Legendary leader Schwinn Bicycles

By Caryl Clem:

The bicycle fever started in France and England before the United States.  The wealthy rode the Penny Farthing, a high wheeler with wooden wheels like a carriage. Bicycles had a nickname, “Boneshakers”.  “In the case of the former, the animal has to be broken before it can be ridden, while with the latter it is the rider who must undergo the breaking process.” quote from an 1869 Scientific American.

By the late 1860’s the Penny Farthing was favored by acrobats and clowns performing tricks at the circus.  Several Safety style bikes were designed with two wheels lower to the ground with pedals.  A French mechanic mass produced this popular style bicycle.  One of the Safety bike designs was sold in 1868 to an American.

Ignaz Schwinn was born in 1860 in Germany where he apprenticed in several bicycle shops. He had a dream to start his own bicycle company in America, land of industrial strength. He arrived in America in 1891 and was working in a bicycle place in Chicago by 1895. He met his financial backer Adolf Arnold whose partnership enabled opening “The World” Bicycle Company. Schwinn bicycles proudly boasted paramount performance and distinctive design. The professional Afro-American cyclist Major Thomas claims the world championship in 1896 pedaling a Schwinn to victory.  

In the early 1900’s, Schwinn bikes are included in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog.  In 1914, Schwinn is reported to be the biggest bicycle manufacturer in the world.  The Schwinn Quality seal is attached in 1930.  Senior Schwinn regularly visited his factories. Still standing today, former Schwinn factory located at 1856 N. Kostner. 

Schwinn sales and services are managed by dealerships in the late 1940’s such as Barnyards or Chicago Cycle Company.  Frank was just as innovative as his father developing 40 patents.  Schwinn was a frontrunner, continually introducing the latest fashionable bicycle. Ongoing research dedicated to improving bicycles function featured design innovations of mudguards, the cycle lock, the Fore-wheel brake, Cantilever Frame, and the “Spring Fork.”  All the popular models Schwinn Panther, Autocycle, Hollywood, and Starlet bicycles mirrored the latest automobile trends during the 1950’s with chrome fenders, whitewall tires, tail lights and horn.  Hollywood stars appear in the Schwinn 1955 catalog.  

In 1963 the Schwinn;’ famous Sting Ray with high rise handle bars , banana seat, stick shift  and the thin slick racing tires quickly dominate the market. Schwinn averages 1 million bicycles daily worldwide in the 1960’s. BMX is the next success story. Schwinn had expanded kids and adult bike use. After 40 patents, Schwinn’s son died when he was 48 in 1972. The next successor inspired a major labor strike that crippled the company in 1980.  Schwinn was sold in 1982.

Schwinn’s new owner started selling at chain stores in 2002.  Schwinn bikes are still evolving, the lightweight mountain bikes, the recycle materials bike Vestige and the electric bike in 2019.  Schwinn and Together We Rise support children in foster care. Vintage Schwinn bikes can be found at Barnards in Oak Park.

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