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Jun 062013
 
One of the larger new Briggs & Riley hard-sided suitcases with a matching carry-on strapped to it with the included connecting strap.

One of the larger new Briggs & Riley hard-sided suitcases with a matching carry-on strapped to it with the included connecting strap.

There’s no finer luggage on the planet than that made by Briggs & Riley.

Indeed, every time I proclaim this self-evident truth, I get a chorus of readers enthusiastically writing in to share their own experiences and delight in this excellent company’s great products.

The reason we all like Briggs & Riley products so much is not only because they truly are good, but because they literally put their money where their mouth is, and honor their products with a lifetime no questions asked warranty.  Any damage – even airline caused – will be repaired by them, no matter how old your bag is, or what the damage might be.

Needless to say, a company with such an extraordinary guarantee has to be very sure of the quality of the bags it makes.  So you know, right from the get-go, that anything they sell is going to be well made and reliable.

Until now, all their bags have been soft sided type bags.  Rightly or wrongly, the market has been pressuring them to provide a hard-sided range of bags too, which they have now done.

It might seem that they have been slow in releasing a range of hard sided bags. But the reason for the slowness is their caution and their insistence on only releasing a fully tested and reliable product that they can comfortably guarantee for a lifetime.

This saw a three-year extensive development program, which of course could only commence once appropriate plastic materials had been identified.

The results of this process were released last month. Their new Torq range of products are truly impressive.

Executive Summary

This is a lengthy and wide-ranging article and review, and so if you don’t want to read all the way through it, here are the key points.

Briggs & Riley have released new hard sided bags in three sizes – one suitable for carrying on to planes, a medium-sized suitcase, and a full/large-sized suitcase.  They are available in three colors (grey, red, blue).  They are not cheap – they cost $479, $529 and $569, and you won’t find them discounted anywhere.  You can buy them at Amazon, and probably other places too.

Although expensive, their durability and their warranty make them worthy of consideration.  We like them and recommend them.

And now, for the rest of the article.

Which is Best? Hard or Soft?

As new materials have been developed, and perhaps as fashion and style preferences have changed, we have similarly seen changes in what luggage is made out of.

There was a time, many years ago, when hard sided suitcases were the norm and soft sided suitcases were uncommon. I still have, somewhere in the back of a wardrobe, a massively over-engineered and dismayingly heavy, hard sided Delsey suitcase from 20+ years ago.

As we all know, the last decade or two has seen soft sided suitcases generally displace most hard sided alternatives. But in the last five years or so, lightweight hard sided suitcases have been coming back into fashion.

Decades ago, hard sided suitcases were thought to provide better protection for the contents inside the suitcase than soft sided suitcases. It is true they probably provided better puncture resistance and better protection against sharp objects, but in terms of the normal stresses encountered by a piece of luggage – things such as being dropped and bumped, the exterior of the bag is actually of little relevance. If anything, one could argue that a soft sided bag absorbs some of the impact energy whereas a hard sided bag transfers it all to the contents.

In other words, hard sided bags didn’t really offer any better protection at all.  This realization resulted in lighter weight and less expensive soft sided bags becoming more popular.

But over the last five years or so, with airlines reducing the maximum allowed weight of checked bags, and with new lightweight but strong materials, hard sided bags have made something of a return; not so much on the basis of protecting the contents any better than soft sided bags, but rather because new hard sided bags can now sometimes offer some weight saving.

Unfortunately, there’s an associated problem that inevitably occurs when you reduce the amount of material used to make a bag.  The bag becomes less durable.

Wow.  In this picture you can see three problems - an actual hole just starting to tear, an incipient hole, and a thin spot, all on a non-B&R bag, after a disappointingly low number of journeys.

Wow. In this picture you can see three problems – an actual hole just starting to tear, an incipient hole, and a thin spot, all on a non-B&R bag, after a disappointingly low number of journeys.

Hard sided plastic bags have two problems.  The first is unavoidable fragility right from when they are first manufactured, and interestingly (unavoidably) a side effect of using the minimum amount of material is that the hard sides become, well, not quite so hard.  They are flexible and so don’t really provide any more protection for the contents than a soft-sided bag.

The second problem is more subtle and slower to appear.  Over time, the ‘plasticizers’ in the plastic material leech out and go away, and the plastic becomes more brittle.  Sooner or later, it will start to crack and snap – with these failures typically appearing first at a stress point such as around a wheel or where the handle attaches to the bag.

From repeated personal experience, I know that sooner or later you will discover that your two-wheeled bag is now a single wheeled bag with a gaping hole where the other wheel was, or that the bag’s handle breaks off, tearing a rip in the side of the bag at the same time.  Both situations create a double problem – not only does the bag lose its convenient rolling functionality, but now it risks spilling its contents through the crack or hole opened up.

So, to summarize, these days hard sided bags don’t provide any more impact protection than soft sided bags, and are typically more fragile and less long-lived than soft-sided bags.  But (and the opposite of a couple of decades ago) they may now be lighter than a comparably sized and featured soft-sided bag, and for some people, that’s the most important issue.

We hesitate to say if hard or soft sided bags are better.  But at least you now know the implications of your choice.

The massively solid wheels on the Briggs & Riley bags.

The massively solid wheels on the Briggs & Riley bags.

The Evolution of Wheels

Younger readers might be astonished to learn that, once upon a time, there was no such thing as wheels on a suitcase.

When wheels first came out, they were typically teensy tiny little things, and four of them were mounted on the base of a standard suitcase on its long side.  To move the suitcase, you attached a flexible strap and pulled it.

This was not very effective, because the bags were uncontrollable and unstable, and would regularly fall over.  But at least it meant we could now load down our suitcases with a greater weight of contents!

The next generation of wheels still saw the bag oriented with its long side on the bottom, with slightly bigger wheels for slightly better stability, and instead of the useless flexible strap, you now had a rigid handle so you had better control.

My lovely old Delsey bag marked a further improvement of sorts.  It was still a long-side-on-the-bottom design, but now it had only two wheels.  You’d transport it by towing it behind you, lifting up the end closest to you with a rigid short handle and pulling it behind you.  This was very stable, but unfortunately, unless you packed all the weight scientifically in the exact places, you ended up with a huge weight to lift on the bag’s handle.

The next level of progress saw the bag designers rotate suitcases 90° so now the two wheels were on a short side, and that combined with a telescoping handle created the wheeled bag as we currently most commonly see.

However, innovation has continued, and the bugs have been worked out of a new concept – the ‘spinner’ bag.  This is, in part, a return to the original wheeled bag design – four wheels instead of two, but on the short side not long side, and instead of a flexible pulling strap, it has a necessarily robust and rigid extendable handle to allow you to control the direction of the bag as you move it.

The great thing about spinner bags is that all the weight is now on the wheels.  A problem with earlier spinners has been that the wheels were too small and weak, and the bags were hard to give directional control due to the handles not being rigid enough.  This has been improved in some but not all bags.

The latest and greatest concept is now a combi-bag that can be used either as a spinner or, if tilted, as an earlier style tilt and tow type bag.  Sometimes a spinner type bag is best, but if you’re on rougher ground, it is generally easier to ’tilt and tow’ the bag, and good bags now allow you to choose either one approach or the other.  Note that due to the design of some spinner type bags, if you try to tilt and tow it, you’ll have problems because of the clearances between the wheels and the side of the bag.

Needless to say, the Briggs & Riley Torq line of bags allows you to use the bag in either mode with no problems, and of course the handle and wheels are robust so as to give you good directional control and stability.

The carry-on has a nice protective front opening pouch where you can safely stow a tablet and other items.

The carry-on has a nice protective front opening pouch where you can safely stow a tablet and other items.

The Briggs & Riley Approach to a Hard Sided Bag

Most bag manufacturers are happy to design and sell a bag, knowing that it will fail in two, three or four years time.  They give the bag something from 90 days to a year of warranty, and even then, exclude airline damage from the brief warranty period, so the manufacturer doesn’t really care too much what happens a reasonable time after the bag’s warranty has expired.

Clearly that’s not an approach B&R can take, due to their ‘no questions asked’ lifetime warranty that covers all damage to their bags, no matter what the cause or how old the bag.  They need their bags to be much longer lived and reliable.

This is reflected most clearly in the weight of their hard-sided bag.  In simplistic terms, they have used more plastic (a type of polycarbonate) in their bags than competitors use in other hard-sided bags, so as to get more longevity with the bag.

Of course, there’s more to it than just throwing more plastic at the product.  They’ve designed their vacuum mold forms so that the critical parts of the bag (such as corners) have selectively thicker amounts of plastic than less stressed parts.  They’ve also reinforced the bag in necessary places with additional separate pieces of plastic – for example, the massively strong wheels are attached to the bag through three layers of plastic.

Talking about wheels, which are one of the Achilles Heels of any rolling bag, B&R have accepted some extra weight penalty there, believing it to be well worthwhile to use solid steel rather than light aluminum for the wheel axles.  As you may have found to your cost in the past, there’s nothing worse than a wheel failure on a wheeled bag.

In total, the weight penalty for B&R’s robust approach is acceptably small.  The largest of the three Torq series hard-sided bags weighs just under 12.2lbs, compared to 10.6lbs for a comparably sized inferior bag (the one that is just now failing, pictured above), and compared to 10.9lbs for one of their comparable soft-sided bags.

In other words, if you want the style, expression and panache that the hard-sided cases offer, you’ll be asked to accept just over a one pound weight cost as a trade-off.

The Tamper-Evident Design of the B&R Bags

The two zippers can be safety locked into what they call their ‘control panel’ on the top of the bag, with a TSA openable combination lock built-in to this.  The combination can be reprogrammed to anything you like.

Of course, it is important to realize that any bag with nylon zips is insecure, and the lock is purely there to stop the zip handles catching on something and opening by accident.  All nylon zips can be instantly opened by just inserting a ball point pen tip or other conical pointy object into the zipper seam, then moving it around the zip, separating the two sides.

Try it yourself.  You won’t damage the zip, and to seal it again, you just move the zippers to reseal.  Here’s one (of many) videos from Youtube that show it actually being done.

This points out the benefit of the B&R control panel.  Typically, bag zips can be locked by padlocking the two zippers to each other, but this doesn’t stop them moving around the bag, just forces them to move together.  That type of approach means that after someone has used a pen to open your zip seam, they will first move the zips to the far end of the zip line so they can then open up your case, and then after going through it and taking what they wish, they will close the case and move the zips around the seam again to reseal it (this is shown on the linked video, above).  The net result – your bag shows no signs of being broken into.

But with the B&R control panel locking your zippers in one place, it is harder for a thief to open up the bag after he has broken the zip seam/seal, and he can’t then use the zippers to reseal the bag.  If a B&R bag is broken into, it will be immediately obvious to everyone who sees it.

Trust us – it is much easier to claim on having things stolen from your bag while you’re still at the airport, rather than late that day when you finally get to your hotel room, open up your bag, and discover that valuable items are missing.

The tamper-evidence of the B&R design is a definite plus.  It will discourage thieves from attacking your bag in the first place, and will instantly reveal the attack to you when you are re-united with your bag, allowing you to more conveniently and credibly make a claim.

A look inside the smallest of the three bags.

A look inside the smallest of the three bags.

More Stand-Out Features of the New Torq Bags

There’s a lot to like with the new B&R bags in addition to their durability, stability, and tamper-evident zip design.  To start with, they look stylish and appealing, and are available in three colors – ruby (dark red) cobalt (intense blue) and graphite (dark grey).  They have a very high gloss finish – one wonders how the high gloss will stand up to the wear and tear of a few airplane journeys, but at least so far, mine remains looking like new.

Talking about zips, they are not only a security weakness.  For most bags, a common vulnerability and critical area of failure involves the zips.  Briggs & Riley use high quality heavy-duty YKK zippers, and make sure they are very firmly attached to the cases.

Something else distinctive about the B&R design is that the bag doesn’t follow standard hard sided spinner type bag design convention and open up into two halves.  Most (perhaps even all?) other spinner bags do this.  On the face of it, having your bag open into two equal halves might seem like a good idea, meaning nothing is buried too far into the bottom of the bag, but in reality that is rarely a concern to start with, and there’s a huge associated problem – you need to lie your bag flat either on the floor or on a bed to be able to access everything in both halves.

Typical luggage stands in hotel rooms don’t work for opening a bag fully that way, and depending on the size of your hotel room and how many other bags you also have, you might have difficulty finding room to open the bag fully.

The Briggs bags instead have a shallow ‘lid’ that allows you to place the bag on a standard luggage stand, or to place it on the floor without needing to take up twice as much space.  That’s a great convenience.

The telescoping handle has three different degrees of extension (as well as the closed position) making it well suited for people of all heights.

The bag is fully lined inside, and has several ‘organizer’ type pockets to help with where you place wet and dirty items as well as clean and dry ones.  A nice feature is a large solid plastic sheet to place on top and hold in place everything in the main compartment – this is much better than just a couple of V-shaped elastic straps as is commonly found in other bags.

Value vs Cost Considerations

So, at this point, you’re probably starting to feel very positive about the new B&R bags.  But then you realize that you’re up for between $479 and $569 to buy one.  Would we be stating the obvious to point out that you can get bags for half and even a quarter that cost?  Heck, Walmart would be pleased to sell you a complete set of matching garish luggage for $100 or less.

Some readers have said, in the past, they simply buy the cheapest bag they can find, use it until it fails, then replace it.  They think this is better than spending half a thousand dollars up front on a bag.

I disagree.  Firstly, buying bags at $50 – $100 a piece and discarding them as they wear out will sooner or later end up exceeding the cost of buying just one bag from B&R and never needing to replace it, thanks to its lifetime warranty.

But there’s another factor to consider as well.  That is considering the cost and inconvenience that comes when a bag does fail.  One thing’s for sure.  Bags never fail while stored in your closet or attic, between trips.  They invariably fail at the most inconvenient time, somewhere on a trip.  Even if you closely inspect your bag for developing weaknesses and prematurely replace it prior to it failing, you’ll eventually end up finding your bag and some of its contents arriving, piece by piece, separately, on a luggage belt, somewhere in the world.  Or maybe it doesn’t spectacularly fail, but you lose a wheel, or the handle breaks.  Have you tried carrying a suitcase with a broken handle?  Or a missing wheel?  I have, and its no fun at all.

Furthermore, when you’re traveling, you’re either on a fully scheduled business trip or a relaxing vacation, and either which way, you have neither the time nor inclination to go shopping for an emergency replacement bag during your travels.  Plus, if you do so, you know you’ll either pay way over the odds for the bag you buy, and/or get a ‘throwaway’ bag that will have even less life than the Walmart or Sears bag you had the problem with.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t like paying over $500 for a suitcase any more than you do, and I see as clearly as you that there’s way less than $500 worth of material in the Briggs & Riley bags.  But, I dislike sudden bag failures even more, and I love the reliability and longevity of the B&R bags.  That’s worth paying a premium for, and so I do.

Summary

We’re not saying the new ‘Torq’ range of hard sided bags from Briggs & Riley are better than their ongoing series of soft-sided bags; indeed, we remain great admirers of their Baseline CX series of soft-sided bags.

But if you prefer hard-sided to soft-sided, then the new Torq bags seem to do a great job of solving the weaknesses and limitations we’ve seen in earlier types of hard-sided bags.  The Torq bags come in three sizes and three colors (I chose blue), and have the typical B&R durability and the unique B&R lifetime ‘no questions asked’ warranty that covers your bag for all damage, including airline damage, at any time, no matter how old the bag may be.

Although pricey (and with no discounts anywhere), they have abundant value to justify their price premium over generic products.  They’re available on Amazon and doubtless elsewhere for $479, $529 and $569.

You can see the full range of Briggs & Riley products on their own website.

Recommended.

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  2 Responses to “Briggs & Riley Debut New Hard Sided Suitcases and Carry-Ons”

  1. Makes you wonder – will someone steal the bag for the bag and not it’s contents?

    • Hi, Dave

      Nice to hear from you. And I understand the sense behind your comment.

      However, the nice thing about B&R bags – well, one of the many nice things – is that they don’t scream wealth/affluence/’steal me’ in a way that some other bags do. Sure, they don’t look cheap/shabby, but they don’t look like ultra-bling bags, either.

      If a person wanted to steal a bag either for the bag value itself, or because it looked high value, they’d probably choose one of the ridiculously expensive ‘name brand’ bags such as Hartman or Tumi. They cost much more than B&R.

  2. My wife and I travel frequently and had managed to wear out our second set of another brand of luggage within six years so we sat out to research the issue before our next purchase and Briggs & Riley consistently ranked at or very near the top. The TORQ model was new and there were relatively few customer/user reviews anywhere but decided with B&R’s excellent reputation and a lifetime guarantee it would be hard to go wrong.

    We purchased two of the Carry On Spinner 21 and the smaller of the two suitcases in the red and just returned from a combination business/pleasure trip with luggage handling for seven flights on two airlines and a cruise line. We either dragged or pushed the luggage through modern airports, on and off trains and along what seemed like miles of rough and irregular pavement including cobblestones and the TORQ luggage came through like a pro.

    FUNCTIONALITY – We easily packed as much in the Carry On pieces as we had with cloth rollerboards . In either position – upright or pulled at an angle –the balance is good and it simply does not fall over in normal use. With the Strap-Link system I could manage all three pieces (125lb) plus a briefcase by myself when needed. It was easy to put into an overhead storage bin, even on an Airbus320 which has slightly smaller European standards. An added feature which I had not seen discussed is the ability to nest the Carry On inside the medium suitcase for storage.

    On the minus side the pull down front pocket, promoted as a place for those pesky liquids which must be removed during the security screen, works as advertised but with the bulging of the edges . . well I hold my breath. It would better hold a pair of pajamas or a light sweater.

    DURABILITY: Clearly one three-week trip is not sufficient to meaningfully discuss durability but ours held up well. Yes there was some scuffing—every new suitcase I ever had got some on its first use—but nothing terrible. We did get a few larger black marks but they cleaned off easily and appeared to be rubber off a conveyor-belt or bumper. On the red suitcase these scratches come out grey. In retrospect I think the inevitable minor scratches would hide better on the Graphite bags and wish we’d gone with that color. Like others the outside trap-door arrangement with edges which tend to bulge out seems to be a weak spot but with the guarantee it is not my concern.

    DESIGN: While we certainly did not purchase it for looks the TORQ system is a real eye catcher. No problem picking out our bags on a conveyor belt at all. A neighbor at the luggage carousel pointed out my second bag to me as it came down the line. Even the folks with the airline and baggage handling services, staff in the hotel – folks who must be numbed by the site of suitcases – visibly were paying attention.

    We are glad we purchased these bags and would not hesitate to do so again.

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