Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nation's Oldest Existing Bike Maker Keeps On Rolling : NPR

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Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman Cycles, sits on one of the industrial tricycles made by the company. Peter Breslow/NPR

The legendary names in U.S. bicycle manufacturing have all but disappeared. But at a factory in a residential part of Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y., there's a bike maker that's been around for more than a century. You've probably never heard of them, but Worksman Cycles is the oldest existing bicycle manufacturer in the country.

The next time you're in New York or some other big city and you buy a hotdog from a street vendor or see a pizza delivery guy riding by, check out their wheels. Chances are they're peddling or pushing a Worksman, though the name may be tough to read. Some of these battered specialty bikes are 20, 30 or even 40 years old.

Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman, recently showed off some bright orange, yellow and blue tricycles used for factory work. They run around $1,200 and provide an emissions-free alternative to golf carts and forklifts.

"These are bicycles and tricycles that are used to move personnel at large facilities," Sosin says. "Workers need a good way to get around. They use Worksman cycles to do that, so a lot of them want safety colors. Safety orange, safety yellow."

From Pizza To Pratt & Whitney

Founded in 1898 by Russian immigrant Morris Worksman, the company started out as a downtown Manhattan toy store. Worksman sold bikes in his shop and liked to tinker. He made a special gear for Harley-Davidson and created vending carts for local merchants."

Photo caption (left) Freshly painted bike frames are stacked on the factory floor at Worksman Cycles, which was founded in 1898. Peter Breslow/NPR

Back in the 1930s, this little company called Worksman Cycles was approached by a newly formed company that nobody had heard of, called Good Humor Ice Cream," Sosin says. "And the Good Humor Ice Cream Co. had a vision of doing this through a series of ice cream vending tricycles, and they went to Schwinn. And Schwinn said, 'I don't really think that's something we can do. But there's this small company in New York. They could do this for you, they already make these sort of things.'"

For the next 40 years, Worksman made Good Humor carts. Along the way, it added the factory tricycles, adult trikes for seniors, some heavy-duty recreational cruiser bikes, four-wheelers you might see commandeered by tourists on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The company also makes dual-team trikes, where two riders sit side by side and peddle independently — perfect for an able-bodied person accompanying someone who can't ride on his or her own.

"On any given day, we could speak to the head of purchasing of General Motors, Ford, Pratt & Whitney, Boeing, Exxon or we could talk to Tony's Pizzeria, who needs one delivery bike," Sosin says. "And everything in between you can imagine."

Sosin came to Worksman when he felt his ideas weren't being taken seriously enough at a larger company. That was back in 1979. Quite a number of Worksman's 65 employees have been here for decades.

'No Other Bike Like That In The World'

Errol Barrett just celebrated his 30th anniversary with Worksman. He learned his welding craft in Jamaica.

On a trip to Jamaica, he recalls, "I see these bikes in Jamaica. … I was walking out of a restaurant, a very exclusive restaurant, and there was a Worksman. I said to my wife, 'That's a Worksman bike.' She said, 'How do you know?' I said, 'I made it. There's no other bike like that in the world.'"

"They're outstanding," he adds. "It's more like a Humvee compared to a car. These bikes, I must have made over 100,000 over the years."

Photo caption (left) Heavy-duty wheels for bicycles, tricycles and carts are made in the Worksman Cycles factory in Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y. Peter Breslow/NPR

Some of these cycles can weigh 50 or even 100 pounds, so they won't match up well against your 19-pound carbon fiber model from Trek or Specialized. Then again, Worksman bikes are just about indestructible. The company is still supplying replacement parts for bikes it sold back in the 1960s.

Sosin says that over the past 15 to 20 years, domestic production of American bicycles has dropped from 10 million a year to less than a half-million. Worksman still fabricates its bikes in this country, but many of the companies that supply its components, like rims, spokes and brakes, have moved overseas.

Business is booming at Worksman. The company won't reveal how many bikes it sells annually, but Sosin says sales are up 10 percent from last year.

He says manufacturers are looking to reduce fuel costs and maybe give employees a chance to work out a bit as they haul engine blocks across the factory floor. Not long ago, Worksman's hand-built three-wheeler got a boost when actress Edie Falco ordered one with a metal basket mounted on the back for carting her dog around, and then showed it off on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

A Family Affair

Worksman Cycles is still pretty much a family operation. CEO Jeff Mishkin is married to the granddaughter of founder Morris Worksman. And there are lots of familial relationships among the factory workers.

Roberto Combay paints colorful bike frames at Worksman Cycles. He started out in the tire department almost 20 years ago. Peter Breslow/NPR

Fathers and sons and cousins sort rivets and true wheels side by side. Roberto Combay supervises painting and has a brother in the assembly department.

On one recent day, Combay was spraying cobalt blue paint over a bike frame dangling from a hook in front of him. Almost 20 years ago, he started out in the tire department. "And I didn't know nothing about bicycles that much," he admits.

"So yeah, I used to change inner tubes in my garage. I could do tires. Then they moved me up here and then I just I got the hang of it. Over here, we do everything," says Combay, dressed in a navy T-shirt sporting the three-wheeled Worksman logo.

"We got to make it perfect, because it's us. May take a little time, but you get a good cycle. Feels good. You know what I'm saying?"

Then, like a master chef, Combay prepares to complete his metallic creation: baking his freshly painted bike in an industrial oven, a half hour at 375 degrees.