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Motown to Replace the Blues – with Bike Bells?

Henry Ford II assembles a bike at Detroit Bikes factory
Henry Ford II assembles a bike at Detroit Bikes factory

In its heyday, Detroit’s production lines were humming – churning out millions of cars, but is now it is singing the blues. But the sad songs may soon give way to the happy tunes of – bike bells?

At least seven companies have wheeled into Detroit to make bicycles. It may sound like an unlikely location, but it makes perfect sense. “It’s kind of in the Detroit DNA to build things,” says Steven Bock, founder of the Detroit Bicycle Co. Bock works as a clay sculptor at Ford but also makes custom-made “fixies” or single-speed bikes at the company he founded.

Another company is backsourcing its operations from Taiwan. The three-decade old Slingshot Bicycle came back to its roots in Michigan after it realized that it made sense to be closer to its home market. Another start up was put up by Detroit fireman Mike Sheppard who named his company, 313 Bicycle Works, after The D’s area code. Even a watchmaker, Shinola, has joined the fray and assembles two wheelers at its new location in Detroit.

But the biggest of the bunch is a company appropriately named Detroit Bikes. Founder Zak Pashak invested in a US$2.5M 50,000 square-foot (4,645 sq.m.) plant that drawn on the city’s talent – engineers, auto technicians and other car industry veterans to churn out a thousand bikes.  Pashak has big dreams for the venture and aims to ramp up production to a whopping 50,000 a year. On its own, the company will double the number of bikes made in the USA if it succeeds.

Several things are drawing in investors back into Detroit to make bicycles. For one, cheap rent and availability of factory space attracted artists and young businessmen into the city. Unique factors like the availability of old metal working machines, high quality paint shops, and of course, skilled car industry workers, made the deal even more attractive for bike makers.

It also helps that the Motor City is now more bike friendly, with less traffic on city roads and with 150 miles (240 km) of new bike lanes.  The community has responded – bike commuting has surged by 43% in the city since 1990, the biggest of any major city in the US according to the League of American Bicyclists.

It was probably meant to be.  After all, Henry Ford built the Quadricycle, forerunner of the Model T, using four bike wheels and a chain during the height of Detroit’s bicycle manufacturing heyday.

A throwback to its roots may help Motor City’s drive back to solvency.  The road to recovery may well be more stable on the back of two wheelers than on four.

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