The common themes running within the Hercules published literature were quality (sometimes backed up with a 50 year guarantee!), affordability and ‘way of life’. This must have resonated with and lifted individual buyers and families who had endured war and economic depression.
Harry takes his share
While Ted was convinced that the future looked promising and stated his ambition of making a million bicycles a year, Harry foresaw the effect of the early thirties depression and what he perceived was the inevitable crash of Hercules. After his pleas to Ted to reduce expenditure on advertising failed he withdrew his shareholding but retained his position as Works Director. Yet again, Ted proved to have backed a winner when in 1933 the company was able to announce record sales and exports. Harry died in 1936 at the age of 48.
In 1934, extensive talks between Raleigh and Hercules took place. When Ted suspected that instead of his remaining in control he would have been sidelined into a non-executive role he abandoned negotiations and cycle production continued under Ted's management and in 1939 recorded the production of the 6 millionth bicycle. At the beginning of the Second World War the factories were converted for armament production. The good reputation that the company enjoyed helped to overcome some of the problems that were faced. Only 10% of output went towards cycle manufacture.
When the war ended in1945 it was necessary to employ a fresh intake of managers and to completely refit the factories with the target of producing very high volumes of bikes. This was carried out in the usual single minded way in spite of delays caused by considerable fire damage in the smaller factory of the two.
In 1946 Ted was again approached by Raleigh, now owned by Tube Industries, in the form of Sir Ivan Stedeford. A sale price was agreed and, after somewhat tentative attempts by TI to maintain Ted in a consultative role, he left, in 1947, to live in South Africa.
Edmund Crane was the eldest of five children raised by their parents in a number of modest Birmingham houses. Leaving school at 14 years old he and his brother Harry helped their parents with their various cycle businesses. Such businesses were both abundant and fiercely competitive with each other. Edmund and Harry learned how to source parts and assemble cycles but their parents lacked business sense which was demonstrated by their father’s bankruptcy in 1899 followed by their mother's in 1910.
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Hercules Cycle and Motor Company Limited
A brief history
In I910 the brothers registered their own business, Hercules Cycle and Motor Company Limited, but did not trade under that name until difficulties with their parents' business had been resolved.
The two young men rented a run-down house in Coventry Street turning out 25 bikes per week. By 1912, after 6 months trading output had almost trebled. From the outset Harry’s engineering skills meant that his forte was ‘production’ while Edmund’s negotiating and marketing skills enabled the business to source components and sell bikes well albeit with the help of his father's 'contact' lists.
Unlike his father, Edmund had a clear idea of costs and income which formed the basis for the future success. The stock-in-trade for the business was a no frills, strong and reliable bike sold at a very competitive price.
By 1914 the brothers had moved to Conybere Street and production rose to 10,000 bicycles a year. The majority of sales were made to cycle shops. Each bike was thoroughly cleaned and wrapped protectively so that the dealer received a machine that was immediately attractive to his customers. Dealers were supported with professionally produced sales literature, posters and leaflets and deliveries were made by distinctive bright yellow vans with black livery.
Birmingham’s factories were vital to the war effort in the First World War. Hercules was requisitioned to produce shells and during this time the production of bicycles was reduced to a trickle. When production of cycles resumed in 1918 the efficient production that had previously been enjoyed was no longer apparent. A stagnant lack of investment in manufacturing plant machinery coupled with a ‘tired’ work force lead to a re-think by Edmund and Harry which resulted in a refresh which was to led into the most productive period the business had ever enjoyed.
In 1923, the business moved to an ex-Dunlop factory in Rocky Lane, Aston which they renamed Britannia Works and became the company's Head Office. The site grew to 13 acres (53,000 sq metres) to accommodate the ever increasing manufacturing capacity and the hunger of the market place which Edmund did much to create.
Birmingham was home to a large number of competing cycle manufacturers. Hercules rose above the competition for a number of reasons including its name and production methods. After 1923, as part of a policy to control costs and quality, Hercules manufactured the majority of components apart from the tyres, inner tubes and gear change mechanisms. At this time 1,000 bicycles were produced every day each taking less than ten minutes, on average, to assemble.
From the 1920s onwards Edmund looked like a Midlands factory boss. His appearance belied a vital aspect of his character which was
essential for Hercules’ success. From the early days of the business when he had ridden round to dealers extolling the virtues of Hercules over all others Edmund also played a major part in marketing.
In the early stages of the business the output had been aimed at middle classes but this targeting changed as the business grew to encompass the working man. While competitors focused on innovation and individuality at the top of the market, Hercules produced well built bikes for the masses. Throughout the newspaper advertising, posters, leaflets, catalogues and even vehicle paintwork it is apparent that the company was ahead of its time in understanding the concept of ‘branding’.
In November 1933, after having announced the production of the 3 millionth bicycle Ted said:
"I attribute much of our position as the largest cycle manufacturers in the world to the judicious use of the advertising columns of the British press. Given the right article and the right price with efficient distribution, press advertising is the cheapest method of creating big sales and cementing goodwill with the trade and the public".
Hercules comes of age
In 1932, the firm celebrated 21 years in business by taking two thousand factory workers for tea and a show afterwards at Birmingham's Hippodrome. Numerous tributes were paid including :
Sales were by no means limited to the home market. In 1928 20% of all bicycles exported carried the Hercules name. In 1929 the company took over the previously Dunlop owned factory in Nechells and named it Manor Mills. By 1935 Hercules’ share of exports had risen to 40% and in 1939 the company recorded that it had manufactured its 6 millionth bicycle.
From the outset, the Crane brothers were ambitious to succeed in their endeavour. Producing a good bike at low cost was only half of the equation. In the early days of the business the hours worked to source the components, assemble and finish and then sell them at competitive prices must have been a daunting workload. Only after having established a usable working formula for the relationship between production cost and sale price could the business expand by taking on employees.
Edmund’s personality was such that he wanted to maintain control and towards that end he would not allow trade unions to undermine his management of the work force. He preferred to offer 10% more than the standard union wage rate in order to secure the services of the more productive workers for ‘his’ factories.
"Today, in different directions, both our firms work for the same object - to make transport better and more pleasurable. That you have succeeded so well is a remarkable accomplishment. That you will go still further forward, and inspire others to try to catch up with you, is my sincere wish."
Sir Herbert Austin
"Birmingham has many things to boast about. I think your achievement in becoming the world's largest manufacturers of cycles is one of them".
The Director of the British Cycle and Motor Cycle Manufacturers
"The name of Crane will be enrolled in the history of the bicycle industry amongst those who have successfully borne the banner of British Trade to the uttermost parts of the earth".
Lord Castlerosse, Sunday Express
"The two kinds of people in this world who interest me most are those who have worked for and sustained a position, and those who have done something substantially notable. It seems to me that you have accomplished both. You have been systematically successful in increasing your business for twenty one years. The reason can only be that you have made good your claim to be the largest makers of cycles in the world - truly something for pride. I congratulate you".
In response to these words Ted wrote to all Hercules employees:
"When my brother and I started the Hercules business, our central object was as clear as it is today. We realised that whatever other means of providing recreation and transport there might be, cycling would always be a popular pastime. Twenty-one years of time have proved that we were right. Our aim was to sell a machine of first grade specification within the means of almost anybody. Our job is not yet finished. With your co-operation, Hercules will grow bigger and stronger still".