Made in Britain is a flexible expression. Often it means designed over here and made abroad, or assembled locally from components manufactured elsewhere.
For Maxton Suspension, however, made in Britain means what it says. Apart from a handful of seals and bearings, and the springs, (which are made by a UK specialist), every component which goes into Maxton shock, fork or revalve kit is manufactured at the company's modest, superbly organised premises in Cheshire.
In a five minute stroll, you can see everything from racks of steel and aluminium, manual and CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machine tools, through to the benches where the four fitters assemble the end products.
There is no production line. There are no dealers. There is no stock of finished units. Everything is built to order. Costs are kept down and quality control is kept up without the need for offshore suppliers.
Richard Adams, stepson of Maxton founder Ron Williams and responsible for the running of the business, said, "We looked at getting parts made in China and Taiwan five years ago because we needed to increase our capacity. Then we looked at the cost of buying a CNC lathe to increase the amount we could do in-house. The costs were about the same. We decided that continuing in-house with new machinery was the better option."
Better because it gives the best combination of flexibility and quality control. You need something, you make something - it's the ultimate in agile manufacturing. Since that decision, they have added more CNC machinery, but gradually so that they have stayed profitable. They do not want to rule the world. They want to make products they love, keep their many customers satisfied and feel at the end of each working day that they have added to people’s enjoyment of motorcycling, whether on road or race track.
“It [Maxton] is a passion of ours that’s gone a bit mad. We do not want it to become a horrible monster that we have to keep feeding,” Richard told me.
All the same, Maxton suspension dominates the UK sidecar racing scene and Maxton using racers, Tom and Ben Birchall claimed the F2 sidecar world championship in 2016 to add to their TT victory.
TT racers John McGuinness, Dean Harrison and Ryan Farquhar all use Maxton suspension in certain classes. Harrison and Farquhar also used Maxton Superbike forks for the first time in 2016. The forks are currently in development but will be available for sale next year for about £4,000 plus VAT, which compares well with offerings from the competition (a set of Ohlins race forks will cost anything up to £10,000).
Speaking of Maxton’s racing activity and the competition, Richard says “If we can compete in the UK and win some races, we are happy. I think there is room in paddock for everyone.”
What they will not do is buy publicity by paying race teams to use their parts.
Road riders have always been a big part of Maxton’s business. The philosophy of dealing direct with the customers and keeping the operation to a manageable size means that motorcyclists like you and me can buy some of the best suspension upgrades and components available at reasonable prices. The NR4 rear shock for road use starts at £522 while the RT10 rear unit aimed at fast road riders, track day fans and club racers, starts at £726. Even at the top end, the GP10 rear shock designed for racing starts from £900.
At the front end of the bike, Maxton manufacture everything from piston upgrade kits which they fit for you, all the way through to 20mm and 30mm fork cartridges. Front end prices start at £384 for a revalve.
While sports bikes are big part of Maxton’s sales, the move towards all-rounders is strong. In 2015 Maxton sold more parts for Yamaha’s MT-09 than for any other bike. King of the heap in 2016 has been the Ducati Scrambler.
Owners of older bikes can have 20mm cartridge kits fitted to their existing forks, keeping the classic look while adding modern performance. Maxton also offer complete classic forks, similar to Cerianis, in either 35mm or 38 mm stanchion diameters. They make twin shock rear units in a variety of specifications.
The buying experience is unique among UK suspension suppliers. You make contact, Maxton send you a specification to get details of your bike, your weight, and your style of riding. They build whatever components you require to suit your specific needs and send it to you. Waiting time is typically two to three weeks.
Underlining how well respected Maxton are, leading European manufacturers and race bike builders, KTM, have been using their services as consultants in recent months, although they could not reveal the exact nature of the project.
Maxton was started in 1971 by Ron Williams (top picture), a legend in the world of chassis and suspension design. How good is he? In the late 1970s Honda had returned to GP racing and were struggling to find the right direction in chassis development. They asked Ron to go to Japan and guide them. He carried on doing work for them until 1988. He rates Derbyshire racer Ron Haslam as the best development rider he ever worked with.
At 75 Ron is still active in the business. He handles much of the design work and on the day I visited, he had just started teaching himself a new 3D modeling package.
The phone is the office is constantly ringing. Ron’s wife Mary, (Richard’s mum) answers the stream of queries with a good natured calm that is reflected throughout the whole operation. The machinists Eddie and Mike go about their work with relaxed good humour. At the benches near the door, fitters Tim, Nat and Gary build shocks to order (the fourth fitter is on holiday). Dean Harrison’s mechanic and British Supersport racer Ben Stafford turns up to collect Dean’s Kawasaki and stops to chat with Richard (below).
Although everyone is busy, there is no sense of unnecessary pressure and at 5.30 as the working day winds down I get ready to take my leave. The most important thing I have learned is that you do not need to manufacture anything offshore if you are willing to deal direct with the public, grow organically and avoid the overheads demanded by dealer networks and high stock levels. Quality can be assured and, although there is no possible way to avoid stress in the working world, the Maxton approach keeps it to a minimum for everyone involved.
For further information, you can visit Maxton's website: http://www.maxtonsuspension.co.uk/