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An epitaph for Bridgestone

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by Grant Petersen


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Abstract:

The Bridgestone bike company is profiled. The real reason Bridgestone packed up and went back to Japan where its parent company resided is because the dollar didn't buy enough yen.

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Full Text:
Copyright Rodale Press, Incorporated Jun 1994

Bridgestone never was My Bike Company. I wasn't the owner or the president, just a marketing director who became "famous" through public and media relations.

Despite what people thought, my role never was to impose my deepest, darkest idiosyncrasies on an entire market, and my influence was always exaggerated. Our bikes were the work of many.

When Bridgestone's parent company in Japan announced that it would leave the U.S. market on September 30, everyone asked me what went wrong. The real reason -- that the dollar doesn't buy enough yen -- puts people to sleep. But it's true. We entered the market in late 1983, when the dollar bought 250 yen. In '93, the dollar was worth 130 yen. Now its down to 100. In the words of the Japanese, this makes things "difficult," but anybody who's ever worked with them knows this translates as "ridiculously impossible."

Some armchair analysts are saying that Bridgestone's "retro-grouch attitude" -- manifested, I guess, in top-mount shifters and the infamous moustache handlebar -- is responsible for our difficulties. But the bike market isn't such a golden opportunity that you can just dive in and get rich. It's a tough market for anybody, especially a small company. To even stand a chance, you have to stand for something. I think our willingness to do this helped us hang on for as long as we did.

Bridgestones -- at least the Bridgestoniest ones -- were always hard to sell. Bikes that are easy to market appeal to everyone immediately. They don't raise hackles or questions.

We tried to make bikes conspicuously different and better. It seemed like a great idea because the things that make bikes unique were things we liked anyway: round chainrings, cantilevers instead of U-brakes, higher-volume clinchers, bar-end shifters, and the moustache bar.

Some people got the idea that we were anti-technology or anti-progress. But a lot of "technology" is just old novelty, and lots of "progress" is just change. We never felt obligated to use new designs just because they were new. Leather still makes good shoes. Wool still makes good jerseys. Front derailleurs with visible adjustment screws are still a good idea, and so are serviceable bearings and available replacement parts.

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Because of this, we were criticized for "not listening to the market." But it's a fallacy to think that cyclists are steering this ship. First, a company decides what it wants to build and where it can do it most profitably. Then it figures out how to create the need. This isn't necessarily bad; it's just the way things work. We knew the market wanted a bike with a Tange Prestige frame, Mag 21 fork with a Manitou 3 option, some kind of rear suspension, and an XTR rear derailleur -- all for $995. We'd been told "you could kick butt with a bike like this." But it would have been our own butt we were kicking.

We had to make bikes that made dollars and sense, and we wanted to avoid "clone" models. A small company can never win a price war, but it can lose a lot of money trying. So rather than cut our throats by making a line of loss-leaders, we decided to build bikes that were different, with the hope that this difference would be perceived as worth paying for.

Bikes were only part of our thinking. Some people said our ads had too much information, not enough excitement. I sort of liked writing ads, but it was always a struggle because I have a problem with advertising. So much of it barges into your head and makes you feel inferior for not owning something. But we had to advertise, so we tried to do it as respectfully as possible. I decided if I couldn't recite an ad to a friend without embarrassment, then I wouldn't use it on strangers.

I always liked working on our catalogs. From the '80s to '91, Bridgestone had decent catalogs. I thought they were great, but one day a friend sent me a copy of an Eagle Bicycle catalog from 1890, with a note saying "Now this is a catalog!" He was right, and I was ashamed, envious, and challenged.

I'm a catalog hound. I've saved every good one I've ever received. I went back through them all -- the '72-'74 Chouinard (climbing equipment), the late '70s Rivendell Mountain Works, the old Paul Young and Winston fly rod catalogs. They were publications you could read and learn from, and want to keep. But mostly I liked the tone: sparse and respectful, not in your face. I tried to copy this.

So far, most of what I've said might sound like it was all just a big stupid strategy. I hope it was more.

Whatever you thought of Bridgestone, you have to agree that diversity is a good thing. In any community or system, it's a sign of health. There are still a lot of small bike companies, of course, but I'm not sure how much velodiversity there will be in the future. Big fish eat little fish. It's not because they're mean or against diversity but because that's just what big fish do.

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Shimano used to have an industry newsletter called Shimano World. How true that's become. But Shimano can't be faulted for being successful. A corporation must act in the best financial interest of its shareholders, and Shimano is doing this. It's just too bad there aren't more strong competitors.

The overall bike scene is healthier. It has a couple of huge fish like Trek and Specialized; then some merely big ones like Giant, GT, Cannondale, Schwinn, Univega and Mongoose; some smaller ones like Kona and Marin; some artsy exotics like Merlin, Ibis and Ritchey; some wild ones like Allsop and Bike Friday; and some very fine custom makers.

I just wish Bridgestone were still in here swimming and squawking and having a good time. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" is a well-known Japanese saying, and Bstone lived that. But in the end, being different isn't what did us in; being different is what made it fun.

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