Toaster Bikes

Panasonic CB 2000, 1991.

Among cycling nerds, bikes from Panasonic are sometimes derided as “toaster bikes”, referring to the manufacturer’s image as a strong player in other product genres.

Well, the reality is that Panasonic has been a major supplier of bike and cycling gear since the 1960s. Since then, no less than 15 million bicycles have left its factories. In the 1970s and 80s, its bikes gained such a reputation that Panasonic became the official supplier of the Japanese cycling team for the Olympic Games.

15 Million Bikes

Panasonic’s venture into the bike market reflects the changes and challenges of technological advances and consumer behavior over the decades. It all began with the company’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita, who grew up in a family that ran a bike shop. In 1918, he established what would become today’s Panasonic Corporation. Its first bestseller was a battery-powered bicycle lamp.

After World War II, Konosuke Matsushita channeled his bicycle business into two subsidiaries: Panasonic Cycle Technology (founded as National Bicycle) which makes bicycles and cycling accessories, and the Panaracer Corporation (founded as National Tire), which produces tires and tubes.

As the baby boomer generation came of age in the 1970s, cycling became a popular leisure activity. During the “bike boom,” U.S. bike sales even surpassed car sales (in volume, not in sales). A decade later, the Japanese bike industry was in decline. In 1985, the Plaza Accord, a massive revaluation of the yen against the dollar, sent shockwaves through Japanese industry and forced manufacturers to outsource production to low-wage countries. Since then, Taiwan and later China have become the world’s bike workshops.

Bike Industry in Decline

At the same time, a new type of bicycle began to eat into sales of classic touring and road bikes: the MTB, or mountain bike. While road bikes had traditionally been a stronghold of the Japanese, the MTB boom was driven primarily by U.S. manufacturers.

In 1989, founder Konosuke Matsushita died at the age of 94. Distribution of the company’s cycling products it North America was discontinued. A few years later, sales in Europe also ceased. Both were business decisions that were apparently not considered appropriate while the spiritus rector of the company’s bicycle business was still alive.

Today, the Osaka-based company focuses its bicycle activities on the East-Asian market. The current Panasonic bike catalog includes at least one road bike that will take you back in time: it looks almost exactly like its 30-year-old predecessors. It can even be ordered in exactly the same corporate racing livery as decades ago. Of course, its lugged frame design is based on the same Tange Prestige tubing as its predecessors.

If you want to get a glimpse of what bike production in Japan was like back in the day: There is a Panasonic promotional video from the 1980s that shows the manufacturing process in detail. If you are into this sort of memorabilia, the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum has more of this, including scans of historic sales brochures.