There are cycling communities who mock bicycles from Panasonic as “toaster bikes,” referring to the manufacturer’s image as a supplier of white goods. Well, some of its top-end road bikes were ridden at major racing events such as the Tour de France and the Olympics.
Panasonic’s founder, Konosuke Matsushita, was an entrepreneur with 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, in 1923 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 sales were skyrocketing, Panasonic had already established itself as a major vendor of cycling products. In 1952, Matsushita had formed two subsidiaries focusing 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-raising exchange rate of the Yen. When export margins were dropping drastically, many manufacturers struggled adapting their production costs at the same rate. Panasonic was no exception in 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.■