A Cyclical Business
For over 65 years, Weston – known simply as the “home of the bicycle” for its CCM connection – housed the cycle giant’s 232,000-square-foot head office and factory.
By Steve Brearton, from dandyhorse issue 2
Last year was a winning one for Toronto cycling manufacturer Cervélo. In 2008, Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France on a Cervélo and their bikes were ridden to three Gold, five Silver and two Bronze medals at the Beijing Olympics. And although the company, founded in 1995, may not be a household name to all, they have become the largest manufacturer of time trial and triathlon bikes in the world.
Pretty impressive, but Toronto’s cycling industry stretches back more than a hundred years to a period when the bicycle was this nation’s most alluring high tech product. During the 1890s, the bicycle was the world’s first mass market consumer luxury item and constant innovation drove consumer demand in the same manner that some people today crave the latest iPod or Blackberry.
It was the golden age of bike manufacturing in the city and among the brands produced locally were Challenge, Pilot, Skylark, Cleveland, Antelope, Silver Ribbon, Gendron, Planet, Comet, Wanderer and Sun bicycles. In 1895 in a city with just over 180,000 residents, at least 13 different Toronto firms built cycles and 90 bike stores sold an estimated 18,000 bicycles.
No firm, however, better reflects the opportunities – and pitfalls – generated by the early boom than Comet cycles. As early as 1882, Thomas Fane partnered with Charles Lavender to start T. Fane & Company, makers of Comet bikes. (Fane was a championship racer for the Toronto Bicycle Club in the 1880s, who married Florence ‘Gypsy’ Creed – reportedly Toronto’s first women cyclist. Their child, Ethel, rode a child-sized Comet.)
By 1890, Comet produced nine different men’s and women’s bikes, boasted a factory at 33 Adelaide St. West and a satellite operation in Buffalo. In 1895, Comet moved to a handsome five-story building on Temperance St., the top story of which was used for a bicycle school.
These were heady days for builders like Tom Fane, who imagined ever- expanding markets for his product. In fact, Comet and others were coasting toward a series of hits as quick and catastrophic as a “door prize.” In 1899 the firm went bankrupt.
Comet was the victim of too much competition, particularly from large US companies situated in Canada. The economic circumstances that sank Comet were also affecting other bicycle makers – including Canada’s largest – and realignment of the industry would lead to the emergence of a single dominant manufacturer.
In 1899, the Canada Cycle & Motor Company Limited (ccm) was formed by Canada’s largest bike makers, including Massey-Harris, Welland Vale and Toronto’s Gendron. Together, they made an estimated 85 per cent of Canadian cycles.
Canadian Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd. would dominate the Canadian bicycle industry for over 80 years, but the story of ccm is also a west Toronto story because they were located in the Junction and then later in Weston. For over 65 years, Weston – known simply as the “home of the bicycle” for its ccm connection – housed the cycle giant’s 232,000-square-foot head office and factory.
The new venture may have addressed competitive issues, but another, greater challenge loomed; with the arrival of the new century the public’s intense fascination with the bicycle ended and the car would soon replace the bike in evoking progress.
CCM responded to new business conditions with layoffs and by shifting production in 1906 to the former Lozier plant on Weston Rd., just north
of St. Clair Ave. Tubing for frames was brazed, cranks and pedals forged, among other parts produced on-site, and up to 200 bikes were assembled daily at the 137,000-square-foot plant. (The previous year, they also intro- duced their iconic hockey line.)
CCM was one of Canada’s first major manufacturers that distributed coast-to-coast and into global markets. By the ’30s Toronto-made bicycles were ridden in 40 nations. Fewer cyclists were racing or touring for plea- sure, but many more commuted by bicycle. Cyclists were buying “strong, serviceable machines,” many of those built by ccm in Toronto. From 1920 until the mid-’30s ccm enjoyed record sales, in part due to a new target demographic – women. Ads proclaimed this “dignified and effective means of ‘reducing’ is fast becoming the vogue.”
By 1930, Canada Cycle & Motor Co. Ltd. was one of only three large bicycle manufacturers in the nation – down from about 25 in 1898 – and produced the majority of Canadian cycles, among them the Rambler, the Light Delivery bicycle and the Flyer, ccm’s top-end racer. The city also continued to have a handful of small bicycle makers, among them Planet, a survivor of the l890s, as well as Alan Kay Cycles and specialty frame builders, such as the iconic Doc Morton, who built racing frames on Dundas St. for some of Canada’s fastest wheelmen in the ’20s and ’30s.
Entering their second half century, ccm claimed there were more than a million of their bikes on Canada’s roads, but the bicycle had fallen out of favour with Torontonians and the company was in terminal decline. In 1983 ccm went bankrupt, putting almost 600 employees out of work.
CCM’s closure severed ties to Toronto’s historic industry, but other niche producers prospered. One example being in 1969 when John Palmer and Michael Barry Sr. began assembling their trademark Mariposa cycles after purchasing a shipment of lightweight tubing ccm no longer wanted. By the mid-’80s, Mariposa was building and painting about 100 touring and racing bikes annually for enthusiasts like Canadian artist Greg Curnoe whose reproductions of them are featured in galleries and collections across the country, as well as on the cover of this magazine.
Forty years later, it’s Cervélo – the new kid on the block – doing its part to rekindle the glory of Toronto’s great bike brands. This year, Cervélo became the first bike manufacturer in decades to have a team competing in cycling’s greatest races. Once again, Toronto is a city that resonates in cycling circles around the world.
Steve Brearton is a Toronto writer and researcher. He will be leading a walking tour of the history of the bicycle in Toronto as part of Jane’s Walk, on May 3. janeswalk.net
Photo reproduced courtesy of Massey-Ferguson Limited.
This story originally appeared in issue 2 of dandyhorse from spring 2009.
Crossposted the The Bicycle Museum - COMING SOON!