Estonian Bike IndustryThe 1920s and the first half of the 1930s

The 1920s and the first half of the 1930s

Numerous small manufacturers started local bicycle industry in the independent Estonia in the 1920s. They mostly assembled the bicycles from imported parts. Such situation occurred due to the foreign economic policy of the young Republic of Estonia, i.e. high customs tax applied to finished import bicycles (as well as other finished consumer goods), whereas the tax applied to imported bicycle parts (which were not manufactured on the spot) was significantly lower. This was a (successful) means for enlivening local industry, including bicycle industry.

In the 1920s, foreign bicycles were popular in Estonia (especially those made in England), which were thought to have much higher quality than the local vehicles. Therefore, the local manufacturers tried to hide the origin of their produce in various ways and promoted their production as foreign. Bicycles assembled on the spot were often given flashy foreign brand names, such as "Columbus", "Dollar U.S.A.", "Royal", "Paladin", "Indian/I.N.D.", etc. As the sections with letters were imported anyway, they usually succeeded in selling their produce as foreign bicycles, because, as a rule, the purchasers of that time had no objective base of reference. However, occasionally, the local companies made naïve mistakes when assembling and naming their bicycles – e.g. a label attached to a “French” bicycle read "FRANCE. Made in French", where obvious misspelling gave at least an educated purchaser an idea of the actual origin of the bicycle.

Actually, the quality of these bicycles was not much different from that of import bicycles, because they both consisted of import details. Local small manufacturers quickly understood which bicycles and components thereof suited local customers, and which did not. After all, the roads in Estonia were more challenging for bicycles than the roads in Western Europe. In 1920s-30s, European roads were mostly paved, but Estonia was still struggling with (particularly in rural areas) muddy, uneven roads that were often difficult to pass. That required more resistant joints and e.g. braking systems that would work despite water and mud (presumably with brake mechanism inside the hub, not to the rim). However, in the 1920s the customer, ordering or purchasing a bicycle from a village shop, had no protection against getting a test piece consisting of weak components, joints that would break on Estonian roads or having other shortcomings that would have been prevented by larger manufacturer with considerable production volume.

At those times, it was also common to encounter so-called “pirated” copies of popular foreign brands. In most cases, local producers copied well-known brands of Latvian bicycle manufacturers. Before World War I, one of the best-known local bicycles was Rossija made in Leutner factory (the factory evacuated to Harkov in 1915 during WWI). In the 1920s, August Panksepp started to make Rossija bicycles in Estonia. However, besides the name and slightly similar appearance, there was nothing common to the Rossijas made by Panksepp and those manufactured by Leutner.

The story of Latvellos was even more remarkable. In the 1920s-30s, Latvello was one of the major bicycle manufacturers of Latvia, Estonian southern neighbour. The reliability and quality of its bicycles was well known both in Latvia and in adjacent countries. The "pirated" Latvellos, manufactured in Estonia, were similar to the originals only at first glance – they were assembled from different components, the label had different design, etc. The production of these bicycles was rather large-scale, as there are still quite many pirated Latvellos around; unfortunately it is not quite clear, who exactly was behind their production in Estonia.

Strictly speaking, such activity was not actually considered unlawful, because, unlike today, there was no international trademark protection in the 1920s-30s.

Local small manufacturers’ activities imitating the West (England, Germany etc,) continued until the economic upturn on the second half of the 1930s.