Bikes Starting to be Made in USA Again

This latest post in our common bicycle theme is not about any novel designs or materials being used to make the pedal-powered machines, but rather a feature from The New Yorker website on the new bicycle manufacturing scene in the US, particularly in Detroit, where a crashed automobile industry left a city in dire need of revival. Omar Mouallem writes:

In 1896, the Detroit Wheelmen opened an ornate new clubhouse, complete with an auditorium and a bowling alley. The Detroit Free Press called it “the most modern club house of any cycling organization in the west.” Its forty-thousand-dollar cost (about $1.1 million today) was paid for by the club’s four hundred and fifty members, who included John and Horace Dodge, the co-owners of Evans & Dodge Bicycle Company, one of more than three hundred U.S. manufacturers during the bike boom of the eighteen-nineties.

The same year the clubhouse opened, Detroit’s first gas-powered car puttered down Woodward Avenue, with the inventor Charles Brady King at the wheel. Pedalling behind, on two wheels, was King’s protégé, Henry Ford, a former bicycle mechanic who was working on his own automobile at the time. The image presaged the shift that was about to take place in Detroit and around the country. John and Horace Dodge soon sold their shares in the bike company and began to build engines; they founded Dodge Motors a few years later. Across the city, bicycle-repair shops were converted into gas stations. Within a decade, annual bike sales tumbled from 1.2 million to a hundred and sixty thousand. By 1928, when Ford completed construction of a huge new plant in the suburb of River Rouge, America was producing four million cars a year. The industry’s success in the ensuing few decades is well known; so, too, is the shift in manufacturing to Southern states and overseas factories, a change that hollowed out the factories and jobs in Detroit. When the Rouge plant closed, in 2004, Michigan’s auto-industry workforce had already shrunk by two-thirds, and Detroit had become synonymous with urban decay.

Now, an upstart manufacturer, Detroit Bikes, is hoping to spur a made-in-America revival of sorts in the city, by leapfrogging back to Detroit’s roots as a cycling town. In 2012, Zak Pashak, a thirty-six-year-old businessman from Calgary, Alberta, paid around two hundred thousand dollars for a fifty-thousand-square-foot manufacturing facility for his new company—enough space, on its own, to double American bicycle production. Pashak, the son of a magazine publisher who won a large settlement in a divorce from an oilman, parlayed his family money into successful investments in night clubs, concert promotions, and Sled Island, western Canada’s answer to South by Southwest. It wasn’t until 2010, though, when he made a run for Calgary’s City Council, that he discovered cycling. “I got really interested in transportation policy, and I just wanted to go buy a bike so I could live the way I was speaking,” he said.

After finishing second in his ward, he decided to take a trip to Detroit, a place of childhood fascination, to get over the disappointment. He’d been planning only an extended visit, but, inspired by the possibilities he saw in the city, he decided he wanted to invest there. At first, his idea was to open a bar, but he had retained his fervor for urban cycling, and he thought he saw an opportunity in Detroit. Ninety-nine per cent of the eighteen million bikes sold nationwide in 2014 were imported, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, and the number of bikes made with mostly U.S. parts is well below half a per cent. The promise is that Detroit’s vast industrial capacity, combined with a revitalized urban-cycling movement and rising manufacturing costs overseas, could resuscitate a dead domestic industry. To grow anew, Pashak believed, the U.S. bike industry needed to shift its focus from racing and technology and concentrate on converting people to become riders. “This is potentially hundreds of millions of bike riders, if all the urban areas switch the way people get around in them,” he said.

If Pashak’s optimism about the hordes of would-be cycling enthusiasts seems a bit dreamy, it was nothing compared to the difficulty of creating a real American-made cycling industry. At least seven Detroit manufacturers have been trying to restore the city’s status as a bike capital, with limited success. Pashak launched Detroit Bikes with an investment of two and a half million dollars, hiring a staff of forty people at an average wage of fifteen dollars an hour. The plan was to produce two thousand bikes in year one. He solicited a design from a custom-frame builder he met online, sourced some local chromoly steel for the frames and forks, and arranged to import the other components. One of the early challenges was the inexperience of his initial hires. “We couldn’t go down the street to some other bike factory to see how they were doing things, or hire people with any experience,” Pashak said. Still, the company’s first bike, the A-Type, an upright model with a matte-black coat, rolled off the assembly line in the summer of 2013.

Read the rest of the article here.

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