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.
A technician spotted an almost imperceptible hairline fracture in the frame 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 bikes on the 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 serious competition. We were up against bicycle dealers, some of whom had come from as far as London. While the dealers inspected each 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 suitable 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 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 bicycles 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 us out on the road. Unrecognisable 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 fly-posting 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 of my most successful campaigns. It resulted in a single enquiry, which we converted into a £40 sale. The posters cost me 13p to photocopy, giving a return on investment of 284%. Some years later, I met someone from Oxford University 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 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 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.