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Nation's Oldest Existing Bike Maker Keeps On Rolling

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Nation's Oldest Existing Bike Maker Keeps On Rolling

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Nation's Oldest Existing Bike Maker Keeps On Rolling

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Coming up, a depression-era anthem resonates in the 21st century.

But first, the legendary names in U.S. bicycle manufacturing are just about gone. Huffy, Columbia, Murray and Schwinn are either out of the bicycle business or have moved overseas. Yet in a factory in a residential section of Queens, New York, there's a bike maker that's been around for more than a century. But you've probably never heard of them. Worksman Cycles is the oldest existing bicycle manufacturer in this country, and they specialize in the work horses of the industry. NPR's Peter Breslow paid them a visit.

PETER BRESLOW: 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. Although the name maybe tough to read, some of these battered specialty bikes are 20, 30 or even 40 years old.

Mr. WAYNE SOSIN (President, Worksman Cycles): A lot of our cycles, and really, the basis of our business, is to make industrial-grade bikes and trikes.

BRESLOW: Wayne Sosin is president of Worksman, and today he's showing 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.

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

BRESLOW: Worksman started out as a downtown Manhattan toy store, founded by Russian immigrant Morris Worksman. Mr. Worksman sold bikes in his shop, and he liked to tinker. He made specialty gearing for Harley-Davidson and created vending carts for local merchants. One day, opportunity came ringing.

Mr. SOSIN: 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. And the Good Humor Ice Cream Company wanted to - 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 a small company in New York. They could do this for you. They already make these sort of things.

BRESLOW: For the next 40 years, Worksman continued to produce Good Humor carts. Along the way, they've 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, and 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 their own.

Mr. SOSIN: 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, and everything in between that you can imagine.

BRESLOW: Wayne Sosin is sprightly with significant teeth(ph) and a pension for the word green, which he uses to describe not only his bikes but also the new rooftop solar panels supplying 25 percent of the manufacturer's electricity. He 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. Errol Barrett learned his welding craft in Jamaica. He's just celebrated his 30th anniversary with Worksman. So do you ever see these bikes out on the street?

Mr. ERROL BARRETT (Employee, Worksman Cycles): I see these bikes in Jamaica. I go to Jamaica on vacation, and there was a restaurant - 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.

BRESLOW: How can you tell a Worksman bike?

Mr. BARRETT: It's - they're outstanding. It's more like a Humvee compared to a car. These bikes - I must have made over 100,000 over the years.

BRESLOW: A hundred thousand?

Mr. BARRETT: Yeah. Or more.

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

According to Wayne Sosin, over the last 15 to 20 years domestic production of American bicycles has dropped from 10 million a year to less than half a million. And while Worksman still fabricates its bikes in this country, many of the companies that supply their 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, their hand-built three-wheeler got a boost when actor Edie Falco ordered one with a metal basket mounted on the back for carting her dog around, and then she showed it off on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

Worksman is still pretty much a family operation. CEO Jeff Mishkin is the husband of founder Morris Worksman's granddaughter, and there are lots of familial relationships among the factory workers, too. Fathers and sons and cousins sort rivets and true wheels side by side. Roberto Combay, who supervises painting, has a brother in the assembly department. Today, Combay, in his navy T-shirt sporting the three-wheeled Worksman logo, is spraying cobalt blue over a bike dangling from a hook in front of him. Almost 20 years ago he started out in the tire department.

Mr. ROBERTO COMBAY: And I didn't know nothing about bicycles that much. So yeah, I used to change innertubes in my garage. I thought, 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 handmade. We got to make it perfect because it's us. We're doing it. You know what I'm saying? Over here, we take a little time, but you get a good cycle. Feels good. You know what I'm saying? I did that. I painted that bike.

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

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