Can the Motor City sell America on the Model T of bicycles?
“I don’t think the bike industry knows what’s going on,” says Zak Pashak. We are sitting in the office of Pashak’s factory in Detroit, talking about the state of American bike companies. “They’re all up in their treehouse, making bikes that they and their friends would ride – bikes that are complicated and that cost a lot. But not everyone who buys a bike is going to use it like an athlete. You don’t need 12 speeds to go buy groceries.”
The bicycles that Pashak makes are simple. Not fixie simple; practical simple. Three speeds, fenders, and a chain guard, with a frame made of lightweight chromoly steel. The first one was named the Model A – a riff on Ford Motor Company’s Model T. Like the Model T, it only comes in one size, and you can buy it in any color, as long as that color is black. (A second model, the Model B, comes only in white.) The plan is to keep the selling price under $700 (spendy, but about as low as you can get when buying a new bike with decent components), and appeal to the same type of person who would buy the European commuter-style bikes made by Linus or Public (neither of which makes their bikes in the U.S.).
Detroit and bikes go way back, but that relationship hit a snag in 1896, when a bicycle commuter named Henry Ford built a “quadricycle” out of a tiny sofa mounted on four bicycle wheels and took it out for a spin down Grand River Avenue. Henry Ford remained an enthusiastic cyclist (he kept on riding bikes well into his 70s), but the rest of America didn’t.
The Detroit Bike factory is remarkable for its resemblance to every other boring mid-century factory in Detroit and its outlying suburbs. Usually, when someone of Pashak’s background in intangible aesthetic experiences (musician, concert venue owner, and music festival founder) gets seduced into the world of making stuff, the resulting factory looks like the love baby of Martha Stewart and an old sawmill. But this is just a big, echoing series of concrete rooms, dotted with specialized manufacturing equipment — like the paint gun that uses an electrical charge to attach primer to the frame and the eccentric-looking wheel-building machine imported from the Czech Republic.
To the average observer, it looks tidy. To the employees who came to Detroit Bikes from the auto industry, it’s a pigsty. “They’re used to these car factories where you can eat off the floor,” Pashak says. “I used to feel bad. But then I went to Taiwan, where some of the best bikes in the world are made, and the shops are filthy. So I feel less bad.”
Detroit Bikes isn’t the only company selling bikes under a Detroit label. A few months after moving to Detroit, Pashak discovered that there was another bicycle manufacturer operating in the city under a nearly identical name: Detroit Bicycle Company. “It didn’t show up in a business license search, because the guy never registered it,” Pashak said. “But he makes really expensive hand-built bikes. Totally different thing.”
And then two years ago Tom Kartsotis, founder of the Fossil watch company, opened the offices of his new company, Shinola, in Detroit. He chose the city, he said, after a focus group session suggested that people were willing to pay more money for a pen if it said “Made in Detroit” on the label. Even better, the term “Made in Detroit” is sort of like the term “all natural” – there are no legal requirements attached to it, unlike with a “Made in the USA” label , so Shinola is able to sell watches and bikes that are assembled inside the city, but made of parts shipped from all around the world.
Pashak’s bikes wouldn’t qualify as “Made in the USA” either, since a critical part, the gear system, is made by Shimano. Currently, the factory is able to produce the frame, the chain guard, the wheels, and an idiosyncratic rear rack that is made out of the scrap metal that once surrounded the frame’s drop-outs.
The goal is to make more of the bike in-house, and Detroit’s local maker spaces, especially TechShop, have turned out to be useful sources of information and specialized machine knowledge, as well as good places to scout out employees. “The great thing about Detroit is that people really do enjoy the process of figuring out how to make things work,” he says. “With machines and with music, actually.”
When I first found out about Detroit Bikes, I assumed that it was pulling down massive subsidies from the city. The idea of moving manufacturing back into cities is trendy right now in urban planning circles, and the product — bikes, made in Detroit — seemed tailor-made for a grant-making committee. But there were no subsidies or tax breaks.
It’s not that he’d turn such help down, Pashak says. “I just didn’t want to come here looking for a handout.” When he began thinking of leaving his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, he settled on Detroit because it seemed like the logical endpoint to the sprawl that he saw developing around Calgary and other cities. “Detroit feels like the apocalyptic future that some cities will face if they continue to keep growing,” Pashak told Canadian Business earlier this year. “I feel like there’s something to learn here.”
Pashak estimates that he’s sold 1,000 bikes so far. He’s hoping that’ll be 3,000 at the end of the year, and then 50,000 per year eventually. That would make him the biggest bike manufacturer in the U.S. several times over — which he’d have to be in order to make a living. As with the Model T, the affordability of Detroit Bikes is predicated on the hope that the company will sell a lot of them. “First it was about building the factory,” says Pashak. “Then it was about production. Now it’s about sales. It’s a very challenging transition.”
It helps that, in the last year, the city of Detroit has gone unexpectedly bike crazy. Rides like the Slow Roll attract thousands of riders, and have a flashiness reminiscent of the city’s 1950s-era car cruising culture. “At first it mostly seemed to be marketing,” says Pashak. “People would ask me, ‘What do you think about the Detroit bicycling movement?’ And I would think, ‘What movement?’ It was a myth. But at some point the myth became a reality.”
Get Grist in your inbox