17 April 2011

A Japanese Moulton from Bianchi?

Paint your bikes green, call them "whites" and they'll sell like hotcakes all over the world.

Believe it or not, a company has actually been doing what I've just described. 

I'm talking, of course, about Bianchi.  Time was when a Bianchi was a Bianchi, and you couldn't buy them everywhere.  They were available in a few countries outside Italy and in the US, a relatively small number of shops sold them.  The Bianchis available outside Italy were almost all mid- to high-range road bikes, and they were all made in Italy.

Things started to change during the 1980's when Bianchi had some of their bicycles manufactured for them in Japan.  As far as I know, those bikes were sold only in North America, and were--intentionally--much like the better Japanese bikes of that time from makers like Miyata, Panasonic and Bridgestone.  Bianchi's finest racing machines were still made in Italy, but they apparently realized that in the less-expensive road bikes (I'm talking about the real ones, not the ones that mimicked their paint schemes), Japanese frames were offering arguably better workmanship and clearly better components, particularly in the drivetrains, than the Europeans were, or could.

That was the beginning of a major shift for Bianchi.  Up to that time, you sought out a Bianchi if you were a racer or other high-mileage cyclist who cared at least somewhat about speed.  And you knew that getting a Bianchi meant getting a particular kind of Italian road bike.  If you weren't the type of cyclist I've just described, you had probably never heard about Bianchi at that time.  But, from the 1980's onward, Bianchi became, in essence, a number of different bike-makers in a number of different countries.  As an example, they marketed one of the first hybrid bikes in the US, where that type of bike first appeared.  They also offered mass-market versions of high-performance mountain bikes made by the pioneer mountain bike builders in the US. Later, they would make and sell one of the first mass-market fixed-gear bikes--and helped to spawn, if unintentionally, the "hipster fixie."  And they have sold various types of utility and recreational bicycles in other countries.  Those bikes are tailored to the needs and tastes of the local markets.

I've never been to Japan.  So, in all honesty, I couldn't tell you what cyclists ride there.  All I know about the Japanese cycling community and markets, I've read in bike magazines or heard from people familiar with Japanese cycling.  And, oh, yes, from seeing what the Japanese buy on e-Bay.

I never would have guessed that their tastes ran to bikes like these:

Martin, the owner of this bike, brought it and himself from Japan.  He says it's a kind of bike the Japanese call the "mini-sprinter":  a machine with a relatively tight wheelbase, straight fork and small wheels (on this bike,  20 X 1 1/8).  He tells me that when people see it, they ask him how to fold it.  I remarked that in some ways, the bike--which is called the Mini Velo 9 Drop--reminds me of the original Moultons.  

According to Martin, Moultons are sought by collectors in Japan, where they fetch even higher prices than they do here in the US.  And, he said, a lot of Japanese believe that it's possible to go faster with the smaller wheels.

I've always wanted to ride a Moulton just to experience it.  If I had money to burn, I might buy one even though I'm not a collector.  I'm sure that the ride of Martin's bike is different, however subtly.  If I had more time, I might want to try both a Moulton and Martin's bike.  I wonder which one I'd like better.  In any event, I'm sure that the shifting and braking are better on the Bianchi than they were on the Moulton.  My love of vintage (and vintage-style) bikes, bags and other accessories doesn't extend to components. 

However, Martin does have two things on his bike that, if they weren't standard equipment on Moultons, were almost certainly installed on many of them.  He has a nice brass Japanese bell like the ones Velo Orange sells.  More important, he has a nice brown Brooks B-17 on his Bianchi.


  1. Thanks for the interesting narrative on Bianchi history. It's good to hear from someone who was a cyclist when my own 1983 Bianchi was born. The previous owner was a sailor and brought it over from Italy.

    As for the small wheeled bike, have you seen the Soma Mini Velo? Looks very similar!


  2. Hi Velouria,

    I haven't seen the Soma bike. I'd like to check it out.

    Bianchi does have a rather interesting history, if for no other reason than they're one of the oldest bicycle companies still in existence and they've made so many kinds of bikes--including some very nice and some very ordinary ones. Plus, they are one of the few traditional European bike makers that was able to become, and remain, a global market presence while other "global" marques like Raleigh and Peugeot declined or disappeared altogether.

  3. It's interesting indeed that they've become the oldest just by virtue of - well, sticking around. They have a good marketing team.

    I am in touch with Bianchi USA now and may test ride one of their new lugged models that are coming out some time this spring/summer. Not clear yet whether it's happening, but should be interesting.

  4. I had a friend who in the late '80s ordered a Moulton suspension-bridge model with the half-a-rubber-ball rear suspension. I believe the front fork had some sort of suspension as well.
    On top of all that it may have folded.
    He spec'ed it with Campy Super Record and it took for ever to get big enough chain rings to end up with correct gearing for the 20" wheels.
    He was a bit of a character.

  5. David: That sounds like an interesting bike. Would you have, or know where I could see, any photos of it?

  6. Justine, please check the top of your head to see if little horns are sprouting. You've got me checking Moulton, as in Alex rather than Dave, once again. As an aircraft engineer, the space frame ones appeal to my emotions the most...

  7. Volpe if memory serves, was one of the Bianchi hybrids, and they were well equipped objects of desire... mind you, working in the bike industry at the time there were many such desires.

    The mini-velos are fun to ride, accelerate the tiny wheels nicely, and are shorter over-all length which makes elevators easy and closets bike storage.

  8. I met someone who seemed to have a real interest in bicycles so asked if they had any favourite designs, I said mine were Moulton and Pedersen. Oh I have about seventeen Moultons she said! Would you like one? That is how I finally got my Moulton after forty years dreaming about them after only a one minute test ride as a kid. Sadly it is not a folder...

    1. Lol, either a bold faced lie or the luckiest person in the world. Moulton's ain't cheap given the quality.

    2. I was lucky that day, still needs a bit of work but is great fun standard three speed. Just need a front carrier for my shopping.