You Ain't Seen Anything Yet.
Those were the five words that made the famous tagline for Kirk Precision Ltd, a seemingly revolutionary bicycle company that popped up in the 1980's in Britain under the stewardship of Frank Kirk. When Kirk's bicycles first came out, it turned quite many heads around the world and the resulting fanfare around the design was clothed in an uninhibited rapture that many people in the industry had not seen in a while. It became one of the most talked about products in New York in the 1980's.
However, it didn't take a long time for the design itself to fail and the company's reputation and financial health to plunge. This write-up is a study in why some ideas just don't make it. This one was thoroughly British.
1.5 CUBIC METRES OF SEA WATER FOR A FRAME
The man had previous experience as an aerospace engineer, working with magnesium castings for high performance Jaguar aircrafts. By the 1980's, he was very convinced that he could couple both his automobile production knowledge and past experience in casting to make a unique, lightweight and cheap magnesium frame bike.
The idea he ended up chalking out was an odd-looking I-beamish girder-like frame, which would be made by a process called High Pressure Die Casting. He told Bicycle :
"The interest was academic. I thought that if we had the materials and the means to make a much larger casting than before, it seemed logical to simplify the production of something that has to be made by an otherwise laborious, expensive process which was ultimately very fagile in use. In other words, make it cheaper to make, consistently accurate and better into the bargain."
The design was finalized after extensive CAD modeling. Yet, he found out how well designed conventional frame design was and in the end, made only fine tune adjustments in geometry. In those times, using powerful computers to design bikes and simulate forces and stresses in these models were nothing short of revolutionary. He told Bicycle :
"...the section that represents the down tube on a conventional frame is able to almost exactly follow the axis of torque, about which the whole thing potentially twists, and which accounts for most of the increased stiffness. We were able to use CAD for small fine tuning adjustments and for refining the aesthetics. The computer could predict just what we could afford to change, and what we couldn't."
Kirk was convinced of magnesium because of a few things it could afford him :
1) It is lighter than aluminum, by as much as 35%. Kirk went ahead and claimed that his design would be 50% stiffer, and 1 1/2 times more rigid than a heavy guage, chrome-moly steel frame. One of his favorite ways of promoting his frame design was to lay it on the road, and drive his Mercedes over it to show its strength.
2) In die casting, magnesium can be easily formed into complex and thin walled parts. Kirk's design would be a one-piece die cast, so if done in high volume, it would be a cost effective process. Even though the bike would be cheap, Kirk wanted to retain some of the features that would make it look 'exotic' and 'pricier' than what was on its price tag.
3) Magnesium could be refined from sea water. And sea water is plenty. The company's marketing materials claimed that only 0.01% of the ocean's resources would be depleted if consumption of magnesium quadrupled, and was used at this rate for millions of years. Kirk claimed that only 1.5 cubic meters of sea water was sufficient to extract the magnesium needed to build one frame.
4) A magnesium frame, according to Kirk, would make the world's first 100% recyclable bike. It could be melted and remolded into anything you wanted.
5) Kirk's philosophy was that each of these frames would be identical in size, weight and dimensions and that constraint would allow the testing of a rider's true potential. Such an idea will obviously scream 'NO' to most bicycle companies, and custom frame builders in this day and age. Whether Kirk really wanted to bring out "true potential" or whether he was more interested in keeping his production costs down, I do not know.
Convinced he had the perfect design, he had the idea patented in 3 instances worldwide and proceeded to start production.
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
Kirk's production goal was to die cast these frames out of magnesium and so set up his shop in Basildon, Essex. The Kirk frame began life as ignots of magnesium which were melted and die cast at high temperature by pouring it into a steel mold sealed at very high pressure.
Interestingly, it was reported that many of his experiences with early production were plagued by fire hazards. As you may know, magnesium dust, and chips from production processes can easily catch fire if its ignition temperature is exceeded. See this link for the proper techniques to machine magnesium. Such safety problems can not only lead to inefficient production but also injuries and negative press about the company.
The handful of successful frames that made it though, named Precision (it gets it name from the fact that the bikes were precisely positioned using CAD/CAM), were shown at trade shows around the world and some were even marketed to the Dutch TVM team for the Tour de France. It reportedy showed its strength in 1992, when a team of Norwegian athletes, completed the first ever crossing of Spitsbergen, a 26 hour trip over rugged terrain. Kirk would also boast about his bike's performance in the US Pro Championship, where it was used by British pro Steve Poulter.
The frenzy for these frames was nothing small. Beset by high demand and poor financial results for his investors, he eventually engaged the biggest magnesium producer in the world - Norsk Hydro - in a partnership to produce his frames. Norsk had in their factories some great robots to speed up the work of production. They also had some of the world's largest hot chamber facilities and the world's biggest magnesium pressure die casting machine, which was about 8ft tall and weighed a couple of tons!
The production process was refined and faster. It now just took 40 milliseconds for hot molten magnesium to be injected into the mold at 650 degrees of temperature and nearly 700 tonnes of pressure. Kirk claimed that the time taken to make one frame only took 8 seconds!
Steel inserts were then used and bonded in the head tube and bottom brackets and an aluminum sleeve was used to hold the seat tube. The frames had bonded cable stops, and cable routing in the recesses in the frame. The front derailleur was bolted as were the rear brake bosses and the rear dropouts. The frame itself was tested using gym weights and dumbbells
Three models were marketed in the U.S - a MTB version named Revolution, a competition version named Genesis and a touring version named Ranger. Shimano's groupsets were used as components, and a couple of Rigida's were used as rims.
I'm not so much interested in the intricate details of Kirk's history as much as the downfall of the company. What happened soon around the world wrote a sad chapter for Kirk. What were some of the factors that led to its collapse?
1) Early frames were chunky, flexy and had a reputation for breaking. Lever bosses popped out and bottom bracket inserts came loose.
2) Kirk's own forks were problematic. They were heavy, flexy and made the bike dangerous to use. A number of Kirk's bikes were replaced with better forks. The bikes used in the Tour de France by the TVM team used Reynolds 753 forks.
3) Kirk bikes were sold at prices comparable to other 'pro' bikes (400-500 British pounds), but many were over 30 pounds in weight! Even steel bikes sold for less than that price in those days could be had much lighter. Hence, although the material for the frame was quite a step into the future of bicycles, the specs of the bikes were rather mediocre.
4) Its claimed benefits were hardly what was evidenced in reality. In a scything review of its touring bike titled "Precisely Why", famous bicycle designer Mike Burrows wrote, among other things, about false stiffness claims and structurally weak cross sections in portions of the frame compared to conventional design. It turns out that Burrows was pretty suspicious of the design.
5) Kirk's unconventional design had a lot of recessed sections in the frame. Such regions would be attractive for stubborn mud and dirt to stick to. For off-road bikers, that just made cleaning more challenging and time consuming. I hope this clicks a lightbulb for you readers, because I have talked precisely about this issue when talking about the Delta 7 Iso Truss bike design. Click here to read.
6) Another inherent problem in these bikes was the chance of galvanic corrosion due to the dissimilar metals being used, which would eventually result in some form of structural fatigue in the design. The concerns about magnesium exploding in industrial settings were also spreading, and whether these claims were real or unfounded, it was apparent that people were taking a step back to think twice before purchasing the magnesium bikes.
7) The time delay between concept and production was widening. Investors and production partners like Norsk Hydro just didn't see the return on investment heading their way. Norsk had a huge capital investment in Kirk. But as the bikes themselves became unreliable to use, demand was falling and it was evident that the hype bubble had burst.
What goes up has to come down at some point. Kirk's commercial success with its bikes was short lived. The problems with reliability and financial results eventually led to the stopping of all production in 1992. This quickly led to the extinction of the company.
Today, it'll be a rare sight to see one of Kirk's bikes. Recently, a beautiful picture of it popped up on the weight weenies forum. The owner, hockinsk, is using 42mm H+Son rims, the same ones that failed like a taco when a Japanese rider attempted to do some hipster tricks on his bike.
CONCLUSIONS AND SOME LESSONS LEARNED
The fall of Kirk Cycles is perhaps a classic study of how design failure and financial upsets can quickly bring any company down. But I have perhaps some sublime conclusions to make from this reality.
1) Is the bicycle resistant to change? It is with some wonder that I have observed how resistant the classic design of the bicycle is to groundbreaking changes and far fetched "innovations." For over 100 years, all sorts of people have thought up ways to think differently with the desire of bringing slight improvements to existing design and the dream to make some some money for themselves in the process. But these were either all short lived or they looked good on paper but practically and commercially, they were a complete failure.
2) It take more than design : Just because a design or a product involves some cutting edge technology doesn't always mean it'll bring the company sound financial success. It takes a lot of hard work, thought and judgment to design something on paper. After this stage, it takes some more hard work and good financial oversight to take it to market, make it successful with consumers, bring in profits and satisfy your shareholders and angel capitalists taking an interest in your company. This will not happen overnight. If it does, you better take a good look at whats going on (eg. The Enron Scam!).
3) Halo Effect : In the case of Kirk, there was classic halo effect over it because of its widespread publicity and positive reviews and remarks it was receiving in magazines and publications. It was even used by top professionals in the Tour de France and other famous competitions. Why is the Tour de France such a widely renowned stage for the testing of a product? Because its a tough race. One hell of a tough race. And having your product used by one of the racers is taken by many people to be one of the most tangible indicators to how good it might be performance wise.
Yet, this did not satisfy a reliable product nor company success for Kirk. And a lot of others as well.
Even today, many bicycle companies try to get the edge over others by airing themselves in big races, having professionals race on their bikes and so on. Writers who do reviews quickly fill the bicycle magazines with good things to say about the product and will flood their pages with all sorts of advertisements. Consumers all over the world take notice of all these developments and immediately entertain false positive notions about the product. "If its used by pros, it must be good." "If its reviewed by such and such person, oh it must really be good then!" Wait, really??
4) I stopped reading product reviews : Just because a cycling product made it to the Tour de France or Lance Armstrong had his ass on it, or Bicycling Magazine wrote a sweet review about it doesn't mean zilch to me. This is why I stopped reading bicycle magazines, and umpteen other "reviews" of products on popular cycling websites a long time back. These reviews leave us with nothing more but a desire for objectivity and a filter for all the noise.
Sometimes I ask myself : Don't people have anything better to do with their time than review products for you and me and make a bunch of false attributions about the product that's nothing more than pure, hard bias at the fundamental level and a desire to get some cash out of the people whom they're promoting? It is interesting to see that even research studies on some products are in some way backed up by the manufacturer themselves, hence the conclusions of these studies do nothing more but promote the financier's products.
Additional Resources :
Interesting Facts About Kirk Bicycles