Spend any time talking to James and Lyle Metcalfe and you’ll quickly discover how passionate they are about electric bikes. They’re long-time riders, who know what people want from pedal-assist machines.
So it’s little wonder that Volt Bikes, the firm they set up little more than a decade ago, has quickly built up an enviable reputation for both the quality of its e-bikes and its customer service.
Even better, the brothers are engaging, amusing and articulate, serving as great ambassadors not just for Volt but for electric bikes in general. If you’ve met them, you’ve probably come away convinced you need an e-bike – ideally a Volt one – in your life. Which makes it easy to see why Volt has turned into such a British success story.
How Volt jumped ahead of the curve
Based in London Bridge, and with a factory in Milton Keynes, Volt offers a full range of e-bikes that mix British design and engineering, produced with proven parts sourced from well-known suppliers. The Metcalfe brothers know what their customers want, essentially because they are their customer: back in 2010 they formed Volt to produce the e-bikes they wanted to ride.
“We were e-bike riders, and we thought there was a real gap in the market and potential for the technology to grow in the UK,” says James. “We were fortunate to launch the firm just as lead-acid batteries were being replaced by lithium-ion units. That transformed the range and performance of an e-bike, and helped make them much lighter.”
When Volt launched dedicated e-bike firms were rare, while the major bike manufacturers and retailers were unconvinced about offering electrically assisted machines. That means the market was largely dominated by Chinese imports of sometimes questionable quality.
“These days we get interest from so many different sectors. It’s quite a nice feeling, a bit like a sign of appreciation, because for the first five years or so after we launched the company, people thought we were mad,” laughs James. “Even bike shops were like ‘we don’t want to sell e-bikes, they’re not needed’. But then, all of a sudden, there was a huge transition because the technology developed so rapidly.
“About five years after we started retailers were like ‘oh yeah, we do e-bikes’, and suddenly all they talked about was e-bikes. Now e-bikes are becoming the norm: if you look around London, it’s just e-bikes everywhere.”
How Volt’s bikes stand out
While Volt is a dedicated electric bike brand, the philosophy is to produce machines that simply look and feel like great bikes.
“We’ve come a long way from when we made our first bike,” admits Lyle. “It was a bit clunkier, and the battery mounted on the frame didn’t really look fantastic. But with the technology advancing we can have integrated batteries, so we’ve got a lot more freedom. Now, if someone rode past on one of our machines you wouldn’t think ‘there’s an e-bike’, you’d just go ‘that’s a nice-looking bike’."
But it’s not just style: Volt combines that with plenty of technology. It offers bikes with both central and rear-mounted motors, and has developed its own system called SpinTech, a rear hub motor that uses torque sensors to control the drive. “It gives a feeling of having a central motor anyway,” says James.
Volt was one of the first firms to work closely with Shimano on integrating its e-bike motor technology, and that highlights one of the firm’s key philosophies: sourcing parts from trusted suppliers. As well as Shimano, that includes Suntour (suspension), Bus (locks), Panasonic and Sony (batteries).
“It’s really important to work with reliable parts manufacturers: if you don’t you’re going to run into problems,” says James. “Pretty much every component that we put on this bike, down to the spokes, comes from a manufacturer that is known in the industry. We put a two-year warranty on our bikes because we want to prove they’re built to last.”
Lyle adds: “The past decade has been a learning curve for us on that front. Something you think ‘yeah, you can get that part a bit cheaper elsewhere, and it looks identical.’ And then it breaks, so you have to do a mini-recall and replace all those parts.”
Another key element is that Volt packages its bikes with all the kit and features that buyers would want. “We try and make it as complete as it needs to be,” adds James. “So we’ve got integrated lights, and most of our bikes have integrated rear pannier racks.
“A bike is a lifestyle choice for many people. But when you buy a regular bike you often don’t really get any of the accessories you need as standard, everything’s an add-on. So we thought let’s make it all a standard feature.”
Security is a key factor, too: all Volt bikes come with an immobiliser as standard, along with a built-in lock.
Bringing production to Britain
Initially, Volt’s bikes were manufactured in Poland, in a facility shared with a Swedish firm. But the brothers always had an aspiration to bring production to Britain, a move that was hastened by Brexit.
“We always wanted to produce the bikes in the UK, but when we first set up it was basically an impossibility because e-bikes were virtually non-existent at the time and the market just hadn’t evolved for us to get the parts we needed,” says James.
“While we’d always wanted to move production to the UK, it was quite a step to actually break off from our production partner and go it alone. But Brexit was a fundamental moment: it was quite hard to predict what was going to happen with the market.”
Something else that couldn’t be predicted, of course, was a global pandemic. And while the brothers might have timed when to launch an e-bike firm to perfection back in 2010, they likely couldn't have picked a worse time to open their UK factory than in early 2020.
“We were just kicking off and then it was like ‘oh, by the way, nobody’s allowed to let their employees do anything’,” says Lyle. “Thankfully, the government decided that bikes were an essential product to provide transportat and well-being, so we were able to resume operations after a short break.”
Experience of dealing with the complications of post-Brexit cross-border goods also helped. “We purposely stocked up heavily on parts ahead of opening the factory to protect us in case we got it all wrong anyway. Ironically, no other manufacturer had stocked up ahead of lockdown, but we sort of tripled the amount of parts we had, just so we could get over any problems of opening the factory. That worked really well for us.”
The new facility in Milton Keynes – chosen for its distribution links and central location – covers 20,000 square feet, has room to employ around 30 people and has the capacity to produce around 20,000 e-bikes a year.
“We’re not huge, but we’re getting there,” says James, who quips that British folding bike firm Brompton probably produces 20,000 bikes a week.
The rapid growth of the e-bike market has drawn in the major players, from long-running bike brands such as Ribble, Brompton and Raleigh to major retailers such as Halfords.
Alongside its headquarters near London Bridge, Volt sells through its website and a network of around 100 independent suppliers – and Lyle says there’s no plans for that to change.
“We’ve had some of the big boys knock on the door a number of times, but for now our ethos is to work with the independents,” he says. “They’ve got a less tough approach to doing business that matches what we’re about, and what our values are. It’s not about pushing the price down and beating everyone with a stick: we just want it to remain a pleasant environment for dealers.
“In some of the meetings we’ve had with some big firms, they want to push margins down, which will just affect the quality of what we do, and our quality of life as well. We want it to be a fun environment for our staff and everyone else.
“Besides, every town has got an independent bike shop in it, and we’d rather work with them.”
The changing face of e-bike customers
The growth of the e-bike market continues to bring new customers to Volt. “There’s been a huge change,” says Lyle. “When we first started out it was enthusiasts who’d heard about e-bikes online. There were some interesting characters.
“Then, our main market was probably 50-plus, but for the last few years it’s been pretty much everyone. You get students at university, delivery couriers, and the commuter market is massive. It’s drastically changed, and it’s only going to grow.”
Volt also worked with some institutions, supplying bikes to universities and to various NHS trusts to help doctors cross sprawling hospital campuses. But while it keep finding new customers, Volt isn’t ignoring the old ones.
“One of our oldest customers phoned me up last week, actually,” says Lyle. “He’s 97 – and he wanted to tell me he was hanging up his e-bike shorts. He bought his first bike from us around 10 years ago, but he’s switching to a four-wheeler.
“I phone him up sometimes just for a chat, because he often sends me a postcard or a Christmas card or something. He’s invited me up to his 98th birthday party…”
The long-term goal: e-bike domination
The decision by the Metcalfe brothers to jump into the e-bike market 12 years ago has paid off, with Volt firmly established as one of the UK’s foremost electric bike brands.
But while the e-bike market has grown dramatically since 2010, it is set to be utterly transformed in the next 12 years. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge for Volt: it will have a bigger market to serve, but also bigger competition.
“I’m pretty certainly that soon – maybe in the next five years – almost every household in the UK will have an e-bike, like almost every household has a conventional bike now,” says James. And, of course, he’d like a lot of those to be Volt Bikes.
“Some of the big boys were saying e-bikes are the worst thing ever five or so years ago, and now they’re very excited about e-bikes,” says James. “That’s a challenge for us.
“We’ve been lucky to establish a foothold early, and we’ve got a lot of history in the market and a lot of loyalty with the dealers we work with.”
For the future, James says the firm “just wants to keep growing”. He adds: “Ultimately, we want to be the dominant e-bike brand in the UK. We are e-bike only, we embrace the technology and everything to do with it, and we’ve got more experience in the UK than almost every other brand.”