John Wayne, Harley Davidson, Peanuts, McDonald’s, Route 66, James Dean, Babe Ruth, Ford, and many, many more, including, last but not least, “Schwinn Built” bicycles make up a list of indisputable cultural icons that help to define this country.
But the Schwinn bicycle of today is no longer the Schwinn of the 1950s and ‘60s. So it is better to capture that history before it is too far gone. Jay Pridmore and junior author Jim Hurd have done just that in their book, Schwinn Bicycles, a 1996 publication of Motorbooks International, republished in paperback in 2001.
Arnold, Schwinn and Co. was founded by Ignaz Schwinn and Adolph Arnold in Chicago in 1895. Just barely off the boat from Germany, Schwinn had left his job as plant manager of the Kleyer Bicycle Works in Frankfurt in 1891 with a design for a lightweight “safety bike,” a bicycle with two wheels of equal size, which was quite different from the “high-wheel” bikes of choice in the 1880’s. Schwinn had garnered experience at the Kleyer factory managing the plant but realized that there were serious roadblocks for advancing his career. America, he surmised, offered promise, and Chicago would be his destination.
Chicago was a major bicycle manufacturing center at the height of the “golden age” of bicycling in the 1890’s. Upon his arrival in America, Schwinn quickly found work with the Hill Cycle Manufacturing Company and rose readily to the level of plant manager. He managed the plant for two years while he searched for the time, place and money to launch his own venture. This he found with the collaboration of another successful German immigrant, Adolf Arnold. Arnold owned a meat packing plant and was part owner of a local bank. According to Pridmore and Hurd, Arnold invested $75,000 in the venture, and Schwinn offered his expertise. Thus Arnold, Schwinn & Co. was born in 1895.
Having managed two bicycle factories and worked in a number of bicycle shops, Schwinn’s experience came during one of the biggest evolutionary periods in bicycle technology. He saw first hand the development of the drive train using a chain and equal sized wheels. He saw the “high-wheel” (penny farthing) go the way of the horse and buggy, and he watched as pneumatic tires took the place of solid rubber on steel rims, offering a much softer ride. Schwinn also recognized the opportunity of converting the 60 pound high wheel with wheels from 48 to 60 inches in diameter to a 25 pound “safety bicycle” with wheels of equal size.
Jay Pridmore, the lead author on this book, is a prolific writer about architecture and frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune. An expert on the architecture of Chicago, Pridmore appears to have an interest in almost any Chicago “icon;” hence his interest in the venerable Schwinn family business and his access to the repository of the Schwinn legacy in Chicago’s Bicycle Museum of America. The museum is the successor to the Schwinn Bicycle Museum, which took shape after the family company declared bankruptcy in 1992.
Relying heavily on the Schwinn archives and artifacts available through the museum, Pridmore and Hurd have done their best to document the highs and lows of Schwinn production. The early part of the book is heavily historical, documenting the history of the company under Ignaz and his successor Frank W. Schwinn, who took the company over from his father in 1931 (though Ignaz continued as titular president of the company until his death in 1948).
The historical treatment takes the narrative through World War II. The book then becomes more a catalog of models that many of you likely rode during the 1950s and 1960s. Excellent photos beginning with the famed “Black Phantom” fat tire bike, first produced in 1949, characterize the book. The “Panther,” “Jaguar” and “Wasp,” with the “Starlet” catering to girls and women, follow. By the late ’50s and early ‘60s, Schwinn introduced lighter-weight bikes with slightly narrower tires, including the Corvette and the very popular “Sting-Ray.” The Sting-Ray “lowrider” gave way in 1968 to the “Krate” series, including the “Orange Krate,” the “Apple Krate” and the “Cotton Picker.” All these models had the same distinctive banana seat and small front wheel.
I must admit that I slipped between the cracks of all these Schwinn models. I never rode a Corvette or Sting-Ray and never owned an Apple Krate. My first bike was my sister’s hand-me-down girl’s bike when I was six (you can read my essay about my first ride here) and I don’t even know if it was a Schwinn or a Columbia. By the time Santa brought me my very own bike, I was eleven or twelve and had my eye on a lightweight “English racer.” That red Raleigh, with a three speed Sturmey-Archey internal hub, was the most beautiful Chrismas present I had ever seen!
Ignaz and Frank Schwinn knew their customers. Ignaz came from Germany determined to make a lightweight bike that would get men, women and children pedaling when only young males could ride the awkward high-wheel bike of the 1880s. So for the first thirty-five years of the company Ignaz made light-weight road bikes under the names “Admiral,” “World”, and “Henderson.” During the 1920s he dabbled, with the help of his son Frank, in the motorcycle industry, but closed that division in 1931.
In the 1930s Frank took over the company and launched his fat tire series that took the company well into the 1960s with sales booming after World War II. Simultaneously, though, with the success of the fat tire bikes, Frank attempted to bring back the lightweight bicycles of the 1890s, anticipating a demand for long distance bicycles. He introduced the famous racing bike, the “Paramount” in 1937, and the “New World” in 1940 (trying to reintroduce Schwinn’s most popular turn-of-the century bicycle, the “World”). The lightweights caught on very slowly but the fat tire bikes carried the company successfully through the ‘60s.
It was then that the company began to lose touch with the fast changing market, especially market innovations that came from California. Frank W. Schwinn died in 1963 at a time when the iconic Sting-Ray was under design. Frankie V., Frank W.’s son, took over the company and though he didn’t like the Sting-Ray, there was little he could do about it. It proved so popular that it sold two million bikes from 1963 to 1968. Frankie failed to see the trend. As California kids invented BMX (bicycle motocross), a sport that mimicked off-road motorcycle track racing, BMX bicycles became all the rage. So while kids and their bike shops were customizing Schwinn Sting-Rays for BMX races, Frankie worried about liability and refused to jump into the market. BMX bicycling eventually led to mountain bikes and mountain biking (also from California). Schwinn was left in the dust by its more astute competitors.
Frankie retired in 1979 and his younger brother, Ed, took over. But it was too late for Schwinn to recover the ground that they had lost to Mongoose in the BMX market. As for the fledgling mountain bike market, Specialized was almost ready to launch its legendary Stumpjumper and the giants in the development of early mountain biking, including Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, and Charlie Kelly, were almost ready to launch an entire series of mountain bikes. Even worse, though, Schwinn had let its dealer network slip away during the 1970s. Mongoose, Specialized, GT, and others quickly moved in to take market share from Schwinn. The company never recovered.
The Schwinn Bicycle Company filed for Chapter 11 protection at the end of 1992, three years before their centennial celebration. Sam Zell, a Chicago investor who specialized in troubled companies, bought Schwinn for about twenty-five cents on the dollar from its creditors in January of 1993. In Schwinn Bicycles, Pridmore and Hurd have given us a brief history with lots of great eye candy for those interested in vintage bikes.
Read more here:
Find out what’s left of Schwinn bicycles with Richard Schwinn, great-grandson of Ignaz Schwinn, who now owns Waterford Precision Cycles: http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=192439
You might also want to check out Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman,’s No Hands, The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, An American Institution, published in 1996 bHenry Holt and Company.
This is a great narrative, fully documented, about the Schwinn Bicycle Company from a business development and strategic perspective. There are a couple of excellent chapters here on the history of BMX and mountain biking trends.
For the current status of the Schwinn Company, read the Wikipedia article on Schwinn here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwinn.