Panasonic has been a major player in the bicycle arena for more than half a century, selling more than 15 million bikes to date.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Osaka-headquartered megacorp equipped even the Japanese Olympic Bicycle Team. Well, this success story does not hinder cycling enthusiasts to label Panasonic’s manufacture tongue-in-cheek ‘toaster bikes.’
The company’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. This may have evoked a passion for bicycles in him that has lasted for his entire life. When he was in his early 20s, he launched the forerunner of what became Panasonic as we know it today. In 1923, 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 premium tires and tubes.
Later, with the baby boomer generation advancing, cycling grew into a major recreational activity. In the US, bicycle sales even topped those of automobiles by units during the 1970s. In the 1980s however, a steep rise in the exchange rate of the Yen met with a general slowdown in demand for bicycles. Export margins dropped significantly.
Manufacturers tried to counter this trend by outsourcing their production to regions with lower cost of labor, chiefly Taiwan. In 1989, Panasonic’s founder Konosuke Matsushita passed away at the age of 94. The manufacturer stopped distribution in North America and a few years later in Europe as well.
Panasonic Cycle Today
Today, Panasonic’s bicycle production is focused on the East-Asian market exclusively. Its current product line-up includes road bikes that look literally the same as their 30-years old predecessors. They feature almost identical lugged chromoly frames using the same Tange Prestige tubes and the same Panasonic corporate race livery.
Want to see what bike production in Japan was like back in the day? YouTube has a promo video showing the manufacturing process as it was in place at Panasonic’s Kashiwara plant in the second half of the 80s. For more memorabilia head over to the Panasonic Virtual Bike Museum that has, among other stuff, a collection of catalog scans from those days.