When I was a kid, having two wheels represented freedom. After a certain age I was pretty much allowed to ride my bicycle wherever I wanted — if I had the strength to peddle far enough I could get there. My friends and I would often go on all-day bicycle adventures of the sort you just can’t do on a skateboard, and we didn’t want to be dependent on someone’s mom to give us a ride.
Today’s images are all from a brochure that, from the references to several “current” movies, must have come out in 1941 or 1942. It pictures Schwinn bicycles, the leading American brand at the time, made in Chicago, Illinois, and features well-known and lesser known actors and actresses in Hollywood. Many are shown with family members, also on bikes. Click on any image for a larger version.
I was a Schwinn man myself, and spent a lot of time at the local Schwinn dealership, Alhambra Wheel and Hobby. In addition to bicycles, the shop sold model-making kits and supplies, gas-powered model airplanes, slot cars, trains, and other hobby equipment. It was an easy walk or ride from my house and the proprietor got to know me pretty well.
German-born mechanical engineer Ignaz Schwinn founded his company in 1895, which happened to coincide with a huge boom in the popularity of bicycles in America. By the turn of the century, bicycle output in the United States was more than a million units a year.
But the popularity of the automobile put the brakes on the bicycle industry and sales dropped dramatically by 1905. Yet Schwinn made some good business decisions and remained a player in the market.
During the Depression things got a little dicey, and many bicycle manufacturers went out of business. Frank Schwinn, Ignaz’s son, took over the company and managed to keep it alive, thanks in part to a revolutionary bicycle design using wide “balloon” tires, an imitation “gas tank,” a chrome headlight, and a bicycle bell. That model would eventually be known as a “paperboy bike” or “cruiser.” Many of the models shown here are descendants of that design.
Thanks to a dealership program that guaranteed exclusive geographic territories, Schwinn did very well throughout the 1950s and even got in trouble with the government for restraint of trade. (The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.)
Schwinn adjusted its distribution policies a bit to comply with the court’s ruling, but they still remained dominant. In 1963 the company introduced the distinctive “Stingray” design, which swept the country, and continued to produce popular models through the 1970s, though imported bicycles were starting to take hold.
As is often the case with entrenched manufacturers, Schwinn did not modernize its practices and continued to produce relatively heavy bikes after lighter-weight models had become popular. The company also missed out on the BMX and mountain bike fads.
At one point, the company was unionized by the United Auto Workers, and there were strikes and labor problems into the early 1980s. Manufacturing eventually moved overseas and the company went into bankruptcy in 1992.
Schwinn remains a brand today, salvaged in name only from the wreck of a once-great company.
I don’t doubt that a lot of Hollywood stars owned Schwinn bicycles — just about everyone did. My choice was based on looks, not on any celebrity endorsements.
I loved my Schwinn Varsity ten-speed. That bike got me out of the house and on to many great adventures. Thanks, Ignaz, for a great brand and the freedom that came with it.