23.11
Stolen bicycles for sale

Life is like a bicycle. Both go round and round. Both get cold, wet and miserable in winter. Both require resilience. And both can, as my bike has, crack under pressure.

An almost imperceptible hairline fracture in the frame was spotted by a technician during a recent service. It was only a matter of time before a spectacular collapse.

I”m hoping that the cracks and creaks in my recent BUPA health check aren’t similarly indicative of a general road unworthiness and imminent collapse.

With my bike grounded until a replacement frame arrives, my meandering has come to a shuddering halt. Reflective thought on an overcrowded cattle truck at Clapham Junction is impossible.

Thinking about bicycles in need of care, though, takes me back over thirty years.

At the start of my second undergraduate year I needed a bicycle. One of my friends told me that in Cambridge it was possible to buy unclaimed bicycles dirt cheap from the police. Wondering if they might do the same in Oxford, I paid a visit to the local constabulary. They told me that they sold all the unclaimed bikes every six weeks in one or two lots through a sealed bid auction. I asked them how many bikes were in a lot. They said anywhere between twenty and forty.

I thought there must be a similar number of students in Oxford who would be interested in buying a dirt cheap bike. I spoke to my friend Pete and persuaded him to join me in a joint venture to try and buy thirty or forty bicycles. Pete had a car and so didn’t need a bike, but he saw an opportunity.

We arrived at Oxford Police Station on the day of the auction and were surprised to see how many other people were there. Not only did we have competition, but we had fairly serious competition. We were up against bicycle dealers, some of whom had come from as far as London. While the dealers inspected each individual bike in great detail, sizing them up in much the same way that a livestock merchant might prod a cow at a cattle market, we simply counted how many bicycles there were in each lot. This was easier said than done because they were in varying states of repair. The reason the police sold them in lots was that a good proportion of them would be unsellable otherwise and only good for parts. While the professional dealers were going about their measuring and their weighing, Pete and I had a philosophical discussion about when is a bike not a bike.

We concluded that in amongst the rusted frames dredged from the River Cherwell, the broken chains, bent wheels and one or two gems that made up one lot, there were approximately thirty bicycles. We undertook a sophisticated assessment, as might be expected from a couple of Business Studies students, and valued each bike at £10. We then added £5 to ensure that we outbid anyone else who had used the same calculus.

It is worth pointing out that my student grant in 1982 was £410, so £305, even between the two of us, represented a significant outlay.

What, up to that point, seemed like nothing more than a little bit of fun took a surprising turn when the police called the next day to let us know that one of our two bids had been successful. (Thank God, we missed out on the second lot.) The police asked us to collect the bikes the next morning. The start of a brave new business venture seemed a good enough reason to skip our Economics lecture. Better to do business than study it, we figured.

After taking our money, the policeman asked us where our van was. We said we didn’t have a van. We had Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle. He said he meant where was our van to transport the bikes. We told him we planned to transport them in Pete’s Volkswagen Beetle.

The copper looked at us, a couple of twenty-year-old students, and had a major sense of humour failure.

He told us to stop fucking him around. We told him we weren’t fucking him around.

It took seven hours of cramming bits of bike inside the Beetle and strapping whole bikes on the outside, Pete driving two miles across Oxford, unloading them in our student house (which fortunately had a garage) and then returning for the next load. Looking back, I’m amazed the police let the us out on the road. Unrecognizable as a Beetle, it looked as if a pile of bicycles were independently moving down Oxford High Street. I guess their desperation to be rid of the bikes (and us) overrode any instinct they may have had to enforce the Highway Code and basic road safety.

A few days later I was flyposting the Oxford colleges with a simple message ‘Stolen bicycles for sale’. Basic art direction. Black marker pen handwritten on A4 paper. With the benefit of hindsight and a few years experience in the advertising industry, I might have positioned our product slightly differently. At the time it seemed funny. Now I can see that presenting our bicycles as stolen might not be the most attractive proposition. Nevertheless in terms of return on advertising investment, it has been one if the most successful campaigns I have ever been involved in. It resulted in a single enquiry, which we converted into a £40 sale. The posters cost me 13p to photocopy, giving an ROI of 308%. Some years later I met someone who had been at Oxford who remembered the posters. The advertising industry measure ‘day after recall’. This was ‘years after recall.’

Our very first customer came not from our advertising, but from word of mouth. He had the pick of the bunch and got a decent bike for £30. We suggested he might also like a bicycle basket for his new bike. Only £4. It was unfortunate that he stopped at the local bike shop on his way home and saw that he could have bought the same basket for £1.50. We managed to overcome the temporary loss of customer confidence and, even though I say so myself, provided spectacular after-sales customer care. Not only did our first customer get a good bike, but I subsequently introduced him to his wife, his current job, gave him a godson and performed godfatherly duties to his eldest son. Call me old-fashioned, but you just don’t get this level of service from the bike shops of today

Looking at the current explosion of bike shops I sometimes wonder what might have happened had we stuck with it.

Beetle Bicycles. From the police. For plebs. (Not politicians.)

    Gerald Miller
    2014-11-23 22:37:06
    "Very good, by the way."

    Gerald Miller
    2014-11-23 22:36:11
    "I'd love a "police" bike especially if it came with their blue lights. Buy cheap and sell dear seems a principle confirmed early on in your selling career. I bet you had more fun driving across Oxford than you ever did on the Wandsworth Road. By the way, why wait for a new frame, borrow my bike. It's a Trek carbon fibre and it's sitting under the outside stairs. I'll arrange access if you want. You may have to raise the seat a little. I won't need it until before Christmas.2"

    Sara Brandis
    2014-11-23 22:33:14
    "Well I had forgotten that my life was shaped by a bicycle! A stolen one. A transaction between a entrepreneureal student selling dodgy goods to my husband to be who could never resist a bargain. Great things can grow from modest beginnings. I am so very grateful and happy that you managed to fit those bikes into the beetle. Thank you. S x"

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