The Panasonic Story
Panasonic, probably best known for its electronics and household appliances, has also been a well-established manufacturer of bicycles and cycling gear for decades. In fact, no less than 15 million bikes have left its factories since the 1970s. With its high-end road bikes, the Osaka-headquartered megacorp even came to equip the Japanese Olympic Team. Well, this does not stop some bike enthusiasts from calling its output “toaster bikes.”
Bike Shop Roots
The roots of the company’s venture into the bike industry go back to its founder, Konosuke Matsushita. The young Konosuke grew up with a family running a bike shop. In 1918, Matsushita launched what eventually became the Panasonic Corporation of today. The company’s first bestseller was a battery-powered bicycle lamp.
After World War II, Konosuke Matsushita channeled his cycling ventures into two subsidiaries: Panasonic Cycle Technology (launched as National Bicycle), manufacturing bicycles and cycling accessories, and the Panaracer Corporation (launched as National Tire), producing tires and tubes.
When in the 1970s the baby-boomer generation was coming of age, cycling became a popular recreational activity. During the “bike boom,” bicycle sales in the US even topped those of automobiles (in quantities, not in revenue).
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, then to China.
At the same time, a new breed called mountain bikes cut more and more into classic touring and road bike sales. While the latter was a stronghold of the Japanese, the MTB boom was mainly fueled by manufacturers from the US.
In 1989, founder Konosuke Matsushita passed away at the age of 94. Following this, distribution of the company’s cycling products to North America was stopped. A few years later, operation in Europe was ceased too.
Panasonic Cycle Today
Today, the company’s activities in the cycling arena are limited to the East-Asian market. Its current line-up includes road bikes that look almost exactly the same as their 30-year-old predecessors. They feature the same lugged frame design, are built of the same Tange Prestige tubes and clad in the same corporate race livery as if there was no change at all over the years.
Would you like to see what bike production in Japan was like back in the day? There is a promo video from the second half of the 80s, showing the manufacturing process at the company’s Kashiwara plant. If you are into this sort of memorabilia, you can find more, for example scans of historic sales brochures, at the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum.