Omar Mouallem discusses the bicycle's history in Detroit and the innovative manufacturing that took place. Additionally, he touches on Detroit Bike's story as well as the founder's past.
A welder puts together part of a bicycle frame at the Detroit Bikes facility. The upstart bicycle manufacturer is hoping to spur a revival of a made-in-America industry in the city.
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.
Detroit Bikes jumped on these efforts. Pashak has been working with St. Clair Shores on a proposed bike lane that would connect the suburb to Detroit through Grosse Pointe Shores, while employees participate in rides and bike clubs. The company’s master builder, whose name is, fittingly, Henry Ford II, has become a minor celebrity in Detroit, appearing in Microsoft and Apple commercials online leveraging the city’s bike renaissance. He’s one of the original participants in Slow Roll, a weekly summer gathering that has attracted as many as five thousand riders.
The environment could not have been more welcoming, but Detroit Bikes struggled. The A-Type was priced at seven hundred dollars—more than most locals could afford—and was perceived as an artisanal product by most retailers. The company cut its daily output from thirty bicycles to ten and laid off half its staff. By the time it released its second model, the B-Type, in 2014, it was selling a modest thousand bikes per year. Other domestic bike companies were encountering similar problems. A few, like AutoBike and Zen Bicycle Fabrication, closed after only a few years, while others have had to focus on expensive, small-batch bikes, or to compromise on sourcing materials. The similarly named Detroit Bicycle Company sells a copper-plated fixie for more than four thousand dollars, while Shinola, which markets popular “Built in Detroit” vintage cruisers for three thousand dollars, sources frames from Wisconsin and other components from overseas.
Detroit Bikes’ response to its own troubles was to implement a national sales strategy, open a flagship store downtown, and expand into custom builds for corporate brands. It also recently landed an important new client: Motivate, which operates bike-share services in a dozen cities. Motivate hired the company to assemble three thousand heavy upright cruisers for the expansion of New York City’s Citi Bike program. This summer, Detroit Bikes will also begin selling the C-Type, a lighter, single-speed bike without fenders or chain guards, for six hundred dollars—on par with similar models produced by Linus, a popular California company that fabricates its bikes in China. Detroit Bikes now projects that it will sell seven thousand new bikes this year, enough that it is employing fifty people.
This modest success is a long way, of course, from a wholesale revival of the domestic industry. Pashak would like to manufacture more of his bikes’ components in Michigan, and has been in discussions about making cranksets (the ring to which pedals and chains attach) locally. But the problem of scale remains: no domestic manufacturer produces bikes at the volume required to make wholly made-in-America ones affordable.
However, economic forces like rising Chinese wages apply to the bicycle industry, no less than to the car and appliance manufacturers that have begun to bring jobs back from overseas. In October, 2014, a new plant opened in Manning, South Carolina, with the aim of building mass-market bikes that sell for two hundred dollars or less. The Bicycle Corporation of America factory, which is operated by Kent International, was supported by the state government, and bolstered by a sales relationship with Walmart’s two-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar buy-American initiative. Though the facility will only assemble the bikes, using parts imported from Shanghai and Shenzhen, the company plans to begin fabricating frames in Manning next year. With as many as three hundred thousand bikes set to be produced there in 2016, and a 2017 target of half a million, the Manning plant could increase the number of American-made bikes tenfold almost overnight.
Jay Townley, an industry analyst and former executive at Schwinn Bicycles, told me that Manning could well have spillover effects. “If the low-cost producer, Kent, selling to low-end retailer, Walmart, can come up with a viable way to make money while making bikes in America, you’re going to see more and more of the manufacturing done here,” he said. Townley estimated that sales of a million bikes a year would be required to create a market for a domestic-parts industry.
Recently, Pashak went to Manning to visit Kent’s C.E.O., Arnold Kamler, to pitch him on sourcing additional components in Detroit, which Pashak hoped would resurrect the domestic-parts industry. “Why do you need Chinese companies to do that?” Pashak asked Kamler. “We have the people looking for jobs who can do this very well. Not only that, but we have the factory space.”
Kamler told me that he hopes that a revival of domestic-part manufacturing will happen soon. “If we can bring the costs of production in South Carolina to the same levels or lower than China, we can up our volume to two million or three million,” he said. “If this is going to grow like I hope it does, we’re going to need a better supply chain.”
He did say, though, that he wants that to happen in South Carolina, and responded to Pashak’s pitch by encouraging him to move his operation south, much as car companies did decades earlier. Pashak, for his part, told me that he’s eager to collaborate with Kent, but that he’s firmly set on Detroit. “My dream,” he said, “is to build a bigger factory that’s somewhat of a tourist attraction, too. It would be cool if when people came to town one of the things they thought of was bike manufacturing.”
Omar Mouallem is writer based in Edmonton, Alberta. He won a Canadian National Magazine Award for profiles in 2014. Read more »
Read the article here.