Granted, when thinking of long-standing, prestigious bike brands, Panasonic is unlikely to be among the first ones that come to mind. Some cyclists even mock its bicycles as “toaster bikes,” pointing to Panasonic’s role as a supplier of white goods.
Well, the Japanese megacorp has been part of the bicycle industry for almost a century and churned out a whopping 15+ million bikes to date. Its top-end line served athlets at the Olympics and the Tour de France.
Panasonic’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita, always had a soft spot for bicycles. He grew up with a family who owned a bicycle shop. With his own company – Matsushita Electric Industrial, later renamed to Panasonic – he developed a battery-powered bicycle lamp, the company’s first bestseller in 1923.
After World War II, with the baby boomer generation advancing, cycling became a major recreational activity. In the 1970s, numbers of bike sales even topped those of cars in the US.
When this happened, Panasonic had already established itself as a major vendor of cycling products. In 1952, Matsushita had formed two subsidiaries focusing exclusively on cycling products: Panasonic Cycle Tech (launched as National Bicycle) manufacturing bicycles and cycling accessories, and the Panaracer Corporation (launched as National Tire), producing premium tires and tubes.
In the 1980s, a slowdown in demand coincided with an ever-rising exchange rate of the Yen. When export margins were dropping drastically, many manufacturers struggled adapting their production costs at the same rate. Panasonic made no exception with this. In 1989, founder Konosuke Matsushita passed away at the age of 94. After that it took no long until Panasonic withdraw from its bicycle distribution in North America. Exports to Europe were stopped just a couple of years later.
In its home market, Panasonic went on producing cycling products as if everything remained unchanged. Today’s product line-up includes road bike models that are made just like its predecessors decades ago, using the same Tange Prestige high-end tubes in a lugged steel frame construction. They can be even ordered in the same corporate Panasonic race livery as 30 years ago.
Check out the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum for more information on the manufacturer’s line-up from its glory days.■