There are an estimated one billion bicycles in the world today, almost half of them in China and another one hundred million in the United States. About one hundred million new ones are manufactured each year, over half in China and many others in Taiwan, around Asia, and in the Netherlands and Germany. The United States, despite buying fifteen to twenty million new bikes a year, is no longer a major factor in bicycle production. But it used to be. What follows is a brief look at the history of this once-vibrant American industry.
The Rise of the Bike
First developed in Europe, the bicycle took years to reach “perfection,” to be safely rideable by the average person. In the 1860s, a very brief fad for high-wheeled “boneshakers” spread across the nation, but was reserved for professional riders, acrobats, athletes, and a few brave consumers.
In 1876, thirty-three-year-old Boston civil war veteran Colonel Albert A. Pope, the owner of a factory that made parts for the big New England shoe industry, attended the Philadelphia world’s fair. Pope was impressed by the latest British bike, the Ariel “ordinary” or “penny-farthing.” The wooden-framed high-wheelers on hard tires rode a bit more smoothly than the old boneshakers. Seeing a future for bicycles, in 1878 Colonel Pope hired the Weed Sewing Machine Company to make bikes, under the brand “Columbia.”
Colonel Pope’s Pope Manufacturing Company later acquired Weed in order to focus on producing Columbia bikes in Hartford, Connecticut, where the company ultimately became one of the city’s largest employers. The Colonel began buying up bicycle patents in order to ensure his company’s leading position. By 1888, the factory was turning out 5,000 high quality bicycles a year.
Still, bikes were used only by the brave. Riding was limited to special schools and riding rinks. It was more about entertainment than about transportation.
A Rideable Bike
That all changed when the British Rover company brought out their “Rover” safety bike, invented in the 1870s but fully developed in the 1880s. The Rover was the first modern bicycle, with equal-sized 26” wheels, allowing much easier mounting and permitting the rider’s feet to reach the ground. Major American producers Pope, Overman, the Western Wheel Works, and Gormully and Jeffery soon made safety bikes. (While Pope’s Columbias were the most famous bicycles, many of the others were manufactured in the Chicago area, which became the center of the industry.)
(Many automakers, including Henry Ford, began with bicycles. Gormully and Jeffery’s bike brand was the “Rambler.” The company later started making automobiles, was then bought by former General Motors President Charles Nash and renamed Nash, eventually along with Hudson becoming the American Motors Company. British Rover also moved into motorcycles, then autos, and its descendant company still makes Land Rovers under the ownership of the Indian Tata family empire. The Indian motorcycle company first made bicycles and competitors Harley-Davidson and Iver Johnson also made bikes. Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle builders before they took to the air.)
The safety bike was not only far easier to ride but was also much lighter and faster than the old-fashioned ordinaries. Bicycles were no longer limited to athletes and the brave.
The first American safety bike was produced by Overman in 1887. Pope and other companies followed in 1888. The new design took over the market: by 1890, only ten percent of the bicycles produced by the Pope company were ordinaries.
Over time, more improvements were made to the bicycles: a stronger tubular steel frame, the addition of shock absorbing springs and systems, and perhaps most importantly, pneumatic tires filled with air rather than the old solid rubber tires. Separate parts makers, like the “saddle king,” Arthur Garford, made important contributions. Connecticut’s Torrington Company made spokes for the wheels and many other parts and the New Departure Company (later part of General Motors) made ball bearings, assembled into finished bikes by Albert Pope and his competitors. The British Dunlop company led the way in better bicycle tires but was soon followed by the big American tire companies including Firestone.
The First Boom
The American bicycle industry did not truly take off until the 1890s. In 1890, American companies built about 30,000 bikes. In 1892 the number was 60,000 (of which Pope made about one-third) and in 1894 100,000. But then, as the impact of the economic depression that began in 1893 subsided, a new boom hit the industry. Five thousand people rode their bikes to work every day in downtown Chicago.
Production rose to over 400,000 in 1896 and then more than 900,000 a year in 1898 and 1899. (We have been unable to ascertain how many of those bikes Pope produced, but the firm was always among the three or four biggest producers and may have made as many as one-third of the bikes sold in America at the time.)
With this big rise in popularity, the bicycle manufacturers, often led by Colonel Pope, fought local laws limiting when and where bicycles could be ridden on city streets. The makers also lobbied for better roads and more paving, years before the automakers joined the fight. Pope continued to invest in the business, building a new headquarters, expanding factories, and adding plants to make steel tubing and tires. He fought many patent battles in his efforts to dominate the industry. Colonel Pope also developed a fabulous estate for his family outside Boston.
At the same time, the ever adventurous and increasingly rich Pope, with major east coast investors including the well-known Whitneys, got into the booming electric car industry, becoming a significant producer.
The 1890s, like the roaring 1920s and the conglomerate era of the 1960s, was a time of many big business deals and mergers. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust inspired other business leaders to consolidate their industries in order to eliminate competition and “rationalize” the industry. “Trusts” were formed in industry after industry.
Baseball player, manager, and sporting goods entrepreneur A.G. Spalding, backed by eastern capitalists, decided the bicycle industry was ripe for the creation of a bicycle trust. In 1899, this group formed the American Bicycle Company (ABC), made up of about fifty companies which produced at least 60% of the bikes in America. The idea was to buy these companies up with stock rather than cash. But it turned out that many bike makers feared that bikes were just a fad, as they had been thirty years earlier, and wanted out of the business. So they demanded cash. In the final event, the sellers got some cash and some securities, but the company was heavily in debt because it had to come up with more cash, which proved difficult.
Colonel Pope sold his company to the new ABC bicycle trust, receiving some cash but also a lot of the riskier securities (stocks and bonds). Approaching sixty years of age (considered old at the time), Pope was ready to spend less time running businesses. In 1899, he also sold his interest in the electric car company to his eastern investor partners.
The End of the Boom
Then, almost as suddenly as it had risen, the bicycle fad crashed. By 1904, total US bike sales dropped 75% to 250,000. The ABC was busted, dropping from a three-million-dollar annual profit at its peak to zero, with tons of debt on its balance sheet. The securities held by Colonel Pope and the other bicycle makers approached worthlessness. In 1903, the Colonel stepped in, re-negotiated the capital structure of the company, and took control. He renamed the ABC the Pope Manufacturing Company, which again re-entered the car business with the Pope-Harford and Pope-Toledo automobiles.
Pope’s empire had peaked. As the booming auto industry consolidated, with only the strongest surviving, the Pope brands failed (the Toledo plant later became famous for making Jeeps under the Willys-Overland company). While Columbia bicycles remained the best-known bicycle brand, the industry flatlined for the next thirty years. Adults no longer bought bikes: they were relegated to the toy sections of retail stores and only sold for children, at much lower average prices.
Colonel Albert Pope died at the age of sixty-six in 1909. His once-powerful bicycle company went through bankruptcies and ownership changes. In 1916 it was renamed the Westfield Manufacturing Company after its Massachusetts factory town, still selling bikes under the Columbia name. The company was purchased in 1955 by parts-supplier Torrington (later bought by big machine tool producer Ingersoll-Rand) and then by lawn-mower producer MTD (which agreed to be acquired by Stanley Black & Decker in 2021). In the bike boom of the 1970s, Westfield’s production reached 600,000 bicycles per year, but the company was bankrupt again by 1987. Under still other owners, production in the US finally ended in 1991. The brand, now made overseas, is still marketed by toy maker Ballard Pacific.
Another significant manufacturer in this era was the Homer P. Snyder company, whose bikes were distributed by the D.P. Harris Hardware company under the Rollfast brand. At their pre-World-War-II peak, Westfield (Columbia) and Rollfast sold 75% of the bikes in America, under their own brands and under the private label brands of retail chains.
The Rise of Another Great Brand and More Booms
Arnold, Schwinn, and Company was founded in Chicago in 1895 by German immigrant bicycle maker Ignaz Schwinn with backing from meatpacker Adolph Arnold, who later sold out to Schwinn. Not one of the largest manufacturers, Schwinn didn’t join the ABC in 1899, remaining independent. By 1916, the company had produced a cumulative total of a million bikes.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was at first no help to the industry, with annual sales of bikes in America staying below 300,000 per year through 1933. Then, with new streamlined designs, fat “balloon” tires for easier riding, and better marketing, often led by Schwinn, demand again took off, crossing 500,000 in 1934 and reaching a record 1.2 million by 1936.
This new boom attracted two existing manufacturing companies to the industry. Miamisburg, Ohio’s Huffman Manufacturing Company had been founded in 1924 to make supplies for gas stations. In 1934, they entered the bicycle business. Cleveland’s Murray Ohio Company, founded in 1919 to make auto parts, also entered the bike business in the 1930s.
These two companies focused on inexpensive bicycles sold under store brands (private labels) for the largest retail chains, leaving the top end of the market (and independent bicycle dealers) to Schwinn. Big customers for Huffman and Murray were Sears, Montgomery Ward, Western Auto Stores, and the retail outlets of Firestone, Goodyear, and Goodrich. These mass retailers sold most of the bikes in America. Murray and Huffman became huge producers, and later introduced their own brands, Murray and Huffy. Both companies ultimately built large new factories.
In 1950, yet another bicycle maker, the Cleveland Welding Company, with its Roadmaster brand, was bought by big bowling, boat, and sporting goods producer AMF in 1954. AMF had begun life in 1900 as the American Machine and Foundry Company with a pioneering cigarette-making machine. AMF became another big American bike producer.
For a while, the demand for bikes continued to grow, though they continued to be mainly for children. The post-World-War-II baby boom accelerated this demand.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, business again took off. Low-riding, banana-seat “hot rod” bikes like the Schwinn Sting-Ray became popular, as well as BMX dirt bikes. But also “English racers,” often made by the British Raleigh company, came into the market. Adults got back into bikes. All the American bike makers jumped into the game, adding handbrakes (instead of coaster brakes) and sophisticated gearing systems for three-speed, five-speed, and ten-speed bicycles. US bike sales were 3.6 million in 1961, 7.5 million in 1968, and 15 million by 1973.
The boom made the cover of Fortune magazine, which in the spring of 1974 reported these estimated 1973 bike production numbers:
- Murray Ohio 2.4 million
- Huffman 2.3 million
- AMF 1.75 million
- Schwinn 1.465 million
- Stelber Industries .625 million
- MTD (Columbia) .6 million
This boom, too, ended abruptly, with sales dropping in half to 7 million bikes in 1975.
The Decline of Bike Manufacturing in America
Such ups and downs are difficult for a manufacturing company to manage, especially when they are so unexpected and unpredictable. Brands and companies continued to change hands, to be bought and sold.
The big retailers pressured the makers to keep their prices low, and Asian manufacturers with low labor costs began to come onto the scene. In the 1980s even top-quality maker Schwinn moved their production to Taiwan and China. Despite efforts by the American industry to get high tariffs on imported bikes, in 1996 the government determined that “Chinese bikes were no material threat” to the US industry and eliminated bike tariffs.
The once-great Schwinn company went into decline. This was in large part due to mis-management by the fourth generation of the Schwinn family, which controlled the company until it went bankrupt and the brand was sold in 1992 (and bankrupt again under new owners in 2001).
Today, most of the classic brands mentioned above (and well as many private label bikes) can be found in stores, but they are primarily owned by Asian companies and Canadian marketing company Dorel Industries (including the Schwinn, Mongoose, and Cannondale brands). The bikes themselves are primarily built in China. The world’s largest maker of bikes is Taiwan’s Giant Manufacturing Company (founded in 1972) with annual revenues of about two billion dollars.
More recent decades have seen the rise of two large American high-end bike companies, Trek and Specialized, which are today among the world’s largest sellers of bicycles. But their bicycles are also made in Asia. After a severe decline, US bike manufacturing has begun to grow again, up to about 500,000 bikes out of the 15-20 million that are sold in the USA every year. Mass marketers still sell huge numbers of bikes, particularly for kids, but the average prices of Trek and Specialized bicycles are much higher, generating billions of dollars in revenue.
It is something of a puzzlement to us why the bike industry has seen so many booms and busts. This pattern is not common for such basic consumer products which are so affordable relative to the value they provide society. Yet today the global bicycle industry continues along, making more bikes every year. Bicycle use by adults, particularly in Europe and Asia but also in American cities, is on the rise. New rural bike paths and urban bike lanes are being created around the world. The bicycle continues to be one of the most efficient forms of transportation ever devised, converting human energy to motion. And the great old names like Columbia, Schwinn, and Huffy still exist in name, if not with the same potency as in their glory days.
American Business History Center
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