Failure of an Icon

Hello friends!  I just finished reading No Hands–The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution.  Highly recommended.  A fellow blogger brought the book to my attention.  I’d give them credit and a hearty thanks but I can’t for the life of me recall who it was.  [Update:  It was All Seasons Cyclist, and his review is so pro!  Maybe skip my review and read his instead.]  The blogger mentioned the book was out of print, so I jumped on my library’s website and found a copy downtown.  A couple of days later it was at my local branch.  We have such a great library system! 

The book covers a lot of ground, starting with the origins of two wheeled transport and then moving to the founding of Schwinn and the three other generations of Schwinn family members steering the ship.  Also described are the other major players in the industry, both domestic and foreign.  Companies like Trek, Specialized and Giant get a lot of coverage.  You’ll learn about the key role Schwinn’s balloon tire innovation played in their rise to the top as well as Schwinn’s failure to quickly jump on first the bmx craze and then the mountain bike craze.  Complacency strikes hard.

As a kid, I spent a fair amount of my free time in my local Schwinn shop.  I thought the mechanics, in their blue work shirts and working behind the three quarters height wall, were gods.  So many cool tools!  I’d respect the rule that I wasn’t to go into the work area, but I’d linger on the threshold and try to make small talk.

My first three bikes were Schwinns (a Bantam, a Varsity and then a Super Le Tour II).  But just as described in the book, when bmx showed up, I bought a Redline Proline from the Schwinn shop.  That was the best they offered.  I had no interest in a Schwinn bmxer–I would have considered them too heavy.  That was the perception of much of the buying public with tastes that grew more sophisticated more quickly than did Schwinn’s.  Schwinn’s factory in Chicago was originally set up to weld heavy mild steel tubes and they never retooled the factory to produce frames using newer and improved production techniques (brazed lugs and tig welded chromoly).  [Update:  A fellow named Mark dropped a comment on All Seasons Cyclists’ post directing us to a post on Sheldon Brown’s site about the electro-forging process used to manufacture Varsity’s starting in the late 60s.  My comment that Schwinn never retooled is, then, wrong.   Sounds like Schwinn spent a ton of money to update, but it picked the wrong process.  Even if you don’t read the book, read Sheldon’s piece.  As always, very informative and well done.  Oh!  I just found another great article about the fillet brazed lightweights Schwinn was making (mentioned by Guy in the comments below).]

Schwinn fell behind.  They eventually offered frames with the new materials and joining techniques, but they mostly outsourced the work.  While they dragged their feet, much of their audience learned that bicycles out of Europe and Japan were good and much lighter.  Schwinn had long produced their wonderful top of the line lugged frames in their Paramount shop (first in a separate space in the Chicago factory and later at a separate shop in Wisconsin (now Waterford)), but they never mass produced lugged frames.  Instead, Schwinn outsourced production of their middle range lugged lightweights to Japan.  That’s probably where my Super Le Tour II came from.  Then tig welded chromoly became important for bmx bikes and mountain bikes.  For these frames, Schwinn’s suppliers were Giant in Taiwan and then the China Bicycles Company in Shenzhen.

Schwinn even acquired an interest in a factory on the island of Csepel, in Budapest, Hungary and built a factory in  Greenville, Mississippi.  Unfortunately, they didn’t put in place the strong leadership needed to boost production quality at either of these two sites to the levels achieved at the Chicago factory in the early days (or the quality of the work coming out of Japan, Taiwan and eventually China).  By that time,  I was mostly done with Schwinn.  I was into mountain bikes and bought one of the first Cannondale offerings.  I don’t think I ever stepped foot in my local Schwinn store again.  They had nothing of interest to me.

Also discussed are the changes in the industry brought on by the rising power of the component makers in Japan–SunTour and Shimano.  During the first 80 years of the industry, the buying public focused on the reputations of the frame builders, and for most of that period a sizable portion of the buying public thought no one did frames better than Schwinn.  In the eighties, though, more and more buyers focused on parts.  They’d compare bicycles based on their components first and then price.  The frames were viewed as commodities (and at least with respect to the mass produced frames, the public was right).  Schwinn couldn’t adapt to the new environment.

The last Schwinn product I bought was a recumbent exercise bike (that was handed down to a friend and repurposed to power a washing machine).  Bought that at an independent shop that didn’t sell any Schwinn bicycles–just the exercise equipment.  During the last decades of Schwinn’s history as a family owned concern, the profits from stationary exercise bicycles (the Airdyne was the first and most profitable model) were propping up an otherwise failing bicycle company.  If my memory serves, one of the last nails in the coffin was hammered in placed when Sears copied the Airdyne and sold it for hundreds less.  Sales of the Airdyne plummeted, Schwinn’s legal battle to stop Sear’s sales failed and the end followed pretty quickly.  A sad end it was, too, with Ed Schwinn, the last Schwinn to run the company, reduced to running a small mail order cheese house (and battling lawsuits brought by family members alleging he ruined the venerable bicycle company).  At least Richard Schwinn remained in the game with Waterford.  A great company making great frames, but a far cry from the industry sales leader that Schwinn once was.

Not all tea and roses, but what ride ever is?  Look for it at your local library, kids.  I promise it doesn’t suck.



4 responses to “Failure of an Icon

  1. Glad you liked the book! I might have been the “fellow blogger” who reviewed.

  2. I started working in the bicycle industry 1n 1972 at the Schwinn shop in the little town of Port Angeles, WA. I loved the Schwinn bikes. It was at the height of the bike boom, and every Schwinn Varsity we could get our hands on was sold weeks before they arrived. Even at that time the frame technology was hopelessly outdated. For Cruisers and stingrays the flaxh welded frame was adequate if heavy, but for road bikes it was a disaster.

    They did make quality frames in Chicago. The Super Sport and the Sports Touring were fillet brazed of chromoly tubing. The Supersport got a lot of criticism for the one piece crank, but the Sports touring had a european bottom bracket and light alloy crank (I think it was a Nervar or TA)

    It was a sad day when Schwinn went bankrupt. It foreshadowed the destruction of our economy by offshoring our jobs to China.

    • Hey! Very cool that you found my blog and thanks for writing in! Ah yes! I read about the fillet brazed beauties when I first saw one in Omaha. A colleague had plucked one off eBay and let me drool on it. I didn’t remember that they were made in Chicago, but I did learn that people gave them much respect.

      Must have been fun to be in the game during the 70s boom. I was but a wee lad! So many years later and I still just sit on the sidelines, buying bicycles and pedaling some. I envy you.

      By the way, are you the Guy who sold me my Velosteel hub? Whether you are or not, I am still loving on that hub!

      Thanks again for writing. Later!

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