Inside: American Classic's wheel factory
By James Huang | Tuesday, November 19, 2013 7.16pm
This modest sign is the only external indication of what goes on inside James Huang/Future Publishing
Bill Shook founded American Classic in 1982 with just two simple products: an aluminum water bottle cage and a seatpost, both of which were unusually lightweight for their time. Three decades later, the bottle cages have long been retired and the current seatpost bears little resemblance to the original, but Shook still hasn't lost his drive to innovate. Today, American Classic is best known for its high-performance wheelsets. Take a tour inside the company's Taiwan factory and see how it's done.
A hub of activity
The company's name isn't intended to evoke some false pretense of US manufacturing. Shook did begin operations on American soil but eventually shifted production to Taiwan around 1996. With that change brought a boost in capacity and a reduction in per-piece costs but also a jump in component quality. Whereas previously hub shells were machined from billet in Ohio, they now undergo a much more rigorous forging-and-machining process for increased strength and durability.
As is the case for many Asian bicycle component factories, American Classic's new 36,000sq ft facility in Taichung, Taiwan isn't so much an all-in-one manufacturing plant where raw materials come in and finished products go out as it is a home base for shipping, receiving, final finishing and assembly of individual parts. Most of the earlier processes – such as aluminum hub shell forging, freehub body machining, raw rim extrusions and anodizing – are done off-site by contractors.
That being said, American Classic is hardly just some middleman for work that's done by others. All of the incoming bits are carefully inspected upon arrival – after all, it's the American Classic brand on the label, not that of the contractors – much of the final finish work is done here, and all of the actual assembly and wheel building is done in-house.
It's not until all of the outside work is completed that the wheels and subassemblies begin to take shape. Cast aside your preconceived notions of what overseas factories are like, too, as the inside of American Classic's facility is decidedly bright and clean – hardly the visage of sweatshop labor.
Bearings are inserted into hub shells and freehub bodies using hydraulic presses with preset loads so as to prevent damage to balls and races. Steel guards are clipped by hand on to the otherwise soft and gouge-prone aluminum freehub bodies splines.
Whereas American Classic once had frequent issues with freehub body failures, that all seems to have fallen by the wayside thanks to one critical process that's done with the utmost attention in-house – the precision grinding of the timing spring that engages the company's trademark cam plate-actuated driver mechanism. Shook says that the length of the timing spring's protruding tab is critical for proper engagement of the pawls – leaving it too long can ultimately damage the thin cam plate whereas one that's too short might not fully seat the aluminum pawls.
American Classic continues to include adjustable bearing preload on its hubs and the factory setting is carefully done as well. Hubs are clamped in a fixture to simulate the additional preload of a quick-release skewer and an additional torque arm is temporarily installed so as to amplify any slight play that might otherwise be missed in a bare hub.
While the raw extrusions themselves aren't done in-house, American Classic does cut, roll, and drill its own aluminum rims. Interestingly, Shook doesn't believe in welded seams, saying the process introduces too much residual heat that can adversely affect trueness. As a result, American Classic's alloy rims feature sleeved-and-pinned joints and don't need to be machined afterward.
Once all of the individual sub-assemblies are completed, it's then on to building them into wheels – and we're talking a lot of wheels here. According to company president Ellen Kast, American Classic produced nearly 27,000 wheelsets in 2012 – and is poised to eclipse that mark in 2013.
Lower-end wheels are machine built and hand finished; upper-end ones are done completely by hand. Though the company employs nearly 50 workers in its Taichung facility, only a select few actually build wheels – and those that do are exceedingly skilled and quick at it. According to Kast, American Classic builds between 200 and 300 wheels exclusively by hand each day – roughly fifty per person.
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Afterward, the wheels are off to the final quality control check before being packed and shipped to various destinations worldwide.
Got a pair of American Classic wheels? Chances are that one of the folks in these images had a hand – literally – in getting them to you. And if you still want more, be sure to check out the complete gallery (above right).
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