The Japanese Revolution
The bike boom in the early 1970’s must have been a wonderful period for bike manufacturers and component makers in Europe. Exports of bikes to the USA rose from 7 million in 1970 to to 14 million in 1974. Demand for European bikes and parts was outstripping supply in such a way that those established European brands required the help of their Japanese counterparts to meet their export quotas. It wasn’t just limited to European brands; Schwinn moved the production of their cheaper bikes to Japan, such as the Schwinn Continental and World Sport. The workshops of Shimano, SR, and Sugino were commissioned to produce mostly low end components for the powerhouse brands such as Peugeot, Raleigh and Motobecane, and this would lead to a fundamental change in the bike market over the next 10 years: the Japanese revolution was born, in the American bike boom of the early 1970’s.
The Race To The Top
I was amazed at how ubiquitous Japanese 10 speed bikes are in the Pacific Northwest when I lived in Seattle. Nishiki, Fuji and Miyata were the cheaper alternatives to the more expensive European brands during the 1970’s and it is fair to say that these bike boom survivors, still ridden today and highly collectible on Craigslist, were often of higher quality than those famous marques exporting in the millions. Most Japanese bikes were at the cheaper end of the scale, indeed, the first Dura Ace model wasn’t released until 1975, but this was just the beginning for these quick-learning, resourceful brands like Shimano and Suntour.
By 1976, the bike boom was over and many European brands struggled with the drop in sales combined with stronger competition from Japan. The quality of products suffered as firms tried to find ways to cut costs, the delrin plastic of Simplex and Mafac’s plastic additions to their brake levers being two examples of compromising standards as times got harder. The Motobecane Grand Record always strikes me as an example of the changes over that decade, compare the 1970 model to the watered down version of 1979. The Japanese bike firms, on the other hand, continued making advances and took full advantage of the knowledge they had gained from building bikes and parts through the bike boom and beyond. Shimano and Suntour would push forward the advances in mechanical design and innovation, earning the deserved reputations for producing some of the best parts on the market. Miyata produced some of the nicest touring bikes in the early 1980’s, as good as any in the world. And as many European brands went out of business in the 1980’s, there became a clear winner in the struggle for dominance in the parts industry: Shimano, now the brand of choice for nearly half the bike makers in the world.