurgence in steel and custom bikes and the arrival of bikepacking – and sure enough Brooks once again rose to prominence.
Way back in 1866, a young man named John Boultbee Brooks first set about his trade as a leather goods maker in a suburb of Birmingham. At that time equestrian harnesses, saddles and other equine goods were his speciality, and Mr Brooks would canter to and from his work by horse each day. Until the horse died, that is...
Somewhere around this time the chain driven bicycle was also invented, and a friend loaned Brooks his bike for his daily journey to work. That beastly burden had a harsh wooden saddle, and Brooks vowed to produce a more comfortable perch. In 1882 he filed the first patent for a Brooks bicycle saddle.
The bike seat business boomed, and the company remained under family ownership until 1958. In 1962, Raleigh – who were major global player at the time – acquired Brooks. Raleigh were already part of the Tube Investments (TI) group, which owned Sturmey-Archer and Reynolds amongst other related bike brands, and it seemed like a match made in cycling heaven – although the whole thing soon turned sour for most concerned, and in 1999 Brooks was sold and forced into liquidation.
In 2002 Selle Royal purchased the company and managed to completely modernise the classic Brooks image, and without much changing with regards to production, which was a win-win scenario. Despite a curious logistical episode related to Britain's exit from the EU in 2021, the brand continues to be very successful in the UK and worldwide with all generations of cyclist.
These days the Brooks factory in Smethwick is a bustling place, and walking through it is a little like stepping back in time to a golden era where craftsmanship ruled over machines.
Brooks saddles (apart from the Cambium) are all manually produced here by highly skilled workers. Artisans in overalls work away with ageing round-headed hammers, pounding with precision at the final rivets over a last that has seen more saddles pass by than even the oldest member of the Brooks team – that being same nose end rivet that gave us the expression 'on the rivet'.
That final tapping secures the deal by fastening the fine grade 5mm-deep leather top to the chrome plated frame of yet another masterpiece. These are saddles that have been made in almost exactly same way for around 150 years.
Leather is what Brooks have always been about, and the top of each saddle comes from the hide of either British or Irish cows, as they’re deemed to be best acclimatised to wet and harsh weather conditions (few of us from the UK or Ireland would argue on that!) hence their leather is supposed to be more durable. Tanning is done in Italy, at one of only two such suitable tanneries in the world.
The leather pressing, moulding, and trimming is done by a mixture of presses and hand in the Brooks factory, where they also produce saddlebags and other high quality leather bike accessories.
After a first soaking the leather presses form the shape of the saddle top, and they are then oven-dried before being fitted to the frames and hand chaffered. For the saddle frames, rolled steel and titanium is shaped, coiled, sprung, chromed, and is then polished on site to form the saddle frames. Finally, the leather tops are then machine riveted, and then also manually riveted a final time to the saddle frames before the badging is applied to the finished product.
Brooks saddles may not be everyone’s perch of choice, and these classic leather and chrome masterpieces are unlikely to be found the pelotons of cycling's Grand Tours – yet they are truly something to behold and appreciate, and not bad to sit on either...