Reflections of bicycle manufacturing in America

By  MrColumbia

historyparttwo/1877Originalsmall.jpg

 On another page I have a timeline of the company outlining the progression of ownership from Pope Mfg.in Boston ,1877 to Columbia Mfg. in Westfield in the present day. A recent addition to my bike collection left me wondering where to share it on my site since it isn’t an antique . This bike is the “1877 ORIGINAL” and was made starting in 1989 for a few short years. This made me realize something more needed to be said about the later years of bicycle production by the company. This follows no particular order and isn’t a complete history, just my reflections of this timeframe.

historyparttwo/acompleteRX-5.jpg

 I'll start this chapter of the companys story in 1986.  It was the year they came out with the now famous RX-5, the reproduction of a 5 Star Superb made in 1952 to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary .  The RX-5 was supposed to be the flagship model that would remind customers of a past where Columbia bicycles were more than just a low quality department store bike for kids. It would head up the new “Classic by Columbia” line of bikes. These bikes were intended for the high end “bike shop” market. Top frame builders were contracted to design these bikes and Columbia would once again compete with Schwinn and other high end bikes.

historyparttwo/springfork.jpg

  A year before in 1985 my father and I had gotten involved once again with Columbia. They were designing the RX-5 and were looking for original bikes to take apart and study. They had already borrowed some from other collectors. Now they called my father since they knew he had a couple of originals. My father Jack Kowal first went to work for Westfield Mfg. in 1946 and among other jobs tested the new spring fork on a bike equipped with a Whizzer Motor Kit. This is the spring fork that would be used on the 5-Stars of the 50’s and the RX-5 Repro. He worked off and on for the company over the years and even ran the plating department nights for a while in the early 60’s. I went to work for Columbia in 1979, right out of high school. A year later my father sold his music store and went back to Columbia full time as an inspector in the wheel room. In more recent years he would take on the role of unofficial company historian and help put together the Columbia Museum. More on that later.

historyparttwo/anewbegining.jpg

click here to download catalog

  In 1988 the local management purchased the business from MTD. Their catalog for 88” was titled “A New Beginning”.  Just 3 years later the company would be forced into bankruptcy. Although they emerged form bankruptcy in 1993 much of the machinery was gone and making bicycles from near scratch was now impossible. Things like tubing for frames and handlebars, rims and other key bicycle components would now have to be purchased. There would still be improvements to some parts of the factory in these years including a state of the art plating facility and the intruduction of powder coating. Both of which would be used for school furniture.

historyparttwo/ClassicByColumbiaHeadBadge.jpg

historyparttwo/1877ORIGINAL.jpg

  Now back to the "1877 Original". In my opinion the bike had several design flaws that I suppose were meant to be improvements to the old Penny Farthings it’s intended to resemble. The first is it has a free wheeling front hub. You can leave your feet on the pedals while coasting, a big improvement over the old days, right? Wrong! The only break is a modern caliper type on the small rear wheel. This break has absolutely no stopping power. It wont’ even slow you down very much once you get going. In the old days control was maintained by pedaling slower, not possible with a freewheeling front hub.  It doesn’t take much for the bike to be coasting faster than you can pedal. It can set up a fairly dangerous situation if going down hill.  Certainly not great for street use. I’m hoping to give it another chance in the spring, maybe a track or other large area. Hopefully in some place there is nothing to hit and lots of room to stop.

 In all, the late 80's were the beginning of the end for bicycle manufacture in Westfield. Foreign competition made it impossible for domestic production to continue. Eventually Columbia Mfg. would import bicycles with the Columbia name on them. There was one product that continued to be made in Westfield, school furniture.

historyparttwo/SchoolFurniture.jpg

 The production of tubular school furniture by Columbia began about 1952. Bicycles are a seasonal item and bike manufacturers have always looked for other products to make in the off season. These chairs, desks and combination chair/desks are made with chrome plated steel tubing. This was a perfect match for the facility since it used all the same equipment. The same tubing mills, tubing benders, welding and plating shops could be used not to mention the same employees. Once bicycle manufacture went overseas the furniture became the primary business model for Columbia Mfg. The old factory became mostly deserted . Eventually , a conveyer system was put throughout the old factory and it was used for warehousing furniture until it was ready to ship.

historyparttwo/Furniturerearcover.jpg

 Through all the decline there was always a hope to rekindle bicycle manufacture by some of the management. Enter the 1941 Columbia Superb Replica.
 The year was 1997 and it had been since 1991 that the last bicycle was mass produced at the Westfield plant.

historyparttwo/1941AuthenticReplica.jpg

 This bike was really a triumph. The RX-5 had sparked a repro-craze of sorts. Schwinn replicated the Black Phantom, most being imported. Others like the Road Master were remade but not by the company that originally manufactured them. Even the RX-5 had it flaws. Ugly welds on the rims and rough finishes on parts that should have been highly polished separated it from the 1953 version.  The 1941 Columbia Superb was a replica of the model F9T. This was one of the most deluxe prewar bikes they ever made and the reproduction did it justice. Every attention to detail was given to this project. The frames would be made in-house, something they hadn’t done in years. The new powder coating facilities would give this bike a more durable finish than the original. The headlight was more accurately replicated than the strange shaped one on the RX-5. A ladies version was also made replicating the wire skirt guards that were revolutionary for their day.

historyparttwo/p5160007.jpg

historyparttwo/1941catalog.jpg

 Manufacturing for the 41” project was consolidated downstairs in the newer part of the factory. There was a lot of optimism but the problems of this venture took on a life of their own. Columbia was plagued by supply chain glitches and could not deliver bikes on time. There were lots of headlights, chain guards, tanks and luggage racks, all made overseas. The fenders on the other hand were being made by a domestic firm and they were having a tough time making them. They were also having difficulties with the powder coating.  Many of the clocks did not fit in the instrument bezel and often did not work. The headlights did not work on the early bikes, defective bulbs. All bulbs were replaced and tested before going on a bike. Despite all of this, the ones produced were the best of any of the replicas made and is a fine riding bike despite the authentic weight. The last production problem was really the biggest and put an end to it’s manufacture. This was market demand. The market had become flooded with retro cruisers and Columbia was loosing money on each 41” they made. Production was ended. This leads in to the last bicycle produced in the Westfield plant.

historyparttwo/1941Reproreadytoship.jpg
A 1941 Replica in box ready to ship

historyparttwo/125th.jpg

 The 125th ANNIVERSARY CUSTOM DELUXE CRUISER.  This model was touted as “an exact replica of the Golden Anniversary Arch Bar” from 1927.  It was even said by Columbia management to be in the original “Berkshire Blue”. This bike was really an attempt to use up remaining 1941 replica parts with a new market twist. It failed. The aluminum “Coffin” fenders were powder coated on this bike to cover the poor finish on the ones left over from the 41”.  It did not matter, the same supply chain  problems affected this bike and the bikes could not be delivered on time. My opinion for what it’s worth, that’s not “Berkshire Blue”. “Berkshire Blue” was actually a dark green with a hint of dark blue in it. And the frame, it’s not an  Arch Bar. Not even close. I wish they did remake a 1927 Arch Bar but I doubt that would have sold any better. This bike also came in a ladies model and is a nice cruiser. A worthwhile bike to add to your collection if you can find one.

historyparttwo/p5160006.jpg

historyparttwo/p5160013Copy.jpg

historyparttwo/ASSEMBLYLINEFACTORY.jpg

historyparttwo/JACK125THANNIVERSARYMODEL.jpg

 Now back to the Columbia Museum. This project like the afore mentioned bikes was an attempt to revive the companies bicycle manufacturing. My father Jack Kowal was well known to Columbia’s management and he was asked to help setting it up. I would help when time offered, Now retired, my father could spend a lot of time with the project. He was given use of a workshop and store rooms on the second floor of the old factory, an entire floor to himself. There he would restore bikes for the museum as well as himself and collect more bikes for future displays.  He also was given access to the factory archives. I have literally spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands scanning old catalogs and other documents.

 Most important to the Columbia management was my fathers work as an ambassador for the company. He would go to bike shows all over the country and promote the reproduction bikes all along the way. Over the years he took thousands of visitors through the museum and old factory. This kind of public relations can’t be bought.

historyparttwo/bikerestoredbyJackKowal.jpg
One of the many bikes restored by Jack Kowal for the museum

historyparttwo/JackKowal.jpg
Jack Kowal working on an old Arch Bar frame

historyparttwo/JACKKOWAL.jpg

 The museum is now gone. The bikes are in long term storage from what I’m told. The building that housed it was torn down along with several of the other old factory buildings. There are no more tours. I doubt they will ever attempt to make another bike. The end of an era.

 For my part, I was always interested in history. This made the antique bicycle hobby a perfect one for me. I could indulge my love for history and at the same time spend time with my father. I find working on and restoring old bikes relaxing. If you haven’t tried it yet you should. There is nothing that relieves stress more than working on an old bike. It’s a hobby that doesn’t have to be expensive either. Bikes don’t take up much room so almost any cellar or garage will do.

 I of course specialize in Columbia because  it’s what I know best. I grew up only a few miles from the factory. My relationship with the company I have just outlined in previous paragraphs. The reason I reminisce is for what manufacturing in America was all about. Factory work was anything but fun. After an 8 or 9 hour day you came home sweaty and tired. It was sometimes dangerous and often monotonous. But it was a place someone could go to work right out of high school and make a living that could support a family. There was a sense of security, many people worked in the same place from the age of 18 until they retired. A Family often would have multiple generations working at the same place. Manufacturing in this country built communities. Columbia was all of this. When I was a kid almost everybody in town either had a family member or friend that worked there.

 Much of this is gone in America now. The bulk of manufacturing has gone overseas and we have lost what  made this country what it was. It’s too bad.

historyparttwo/MainOfficeandFactory.jpg
Main office and factory on Cycle St.

historyparttwo/OldDraftingRoom.jpg
The old Drafting Room

historyparttwo/someoneonceworkedhere.jpg
Someone once worked here

Thank you for visiting MrColumbia