When the news arrived at Trial Magazine that ownership of the Renthal brand was coming back to Great Britain from its American owners, it filled me with a sense of pride, something to be proud of. You may ask why? I first came into contact with Henry Rosenthal and then his business partner Andrew Renshaw as a young boy. Henry was at a trial around the early 70s with some new aluminium handlebars. I did not take much notice of the product but of the nice new Renthal stickers! Over the years we would become friends, something that has endured the test of time. It was in late November 2013 that I heard the sad news that Andrew had passed away after a brave fight against cancer. Renthal is coming home and will now be led by a new team who will take the product into the future and beyond; Henry is very pleased, and I am sure Andrew would also be.
The name Renthal is one born from a passion for motorcycles and engineering. The vision of the handlebar may be a piece of engineered aluminium tubing, but to Renthal, it’s a piece of mechanical genius.
Anyone who has ever seen Henry ride an off-road motorcycle will understand why he has crashed so often, sometimes with severe consequences. From a very early age, he had ridden motorcycles, starting with a Matchless converted from road to motocross trim. Crashing was a constant part of riding, and with it came bent handlebars. From the effort needed to pick up, the heavy Matchless came the obsession in later life with the weight of products and the need for better handlebars. It was in his younger teenage years that he would meet Andrew Renshaw, after yet another crash which wrecked the front forks on his Matchless. One of Henry’s friends told him about a boy called Andrew, who was also mad keen on motorcycles and had lots of motorcycle spares in a shed in his parent’s garden. Henry visited Andrew, who had a pair of Earl’s Leading Link forks for £2.10s. After he had bought the forks, he was just about to leave when Andrew said: “You know they won’t fit”. After some discussion, Andrew told Henry that he would make a set of special steering adaptors to enable them to fit and, furthermore, there would be no charge for this service. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship which led to the starting of Renthal a few years later.
The aluminium handlebar
The idea for aluminium alloy handlebars came from the constant bending of steel ones. Henry’s uncle and aunt, Harry and Ellen Petzal, owned a large aluminium stock-holding business in London. His uncle was quite an eminent metallurgist before the war in Germany, and afterwards, he set up a business in England specialising in ex-war department strong alloys. One of the alloys was a material designated H14 WP. This alloy which was used in Spitfire airframes was 7/8 gauge and had immense strength because it had to withstand the huge G-forces generated by the steep angles that Spitfires could bank to. The company, The Atlantic Metal Company Ltd of St Pancras Way London, had quite a large stock of this material and when Henry complained to his uncle about how many times he had bent the handlebars on his motorbike, his uncle suggested this material. Henry scoffed at the idea, saying that aluminium could never be strong enough, but he agreed to try it, and Henry was sent with some tube to a TV aerial maker in South London to bend the first pair of aluminium handlebars. The aerial makers broke their first bender trying to bend the handlebars and took another half day on another bender trying to make them!
A time to learn
Andrew and Henry had become good friends after the fork-buying episode. Andrew was always keen on the engineering of motorcycles, more so than the riding of them. At 16 Henry moved to trials and Andrew became very much involved in making sure his trials machines were fantastic. Move forward now to Remembrance Sunday 1969, now both aged 20, with no trials to attend and nothing to do. They were sitting in front of the fire discussing the past when the subject of the alloy handlebars that had been made so many years before came up. Two hours later the idea of aluminium alloy trials handlebars was born. By starting a small hobby company, Andrew would be the engineer and Henry was going to be in charge of commercial and marketing. They thought of a name: ‘Rosenshaw’ was too unwieldy but ‘Renthal’ – Andrew Renshaw and Henry Rosenthal sounded much better. So Andrew built a bender using the lathe in his shed
and an old washing mangle while Henry sourced the tube – the same tube that he had used many years earlier, as nobody wanted it as it couldn’t be welded and was very expensive. The first product they decided to produce was trials handlebars, high and wide, which was the fashion of the time. They were called Renthal and sold as ‘A super-strong handlebar which is very light and more resilient, three-times springier than steel’; an important consideration when the suspension was so poor.
Renthal needed customers and went to Jim Sandiford at Bury and Johnny Burns of MotoXMotors of Oldham, telling them about these fantastic handlebars and could they pay 50 per cent in advance! Both said they were either on to something fantastic or were going to lose money. They both took the risk. To give the bars credibility, Mick Andrews, Malcolm Rathmell and Martin Lampkin, were approached to use the handlebars; all agreed to try them. They liked them, so they were then advertised as super-strong handlebars ‘as used by’, and soon they were selling in limited quantities. Supply and demand are always important and, such was the demand, production moved to the greenhouse at Henry’s home. This was all in 1969; it was only going to be a hobby business.
By 1975, it was time to take it to another level. Having long run out of the original material, and spending much time trying to source a suitable modern equivalent, the company were now employing two people in the basement of an old mill in Macclesfield, so Andrew and Henry decided that maybe Renthal was a ‘proper job’ after all. With their two employees, they both became full-time and shortened the business name to Renthal, having been in the intervening years called ‘Renthal Enterprises’.
Expansion and export
Now they were full-time new decisions had to be made. Henry had learned at business studies that brand names were more difficult because it was more expensive in the beginning than being a sub-contractor, but ultimately you had control of your destiny. They already had the brand name Renthal, so a decision was made to only make products under their brand name, a
choice that Renthal have never wavered from. The other thing Henry learned was that it was better to have a limited product range and sell it to a huge market. That decision was easy as they only had handlebars, the brand name and the winning riders, who at the time were all English. The first export market was surprisingly Australia because Mick Andrews had recently made a promotional trials visit there, with the first customer being McCulloch’s. This was followed by Japan, where trials were taking off with Moroi Kei Trading becoming the first Japanese customer. Belgium followed, through a British Expat called Richard Cove who had moved to Belgium to start an export/import company importing European parts to the UK and exporting UK parts to Europe. Richard suggested making motocross bars because motocross was much more prominent in Europe than trials. Renthal outgrew the premises in Macclesfield and was now employing six people, moving to an old weaving shed at Clarence Mill at Bollington, a village outside Macclesfield – note still a mill. Because of a shortage of funds most of the production machinery was still being made by Andrew, often amalgamations and cannibalisations of different machines. The Clarence Mill premises, though huge, were awful as the roof leaked and the place was falling down. Renthal was so ashamed of it that when any overseas visitors came to visit them, they would meet them in London and give them a tour of London, using great hospitality to their guests to disguise the fact that they were ashamed of their premises and didn’t want them to come!
The sprocket range
In 1979 they started to look for additional products to add to the Renthal handlebar range to help them expand. Andrew had experience with chains and sprockets from his time working at the Renold Chain Company, so when Renthal wanted to develop the second product in their range sprockets was an easy choice. Using the same formula – produce the best product you can make, get the top riders to use it for credibility, sell to the consumer exactly what the top riders use, advertise and sell throughout the world.
A New Factory
By 1989, with the business very strong they had enough funds to build a new factory, and so it was time for the move to Bredbury, just outside Stockport. With Stockport’s manufacturing base quickly vanishing as the textile mills and huge steel plant of James Mills at Bredbury all closed down, unemployment was high. Stockport Council purchased a lot of the land previously owned by Henry’s mentor Harry Ogden which it was then selling cheap to industry. The brothers Harry and Ted Ogden were both good all-round motorcycle riders in road racing, motocross and trials riders in the pre- and post-war years. Harry was a factory BSA rider for a time but was always eclipsed by his more famous brother Ted. Under what is now junction 25 of the M60 Harry had a motocross track which was used for TV scrambles of the 1960s. They were also farmers based in Bredbury and delivered milk to the Rosenthal house in the nearby village of Romiley. It was at the Bredbury scrambles course that Henry would cut his teeth on an old Matchless. The Renthal premises were built in 1989, not far from the track Henry learned to ride on, and Renthal went from strength to strength before the factory burned down in September 2000.
Fortunately, Renthal was correctly insured and, as the insurance company said: “Nobody sets fire to their premises at 9.30am in the morning in front of their whole workforce when they are doing well and are not even there”.
Neither was on site at the time, as Henry was returning from London and Andrew was bringing a new foreign exchange student in for his first day of work experience at Renthal. Andrew commented at the time “Looks like something is on fire near Renthal” and when he got nearer he said, “It is Renthal!” The fire was caused by a dust extractor blowing up. They were both grateful after the fire just how helpful people are in a disaster. Talon helped them with blank sprockets and material at their cost, for which they are eternally grateful to George Sartin. Local companies gave them premises to operate from, suppliers stored goods for them, and their customers swapped products with each other, all to help them through this challenging period.
Andrew and Henry always said that when they were 55, they would sell Renthal. They didn’t quite make it because they sold in 2006 when they were 57. However, a long time before this they started bringing in the next generation of managers to ‘obsolete’ themselves. In 2006 Renthal was sold to MAG (Motorcycle Aftermarket Group) based in America. MAG wanted a western-European modern manufacturing plant with English-speaking staff that was first or second in their field. Renthal fitted their requirements, and MAG fitted Andrew and Henry’s, which was to keep Renthal as a UK manufacturer and keep on all the staff, both conditions which MAG honoured, and the takeover was seamless. Andrew’s position was taken over by a new team of engineers, and Henry’s position was taken over by Rees Williams plus the addition of a new position, Managing Director, being created with Tom Wade taking the role. Tom was the Mergers and Acquisition partner who helped sell Renthal to MAG. Each one has a keen interest in their respective fields as well as a passion for offroad motorcycles.
So what does the future hold for Renthal as it heads into its 50th year of business? Well for certain its commitment to trials is undiminished, with its continuing support of both international and domestic trials teams. Renthal handlebars can be found on the winning machines of Toni Bou, Dougie Lampkin and the rising star of Jaime Busto. Renthal have also relatively recently and successfully developed a market line of cycling products, transferring their lifelong passion for lightweight race products into a new market, only this time powered by pedal. For cycling, there are no governing body restrictions on materials. Therefore Renthal has been able to develop a full range of cockpit products for all disciplines of mountain biking in both aluminium and carbon fibre to satisfy a similar weight obsessed market.
Every year new materials become available, and new methods of manufacture are created, all these changes being led by a younger workforce looking to honour the principles set up by Andrew and Henry while modernising and improving the Renthal range. As Henry, the last remaining survivor of early Renthal inevitably slips into the twilight of life then it is for the next generation of Tom, Rees, Ians, Simon and Pauls to carry Renthal forward. A company, in theory, can be immortal where its employees cannot. So maybe Henry will, after all, achieve his ambition of being picked up in a helicopter [rented will suffice!] on his 80th birthday and be told by the new management how much better they have done for Renthal than its founders!
Twinwall in the process of manufacture.
Renthal’s motorcycling marketing team: Rees Williams, Ian Tindle and Henry Rosenthal.
Tapered tube waiting for bending into Renthal handlebars.
Making handlebars isn’t as simple as just bending a tube. The blasting of stainless steel balls at high pressure against the surface significantly improves fatigue strength.
Each batch of material gets thoroughly inspected before making its way to the factory floor.
Steve looks happy; all the Renthal employees we spoke to on our visit had a valued interest in the process they were carrying out.
Renthal’s facility is made of three different building; the assembly building is the middle stage as parts manufactured across the yard are assembled and packaged before heading to the warehouse.
Since entering the cycle market Renthal has refined their range into the market-leading products by using intensive product testing.
With space at a premium in the UK, Renthal has a factory where production is spread across two floors.
Renthal’s chainwheel range has expanded to cover a huge range of machines and models.
The plasma cutter cuts hundreds of chainwheel blanks each day.
For repeatability many processes are completed without human intervention.
Upper floor manufacturing.
Trials legend Mick Andrews gave them their early success in trials with European championship and Scottish Six Days Trial victories in the early seventies.
In the Honda Museum at Twin Ring Moteigi race track in Japan a display of Honda’s championship winning trials machines can be found, all fitted with Renthal handlebars.
The association between Toni Bou and the Repsol Honda team has resulted in him becoming a 24-time FIM World Trials Champion, all using Renthal Twinwall handlebars.