KPCC's weekly series on personal transportation
Hosted by Susan Carpenter and Alonzo Bodden

Car makers get in on a hot trend: Bicycles

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Let’s play a little game. What form of transportation comes to mind when you hear “Tour de France?”

Bicycles? Yes, yes. Of course. It’s the world’s most prestigious bicycle race, but when the Tour de France began, way back in 1903, it was actually the brainchild of a French auto racing magazine, which launched the race to promote bicycles’ modern-day nemesis — cars.

Yeah, you heard that right. The most famous cycling race on the planet was kickstarted with the squeal of four tires and a puff of exhaust.

Cars and bicycles. Bicycles and cars. It’s a complicated relationship that’s by turns antagonistic and symbiotic, including a trend of yore that’s back with a vengeance: Car makers that are producing their own bicycles.

They’re ditching engines and losing a couple wheels with pedal-powered versions of popular cars, like Fiat, which just started offering its sporty Abarth as a trendy fat bike. It’s an Abrams tank of a bicycle, with motorcycle tires for wheels and a chunky aluminum frame.

“When I used to live in Italy, I used to go to see always this rally for car, and the main name was always the Abarth,” said Gianluca Caliari, co-founder of Albabici in Oxnard, an importer of Italian bicycles and accessories. “There was the Lancia Abarth and now they do the Fiat Abarth, so it belongs to the design of the rally, that’s why it is the fat bike.”

Albabici is the exclusive U.S. distributor for Fiat, as well as Alfa Romeo, which has reimagined its sexy 4C sport coupe and upcoming Giulia sport sedan as two wheelers.

These fancy bikes from storied names in the car business are primarily a trend among European brands, which often sell them at the same dealerships that sell their cars.

Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Ferrari. Porsche, BMW, Mercedes. They’re all building bicycles that let brand fans buy in for a fraction of the cost of a corollary gas-powered four wheeler.

The Fiat fat bike starts at $1,700. Porsche bikes, $3,700, Ferraris: $320. Ok. That’s for the kid’s bike.  

At $9,900, the Alfa Romeo 4C bicycle is comparatively steep. Trimmed in the same carbon fiber as its matching sports coupe, it weighs a mere 20 pounds compared with the 2,465-pounds of the engined version. And while it’s far short of the car’s 237 horsepower, the 4C bicycle can get a move on.

Jacob Margolis is a producer with KPCC and an avid amateur bicycle racer. So I asked him to take the Alfa Romeo bicycle for a spin and share his honest opinion.

He thought the performance was impressive, but he also said he wouldn’t want to show up to a bicycle event riding it, which raises a question: Who’s buying these bikes if it isn’t hardcore cyclists?

“Who’s the customer for this kind of car maker bicycle? Usually it’s the owner who own an Alfa Romeo, who own a Fiat Abarth,” Caliari said. “They can be interested to have these bikes, especially to display and to show… I say they’re pretty cool for an owner to show that you have a bike and a car at the same time: matching color and the name.”

Auto-branded bicycles are not new. They date back to the earliest days of auto makers, which often grew out of bicycle brands, including the French company Peugeot. But as cars became more popular, the reverse also began to happen. Car makers started spinning off bicycles.

It’s a trend that’s come and gone through the years, with everyone from Cadillac and Honda to Jeep and GM offering limited productions. But it’s a phenomenon that’s once again picking up steam.

Recent years have seen car-bike collaborations between Volkswagen and Trek, McLaren and Specialized — and Ford Motor Company with electric bicycles.

“If we want to be leaders in multimodal transportation in urban settings, does that need to go beyond cars and light trucks? My view is yes it does. Does it mean that Ford might actually get into the production of e bikes? Yes it may,” said Bill Coughlin, president and CEO of Ford Global Technologies.

Ford has already partnered with the So Cal electric bike maker Pedego on an electric Ford beach cruiser, but the auto maker has more practical, urban mobility solutions in its cross hairs.

“The idea would be, could we make a bike that could collapse or fold so that you can get it into a smaller space, be able to lift it without lifting weights beforehand and then be very affordable for Ford customers,” Coughlin said. “That’s where we’re going with this next generation of re thinking e bikes over all.”