Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

10 March 2016

"They Make Bicycles?!"

"They make bicycles?!"

They did, for quite a while--and some very nice ones, at that.  Whether or not they still make bikes, I don't know.  Perhaps they're sold other under names.

Actually, the brand of bicycle that prompted the question at the beginning of this post probably sold as many bikes in the US under other names as it did under its own.  It's surprising, really, that they weren't more successful in the US market for a couple of reasons. One is that they made very nice bikes that were reasonably priced, at least until the US dollar devalued.  Another is that they made the types of bikes that were selling like crazy in the US when other companies made them, and the manufacturer I have in mind usually made them better!  Also, this company's name is one that everybody knew:  In fact, most people had (and probably have) at least one product it makes.  And it has an excellent reputation for just about everything it's ever made.

Why, this company even sponsored a team in the Tour de France! 

Officially, this company stopped selling its bicycles in the US after 1989, although it seems to have continued selling them in other countries for some time after that.  It ceased its US operations because, like other bicycle manufacturers from its home country, it had trouble competing when the US dollar devalued against that country's currency.  Unlike some other Japanese bike makers, it seems not to have shifted its manufacturing to a lower-wage country like Taiwan or, later, China or Singapore. 


OK...So now you might realize that I'm talking about a Japanese bicycle manufacturer.  You know it's not Fuji because they're still in the US market.  And you know it's not Miyata because they're not known for other products (although they were originally a rifle manufacturer before they started making bicycles).  Ditto for Nishiki and Centurion. 

All right.  I'll give you one more clue.  This company still sells bicycle components, mainly tires, under two brand names that almost every cyclist knows.  And their other products were mainly in an area in which the Japanese first gained a reputation for quality.

That area is electrical goods and electronics.  Now the light bulb is starting to flash in your head! (Pun intended.)  And the names under which those tires and other parts are sold are "Panaracer" and "National".

In fact, this company's tires have been sold under other names--including those of a few bike manufacturers as well as Avocet.  And some are sold under the Specialized brand--as were some of this company's bikes.

By now, you might have figured out that the company in question is Panasonic. In addition to most of the Japanese-made Specialized bikes of the late '70's and '80's, Panasonic also made bicycles for Schwinn (LeTour, Voyageur and others) and other bicycle companies.   In fact, they made some of the nicest off-the-shelf touring bikes as well as racing bikes that could compete with some of the best from Europe.


Panasonic PT-3500 Touring.  Great bike, but the paint and graphics practically scream "'80's"!


But it seems that in this country, people could see Panasonic only as the company that made their televisions or microwave ovens.  It's a shame, really, because their bikes offered good performance and value.  In addition to the touring bikes I've mentioned, Panasonic made bikes like the DX-2000, which could be best described as a better version of the "club racer" bike made by British and French manufacturers until the 1970s. 

When it was first introduced in the late 1970s, the DX-2000 had a lugged and brazed frame made from double-butted high-tensile steel tubing.   Later versions had frames made from double-butted Tange tubing (900 or one of the other heavier grades).  All versions came with forged dropouts and had geometries similar to those of more-expensive racing bikes.  Earlier club racers from Europe had similar geometry but were made from thinner-walled versions of lower-grade tubing in an attempt to make a light bike without using, say, Vitus (let alone Reynolds or Columbus) tubing.  The DX-2000 was, therefore, almost as light as those European bikes even though it came with clincher tires (as opposed to the tubulars on its European counterparts).  And, needless to say, the Shimano or SunTour derailleurs on the DX-2000  shifted better than the Simplex, Huret or low-end Campagnolo units typically found on other club racers.

1980 Panasonic DX-2000, with fenders added.


What that meant was that someone who wanted to ride fast could buy a DX-2000 for about $225 in the late '70's or a hundred dollars more during the '80's and get an idea of what a racing bike feels like.  Then, if that person wanted to take up racing, he or she could buy a set of tubulars before committing to a more expensive bike.  Some people bought DX-2000s and never looked bike, rolling them out on club rides even as their riding buddies went for things "bigger and better". 

Also, the DX-2000 may well have been the only production bicycle ever offered in the US in a 71cm frame (seat tube) size!   To put that in perspective:  I am 5"10" (177 cm) tall with a 32" (81cm) inseam and my Mercians are 55.5cm. 

Phil Anderson racing with the Panasonic team, 1985


From the mid-1980s until the early 1990's, Panasonic co-sponsored racing teams in the Netherlands.   Riders who sported the company's insignia on their jerseys achieved a number of notable victories, including stage wins in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia as well as victories in a number of "classics" and regional races.  Probably the most successful riders to race for Panasonic-sponsored teams were Phil Anderson, who finished fifth in the 1982 and 1985 Tours de France (and was the first non-European to wear the maillot jaune) and Erik Breukink, who finished second in the 1988 Giro d'Italia. 

Panasonic riders, interestingly, never rode Panasonic bikes. It's been rumored that Panasonic sponsored teams in the hope of becoming as much of a presence in the European bicycle market as it has been in the European (and worldwide) electronics market.  Even though Miyata has been successful there (under the name Koga-Miyata), Panasonic never attained similar status.


1987 Panasonic Team Time Trial
1987 Panasonic Team Time Trial


Today the Panasonic name continues to be familiar to millions of Americans who purchase just about anything that runs on electricity, from home appliances to computing equipment.  But they still ask that same question I hear from time to time, "They make bicycles?" 

P.S.  Two of the shops in which I worked sold Panasonic bicycles.  I assembled a number of them; I do not recall any other bike that was as easy to assemble!

6 comments:

  1. Matsushita is yet another name. If I recall correctly, the founder (or somebody in the Matsushita family) was a bike fanatic, and this is how they came to be involved in the bike world.

    Panasonic bikes seem to find me. The first one was a hand-me-down of a DX series, but I can't remember which one. I got it from a cousin who was a very avid rider, so I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't a higher-level. At the time, I was young and strong, and was really able to make that bike fly. I think that laid the foundation for my love of Japanese bikes.
    Since then I've had a variety Pana-built Schwinns, up to my current stock of two '74 Le Tours, and I have a mid/late-80's DX1000 frameset (complete with wild 80's paint job) hanging on a hook. A 25" chrome Voyageur is on my wish-list.
    The fact that they did build large frames (which I need), and they were such nice quality must be the reason you can still find them floating around, nearly 30 years after they left the American market.
    As far as I know, they actually never stopped making bikes. I think they have focused mainly on track bikes, though.

    Panasonic makes the Grand Bois tires and all the other tires sold by Compass. And Soma. And Rivendell. They have really hit a home-run with the fat n' supple tire proponents. I've long been a fan of the Pasela line. They are pretty much my "go-to" tire.



    Wolf.


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    1. Wolf--It really is interesting that Panasonic is one of the few companies that made high-quality large frames. After all, they are based in Japan, where they were making the bikes at the time. I don't suspect that very many Japanese riders needed such large frames!

      I also find it interesting that they are making Grand Bois tires. In a way, it's not so surprising, because Panasonic bikes tended to be conservative in design, even for the times during which they were built. I think building a functional "retro" tire fits right in with the way they have made bikes.

      One of the first nice track bikes I ever saw--and got a chance to ride--was a Panasonic. Some racers swore by Panasonic track bikes, so it wouldn't surprise me if the company is concentrating on them.

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  2. I too am a fan of Panasonic. In the 70's I had a Panasonic
    road bike but alas it was taken from me too soon,stolen. I currently have an 87 Panasonic mountain bike that I reconfigured to a city bike. I will attempt to post a photo.
    http://s869.photobucket.com/user/Schwinnsta/media/Panasonic%20Mountain%20Cat/Panasonic%20Mountain%20Cat/20150404_162103_zpslprvkvwm.jpg.html?sort=3&o=0
    http://s869.photobucket.com/user/Schwinnsta/media/Panasonic%20Mountain%20Cat/Panasonic%20Mountain%20Cat/20150404_162103_zpslprvkvwm.jpg.html?sort=3&o=0

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  3. Roger--I have always loved that color. And it looks like you have a great city bike!

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  4. I once had one of Panasonic's lower end 10 speeds that was a decent bike for not a lot of money. I then later had a very nice Schwinn Paramount PDG mountain bike that I'm almost certain was built by Panasonic. That one was destroyed tragically. Do you remember in the later 80s when they had a custom order program, where customers could choose colors and other options, and even get their name on the frame? The quality on those looked like it was pretty incredible.

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    1. Brooks--Yes, I remember that custom order program. I think it lasted only a year or two, but the bikes were indeed great. I'm guessing it didn't continue either because it was expensive to maintain or that it was a logistical nightmare for Panasonic, the dealers or both.

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