Waterford Precision Cycles manufactures custom, hand-built bicycles 30 miles from downtown Milwaukee. It was founded by Marc Muller and Richard Schwinn, both formerly of Schwinn Bicycle Company. Richard Schwinn is the great-grandson, in fact, of the founder of Schwinn.
Waterford, established in 1993, is one of the few bicycle manufacturers left in the United States. The vast majority of bikes sold here are made in Asia, including Schwinn bikes, which are fabricated entirely in China. In 2012 another bike manufacturer began operations in America, in midtown Detroit. That company is Shinola, which started out producing hand-crafted watches and leather goods.
The company makes 80 to 100 bikes each month on a three-person assembly line. Waterford Precision Cycles provides the frames and forks. The company reveals on its website that the wheels are assembled in California, the frame tubings are made in Mississippi, the spokes are from Colorado, and the brand decals are made in North Carolina.
Other small parts of their bicycles come from Asia and Europe. The company says that right now there isn’t any at-scale manufacturing in the United States for some of the components they need. But no matter where the parts come from, their bicycles are assembled completely in their Detroit factory.
Shinola, says John Arlidge, is the creation of Tom Kartsotis, who founded Fossil, a watches and accessories brand. He poured much of his fortune into his venture capital firm, Bedrock, which invests in US-based manufacturers. He got the idea to set up Shinola after one of Bedrock’s managers made the “You don’t know shit from Shinola” reference when kidding around with an office colleague.
Shinola was the name of a shoe polish sold in the United States until 1960. According to Arlidge:
The joke turned into a discussion about restoring the brand. Kartsotis bought the name from the defunct shoe polish company with the idea of using it as a catch-all brand for domestic cottage industries.
In June 2011 executives from Shinola were scouting out locations for factory space in Detroit to manufacture high-end watches, says J.D. Booth. They found 60,000 square feet of empty space at 485 West Milwaukee, in what was originally a research and design laboratory for General Motors. The building is on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Shinola parts are produced in Switzerland by Ronda AG, which manufactures watch movements for a number of famous brands. The final timepieces are assembled on the fifth floor of the Detroit building. Shinola brought in watchmaking experts from Switzerland to train their workers – none of whom had experience as watchmakers – and imported a manager from Ronda to run their production facility.
When Shinola decided to branch out into bikes they hired Sky Yaeger, who joined the company two years ago. She had spent 25 years designing bicycles for companies such as Bianchi, Swobo, and Spot. Shinola produces two lines – the Runwell and the Bixby. As R. J. King tells it:
Inspired by the French style of Porteur bicycles, as well as American models that slightly mimic motorcycles with a faux, elongated gas tank, the urban cruisers retail for $1,950 for a 3-speed version and $2,950 for an 11-speed model.
Who among us will buy them?
The number one “frequently asked question” for Shinola is, indeed, why its bikes cost so much more than a lot of other bikes. The company points to the quality of the components and the craftsmanship that goes into production. “The value they represent is absolutely worth the asking price,” they declare.
And another question they’ve been asked is “Why Detroit?” Their rejoinder:
Why not accept that manufacturing is gone from this country? Why not let the rust and weeds finish what they started? Why not just embrace the era of disposability? And why didn’t we buy a warmer coat before we moved here?
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