Electra Bicycle Company, a subsidiary of Trek Bicycle Company, was founded in Vista, California, in 1993, by Benno Bänziger and Jeano Erforth. Electra offers a wide range of modern cruiser bicycles and is credited with re-popularizing the cruiser bike. Additionally Electra designed and sells comfort bicycles, and hybrid bicycles. Electra also sells an extensive line of accessories, apparel, and bicycle parts.
Bänziger, a Swiss national, grew up in the Swiss Embassy in West Berlin fascinated with California and action sports. When he was a teenager, he began designing and manufacturing snowboards in Germany. Bänziger moved to California after graduating with a degree in graphic design. Banziger founded his own firm, Projekt Design, in 1990 while doing work for companies like K2 and Adidas. He had originally planned to start manufacturing snowboards or skateboards, but found that those markets were crowded with competitors and seemed a poor bet for a beginning manufacturer; so he turned his attention to bicycles.
As Bänziger told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "The one thing I found when I looked at cycling in the US was that everything was some kind of sport, but very few people used bikes for fun or for transportation. I wanted to introduce the 'having a bike in your life' factor, as opposed to 'being a cyclist'".
At the time, there were very few cruisers, the classic "fun" bike, on the market. "Back in 1993, there were no cruisers available", Erforth told the Carlsbad Local News, "You could buy a $99 Huffy at Wal-Mart, or you could try to find an old one and restore it, which is very expensive", Bänziger decided there was a market niche for a stylish, affordable cruiser bicycle for twentysomethings and began working on designs that combined classic looks with contemporary technology. About this time, Bänziger met Erforth, a fellow German transplant who was selling pieces of the Berlin Wall. Erforth said he could sell the kind of bikes Bänziger was designing, so the two pooled $30,000 in personal savings and founded Electra Bicycle Company. The two remain the firm's sole shareholders.
The new Electra cruisers were manufactured by a Taiwanese contractor and the two partners began trying to sell them to bike shops. At first, "Dealers laughed at us," says Bänziger. "But people realized they didn't need a mountain bike to go to the grocery store." However, when bike shops tried stocking the Electras, they began to sell, and word-of-mouth convinced more dealers to sign on. In fact, the fledging company's cruiser sales were so strong that larger firms were spurred to start offering their own cruiser models. Today, Electras are available in bike shops throughout Europe, the USA, Japan, and Australia.
In 2002, the company diversified its products, introducing the new "Stream Ride" series. These new bikes were still in the cruiser tradition, but were inspired by the Southern California hot rod "kustom kar" culture. The lines of the bike frames became more exaggerated, chrome plating was applied liberally, and paint jobs became much more elaborate with flames, metal flakes, and wild colors. "Chopper" style elements like shortened rear fenders, racing "slik" tires, and elongated forks were introduced. Models carried hot-rod names like "Rockabilly Boogy" or "Rat Rod". The company even offered balloon tires with flame-patterned tread.
In a more explicit tribute to the car culture, Electra brought out a "Rat Fink" model, licensed by the estate of legendary hot-rodder 'Big Daddy" Ed Roth. "We have spent a lot of time at hot rod hangouts during our time in California," Erforth told the Tacoma News-Tribune. 'We made a connection with the people who have the licensing for the Rat Fink (logo and name). We wanted to make something that would be appreciated by that community." The bike's strikingly curved frame and poison green color has inspired widespread press attention, bringing new riders to the Electra brand. Car enthusiasts have begun buying Electra bikes.
In 2003, the company introduced a major new design: the Townie. This bike's innovation was what the company calls "Flat Foot Technology", now more widely known as the crank forward design. When the rider is sitting on the saddle, his or her feet can still stand flat on the ground, which feels safer and more comfortable for some riders. The design also allows riders to get full extension when they pedal. The design combines aspects of the cruiser frame with some of the geometry of recumbent bikes, moving the pedals forward and the seat back.
The Townie has advantages as a first bike or a re-entry bike for lapsed riders, because it is easy and comfortable to ride, and the "flat foot" design mitigates non-cyclists' fear of falling off the bike. "The bike had to be easy to ride and put a smile on your face," Bänziger says.
Other bike companies have introduced bikes with a similar crank forward design. These bikes include Day 6 Comfort Bicycles, the Giant Suede, the Trek Pure, the K2 Big Easy, the Sun Bicycles Ruskin and Rover, and the Rans Fusion. The Raleigh Gruv and the Cannondale Day Tripper were introduced after the Electra Townie, but as of 2009 are no longer in production.
The company continues to reach out to non-cyclists. It partnered with fashion design firm Petro Zillia to produce a high-end fashion bike with eye-popping colors. The bike was featured widely in the fashion press, and Petro Zillia’s chief designer Nony Tochterman gained coverage by riding the Electra up the runway at a fashion show.