Planes, Tunes and Automobiles

In decades past, some well-known manufacturers in the bicycle industry have focused their resources towards making a name in seemingly unrelated markets – often with disastrous results. Surprisingly, one of the more left-field ideas stuck around.

Autobianchi L2R Alberto Pirelli, Vittorio Valletta and Giuseppe Bianchi, inside Gianni Agnelli

Alberto Pirelli, Fiat President Vittorio Valletta, Giuseppe Bianchi and future head of Fiat Gianni Agnelli (inside car) pose in front of the Autobianchi Bianchina in 1957. Image: Olycom

Around the same time that American brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright famously parlayed from bicycle manufacturing into aeronautics, over in Italy another bicycle manufacturer was making a move into cars.

Milan-based Ed0ardo Bianchi had experienced commercial success well before the Wright brothers started tinkering with biplane kites in North Carolina. As the 19th century gave way to the next, the founder of F.I.V. Edoardo Bianchi Spa was already a successful manufacturer of pneumatic-tyred safety bicycles, supplier to Italy’s oldest royal family and had set up a racing division (Bianchi Reparto Corse) which yielded the winner of the 1899 Grand Prix de Paris, Gian Ferdinando Tomaselli.

Bianchi motorcycles were first developed in 1897 and it wasn’t much of a stretch to develop a four-wheeled variant a few years later. In 1907, a dedicated production facility begun churning out the first automobiles with four-cylinder engines. Bianchi’s automotive division produced passenger cars that were reputed to be of good quality through to the beginning of World War 2, before the plant was reconfigured to manufacture the heavier diesel-engine vehicles demanded by the wartime economy. Though the factory was extensively bombed in 1943, vehicle production continued after being shifted to facilities based outside of Milan but struggled in the years following Edoardo’s 1946 death.

Rejuvenation came in 1955 with the launch of ‘Autobianchi’. The new auto marque, created through a joint venture with Pirelli and Fiat, was the brainchild of F.I.V. Edoardo Bianchi director Ferruccio Quintavalle. Oestensibly, it was a practical partnership: Pirelli supplied the tyres, Fiat the mechanical components and Bianchi the body fabrication and assembly expertise. Idealistically, Autobianchi would serve as a test-bed for innovative techniques and materials before they were trickled down into Fiat’s cheaper and more mainstream product line.

Autobianchi was sold to Fiat in 1968 and the brand experienced some prosperity before disappearing from the market in 1995; though in international markets it had already vanished ten years earlier, as the last Autobianchi model produced (the Y10) was branded under Fiat’s ‘Lancia’ label.

EASTON Ahead Advertisement

Look closely at the lengthy video clip for Guns N’ Roses’ 1992  ‘November Rain‘ and you’ll see drummer Matt Sorum using a pair of unconventional-looking drumsticks.

Distinguishable from all other sticks at the time which traditionally were whittled from Hickory, Maple or Oak, the AHEAD (Advanced High Efficiency Alloy Drumsticks) sticks were a product of the same Easton factory that also fabricated advanced aluminium tubing for road bikes. Easton engineer Rick Grossman, himself a keen drummer, developed the unorthodox beaters using high quality aerospace 7075 aluminium for the handle and core. These mated to injection-molded polyurethane replaceable sleeves capped by threaded nylon tips.

Easton approached Bob Kasha, owner of music retailer ABK Rocks in southern California, to test and give feedback on the new sticks. Convinced of AHEAD’s potential for global market disruption, Kasha set up Big Bang Distribution to promote and sell the drumsticks. As with pro cycling, putting products in the hands – literally in this case – of influential figures proved critical to AHEAD’s success. Easton’s Grossman was key to this, as he explains in the 01 June 1993 edition of Music Trades.

“AHEAD targets the rock n’ roll drummer who’s style demands a balanced, efficient drumstick with just the right feel. I worked closely with the top drummers in the industry to refine AHEAD and make it the best drumstick available.”

Signing Sorum as a playing artist in January 1992 was a major coup for the brand as was securing Metallica’s Lars Ulrich in 1994. Easton was elated with the market’s swift acceptance of the innovative sticks.AHEAD Lars Ulrich drumsticks“We’ve never experienced instant acceptance in a market as we have with the AHEAD drumsticks,” Larry Carlson, Easton’s general manager of new business development, told Music Trades in the same June 1993 issue. He adds, “In baseball and hockey our new products gradually made their way into the market. In the music market we were in business overnight when our first advertisements broke in September 1992.”

After five years of collaboration, Kasha bought the AHEAD brand from Easton in 1997; the sporting goods manufacturer stayed on as a supplier and Grossman also remained involved as a consulting engineer for many years.

Easton went on to merge with Giro and Bell parent company Riddell Bell Holdings to become Easton-Bell in February 2006. The entity changed its name to BRG Sports in 2014 following its divestment of the baseball and softball business units to Bauer. Today, the Easton brand is owned by mountain bike components manufacturer Race Face.

Cannondale S440

Of course, not all diversification plans went according to plan.

After raising USD22m through a successful IPO in 1995, Connecticut-based bicycle manufacturer Cannondale quickly threw USD20m at an ill-fated venture into motorcycles.

From its dedicated manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, Cannondale produced two- and four-wheel motorcycles which covered ATV, Enduro, MX and Supermoto segments. Getting products to market proved more expensive and difficult than anticipated, with delayed market entry for some key models sucking on cashflow to the detriment of the bicycle business. Less-than-stellar reviews from industry magazine certainly didn’t help either.

Jody Weisel, test rider for Motocross Action magazine said he knew that Cannondale’s 2001 MX400 “was a roach before it was even made. The first test bike we got from Cannondale broke in 15 minutes.”

Weisel’s subsequent review lost MXA an advertiser. Other reviews were more positive, but this didn’t prevent Cannondale filing for bankruptcy in 2003. Blame was laid squarely on the failure of the motorcycle division.

Cannondale was subsequently taken over sans motorcycle division by its biggest secured creditor Pegasus, which sold it to current owner Dorel Industries Ltd in February 2008.

It’s hard to imagine a bicycle manufacturer today diversifying in such a direct and tangential way. Instead, acquisition is likely to remain a quicker and preferred route to entering new markets.

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