This Old Bike

July 1, 2005
Archaeologists say one of the best ways to learn about a society and its culture is to sift through its trash. Now I'm no archaeologist, but I am a garbage

Archaeologists say one of the best ways to learn about a society and its culture is to sift through its trash. Now I'm no archaeologist, but I am a garbage picker. And I've learned a lot from the tree-lawn trophies I've collected over the years.

Mostly I like to find old bicycles I can fix up, the latest of which was a blue Schwinn three-speed. I suspect the bike hadn't been ridden in decades. It was filthy, covered with a tacky brown coating. The frame, rims, and wheel hubs, however, were sound, making it a good candidate for restoration.

I won't bore you with details about the cleaning process except to say that steel wool does wonders on surface rust and mineral spirits take care of almost everything else. Messy fun is what it is, as long as you have a good bike to start with and a supply of old rags to use along the way.

As I worked down to the frame — disassembling and degreasing the hubs, crank, and fork — I was surprised by the number of parts manufactured in other countries. Like many Americans, I was under the impression that outsourcing was a relatively new “evil.” Not so.

The Sturmey-Archer rear chain-pull hub and thumb shifter, for example, were made in England. The front hub and some bearings were manufactured in Germany. Other bearings came from Japan, as did the front and rear brake calipers. The brake shoes were made in Switzerland, and the original tires, inner tubes, seat, and pedals were made in Taiwan.

Best I can tell, the bicycle, a ladies style Breeze, was manufactured at Schwinn's Chicago assembly plant in 1967 or ‘68. A truly global product, it was one of Schwinn's many successes at the time. So sturdy and well-built was this two-wheeler that I didn't have to replace a thing to make it ride. Even the cables and brake pads are original; good as new after a thorough cleaning.

The grime under my fingernails now reminds me that Schwinn made great bicycles, and its wise use of outsourcing was one of the reasons. Outsourcing (as I came to learn after a little research) allowed Schwinn to concentrate on what it did best: drive consumer demand, develop and market new designs, and form metal-tube frames like no one else.

In its prime, Schwinn was the classic visionary organization. Its designers traveled the country to scope out consumer tastes. It was after one such trip to California that Schwinn engineers came up with the popular StingRay design. The radical look, with its banana seat, sissy bar, and high-rise handle bars, was inspired by the muscle car craze of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I'm only guessing, but after that Schwinn's beancounters must have cut the inspirational phase of the development process to save money.

Besides its vision, Schwinn also lost its knack for marketing its products. One of its biggest failures was poorly promoting a new line of molded chromium-molybdenum (CrMo) frames. What should have been driving the bike maker forward in the late 1970s, eventually sank it. I once owned a Schwinn SuperSport with a CrMo frame, and it was awesome. The majority of cycling enthusiasts didn't see it that way, however. In large numbers, they began leaning toward lugged frames, inferior in quality but holding the higher ground in terms of perception.

Schwinn's response, perhaps reluctantly, was to move all manufacturing offshore. By then, however, the American bike-making legend was all but dead, unable to do much more than beat down manufacturing costs.

This story would end on a sad note if it weren't for the fact that I can point to several enterprising bike makers that sprang in Schwinn's wake. Cannondale, Trek, Haro, and Specialized, among others, are proving there's plenty of opportunity for new American companies that combine good marketing, global partnering, and intelligent manufacturing. Hopefully, we'll see more innovators like them step in where today's corporate dinosaurs (no names please) are throwing it all away.

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