Harry Montague, 77; turned folding bikes into a business

Harry Montague with one of his creations. Montague foldable bikes are sold in 24 countries. Harry Montague with one of his creations. Montague foldable bikes are sold in 24 countries. (Family Photo)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post / February 22, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Harry Montague often enjoyed roaming his Washington neighborhood by bicycle, but his cumbersome two-wheeler took up too much room at home.

He tried to ride the smaller commuter bikes, but the contraptions were too wobbly for his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame.

An architect by trade and a tinkerer by constitution, Mr. Montague built a full-size, foldable mountain bike in his garage in the early 1980s.

He and his son started a business in 1987, and today Montague foldable bikes are sold in 24 countries. Mr. Montague, 77, died of lymphoma Feb. 2 at his home in Brookline, Mass.

For 30 years, Mr. Montague had a private architecture firm in Washington and specialized in home renovations with a modern touch. His designs often incorporated natural light with tall windows and skylights.

In the early 1980s, he turned his eye to bicycles. By adding hinges and hand-adjustable levers, he could fold a full-size mountain bike into the trunk of a car. Folded down, his creation was 36 inches wide, 30 inches tall, and 12 inches deep. It weighed less than 30 pounds.

The traditional bicycle “has a perfect design that has been around since the turn of the century, but it’s too big for an urban setting,’’ Mr. Montague told The Washington Post in 1988. “My idea was to make a high-performance bicycle that can fit in a closet.’’

He wrote letters to 40 bicycle manufacturers about the new design, but none of them bit. He placed a small advertisement in a bicycling magazine and was soon making custom-built foldable bikes.

The bikes were slow to catch on, and Mr. Montague had trouble explaining the benefits of a bicycle that could be zipped into a bag and carried over the shoulder.

“I went walking down Connecticut Avenue [in D.C.] with the bike on my back,’’ he told The Post in 1981. “People were unwilling to look at me, like I was walking with a crutch or something. Finally, I passed some elementary school kids. They were the first ones to say, ‘Look! He’s got a bike on his back!’ ’’

In 1984, Bicycling magazine wrote that “although many large-wheel folders have appeared over the years, the Montague has the best design we’ve ever seen.’’

Mr. Montague decided to make his hobby a business shortly after his son, David, received a graduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As part of his graduate work, David Montague used his father’s foldable bike as a business model for an entrepreneurship project.

After he presented his idea in class, complete with a full-size prototype, his professor asked him if he was interested in outside investors.

Mr. Montague provided his son with $300,000 and they started Montague Bikes in 1987. By the early 1990s, the company was selling about 2,000 bikes a year. Today, annual sales number about 40,000.

Harry Drogo Montague was born in New York City and moved to the Washington area in 1966. He was a 1957 graduate of the University of Michigan, where he studied architecture. He served in the Army from 1958 to 1960.

He retired to Massachusetts from Washington in 2000.

He leaves his wife of 52 years, Ruth Heald Montague of Brookline; two children, Ellen Montague of Fort Collins, Colo., and David of Newton, Mass.; a brother; and four grandchildren.

In 1997, Mr. Montague’s business received a two-year grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Defense Department wanted the company to develop a heavy-duty mountain bike suitable for paratroopers. The bike had to be tough enough to handle terrain anywhere in the world and also be able to fit into parachute rigging.

The result was the TENS, or Tactical Electric No Signature, mountain bike. It used an electric motor that allowed the bike to move silently and was undetectable on most radar systems. The Montagues also developed a version of the bike without the electric motor called the Paratrooper. Many of them have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan.