While Panasonic’s bike manufacture has served cyclists on many high-profile races, some enthusiasts tease it as “toaster bikes.”
After having produced more than 15 million bikes over the last 50 years, the Osaka-headquartered megacorp can probably take it easy. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Panasonic even came to equip the Japanese Olympic Team with its high-end road bicycles.
Bike Shop Roots
Panasonic’s venture into the bike industry is directly linked 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.
In the 1970s, with the baby-boomer generation coming of age, cycling became a popular recreational activity. In the US, bicycle sales even topped those of automobiles in quantities (not in revenue).
Flight to Taiwan and China
In the second half of the 1980s, the bike boom was about to end. As a result of a rising Yen, export margins began to drop so manufacturers were forced to outsource production to low-wage countries such as Taiwan and China. Traditional touring and road bikes, a stronghold of the Japanese bike industry, had to give way to a new breed called mountain bikes, a development mostly driven by US manufacturers.
In 1989, founder Konosuke Matsushita passed away at the age of 94. Following this, Panasonic in North America stopped distribution of cycling products. A few years later, operation in Europe was ceased too. Well, the passion for bicycles, that Matsushita had developed in his early days, was certainly not short-lived.
Panasonic Cycle Today
Today, Panasonic’s activities in the cycling arena are limited to the East-Asian market. Its current line-up features road bikes that look almost exactly the same as their 30-year-old predecessors. As if there was no change in all these years, they feature the same lugged frame design, are built of the same Tange Prestige tubes and clad in the same Panasonic corporate race livery.
Want 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 Panasonic’s Kashiwara plant. If you like such memorabilia, the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum has even more of it, such as catalog scans from those days.