Panasonic’s reputation as a manufacturer of bicycles and cycling equipment has always been overshadowed by its strong presence in other areas. Some enthusiasts even call its output “toaster bikes.” In fact, no less than 15 million bicycles have left its factories since the 1970s. Even the Japanese Olympic Team used high-end road bikes from Panasonic.
The company’s foray into the bike industry can be traced back to its founder, Konosuke Matsushita. The young Konosuke grew up in a family that ran a bike shop. In 1918, Matsushita launched founded the company that would become today’s Panasonic Corporation. The company’s first bestseller was a battery-powered bicycle lamp.
Bike Shop Roots
After World War II, Konosuke Matsushita channeled his cycling ventures into two subsidiaries: Panasonic Cycle Technology (founded as National Bicycle) which manufactured bicycles and cycling accessories, and the Panaracer Corporation (founded as National Tire), which produced tires and tubes.
As the baby-boomer generation came of age in the 1970s, cycling became a popular recreational activity. During the “bike boom,” U.S. bike sales even surpassed automobile sales (in volume, not in sales). When the Yen shock, a massive revaluation of the Japanese currency against the dollar, hit the market in 1985, the Japanese bike industry began to lose its momentum. Manufacturers were forced to outsource production to low-wage countries, first to Taiwan and then to China.
At the same time, a new breed of bicycles, called mountain bikes, began to eat into sales of classic touring and road bikes. While road bikes had traditionally been a stronghold of the Japanese, the MTB boom was fueled primarily by U.S. manufacturers.
End of an Era
In 1989, founder Konosuke Matsushita passed away at the age of 94. As a result, distribution of the company’s cycling products to North America was discontinued. A few years later, sales in Europe also ceased.
Today, the Osaka-based company focuses its bicycle activities on the East-Asian market. Its current lineup includes road bikes that look almost exactly the same as their 30-year-old predecessors. They feature the same lugged frame design, are built from the same Tange Prestige tubing and are clad in the same corporate racing livery as if nothing has changed over the years.
Want to see what bike production in Japan was like back in the day? There is a promotional video from the second half of the 80s that shows the manufacturing process at the company’s Kashiwara plant. If you like this kind of memorabilia, you can find more, including scans of historical sales brochures, at the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum.