Wednesday, July 1, 2020


This one is so obvious I'm wondering how I missed it. Try to buy a bicycle. Bike shop, Walmart, Academy Sports, anywhere you go, it's all empty racks. Because bicycles come from the Far East now, or at least they did until March of 2020. Now they don't come from anywhere. You cannot buy a bicycle in the United States tomorrow.

Bicycles used to come from Chicago. A million bikes a year. Not the only bike on the market, but the dominant player. Schwinn. From the first bike a child wanted, to the bombproof, guaranteed for life frames of the cruisers and ten speeds, to top of the line racing frames, Schwinn made them all.

I had one like this in the mid 1960s. My dad gave five dollars to a neighbor. The bike had been ridden by all 8 of their kids before me. I rode it until I bought a 3 speed Raleigh when I was a teenager. It went to someone after me. For all I know it's still in a garage in Illinois.

Schwinn was dominant enough to come out with tire and rim sizes that were unique. Very close to the 26 x 1.75, the Schwinn 26 x 1 3/4 had a slightly different bead diameter. It fit the Schwinn rim. They did this with a couple of other sizes too. If you needed a tire for a Schwinn bike, you went to the Schwinn dealer.

If you had a Schwinn dealership, you would be the only one in town, it was an exclusive. I went to Schwinn's mechanic school in Atlanta not to long before the end and got the certificate. Learned to lace up wheels, rebuild 3 speed hubs, and a few other things I hadn't picked up yet.

The factory got outdated, labor costs went up, and the competition got better. By the 1970s, bikes were being made in Japan. Lightweight road bikes that beat Schwinn on price and features. When the Japanese bikes got too pricy, bikes started to come from India, and then from China.

There was a strike at the Chicago plant in 1980. Schwinn responded by moving production out of Chicago to Greenville Mississippi. They started losing money. They sold off the racing bike line and the Paramount name. Then in 2001 declared bankruptcy. Everything that was left was sold to GT bicycles.

Up until the pandemic, you could still buy a bicycle with the Schwinn nameplate on it. It looked like every other bike made in China. They aren't bad bicycles, they make a range from department store bikes on up to fairly high end bikes sold in bicycle shops. But they aren't Chicago Schwinns. And since they aren't made here, they are subject to the same supply chain pressure as computers, phones, appliances, and the rest.

If you're old enough, you remember Schwinns. The looks, the colors, it was part of the background of every American childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. I've got two of them in the basement.

Here's a real nice example of what they looked like at their peak. Everything on that bike was made in America.


Adrienne said...

My first (and only) bike was a Schwinn. It was about 1954 and I think it was the Phantom. It had the spring thingy on the front and the fenders were all chrome. It was beautiful!!!

drjim said...

Growing up in the Chicago area, every bike I ever had was a Schwinn. They were indestructible! And if you *did* break something, you went to the Schwinn store and bought the parts. They always had what you needed, and the counter guy joked the could probably build a dozen complete bikes with what they had in the Parts Department.

Heavy, but literally built like battleships.

libertyman said...

I believe I had the same bikes - the early Schwinn with the coaster brake, and then later the Raleigh with the three speed and orange wall tires. I put a lot of miles on them both. I think I gave away my Raleigh to a nephew after I "grew up".

I will look at bicycles to see if any is for sale near me. Interesting consequence of this trade and virus business with China.

SiGraybeard said...

A couple of minor points, but who's going to be the pedantic a**hole if I don't?

The big place for bike manufacturing has been Taiwan, not the People's Republic. Much better quality. Bikes aren't considered high tech manufacturing but there are places where the tolerances get tight and experience is worth more than gold.

Lots of bikes are manufactured in the US, but they're all high-end bikes. A lot of carbon fiber, titanium or "exotic" steels.

ASM826 said...


Those high end frames that are manufactured in the U.S. are a good thing and I'm glad they are doing it. All the components are imported. All of them.

Giant Bicycles is headquartered in Taiwan, but most of their manufacturing moved to mainland China (Guangdong Provence) in the 1990s. They make 6 million bikes a year. Mainland China makes approximately 90% of the bicycles sold in the United States since the year 2000.

TechieDude said...

I had one of those chopper type schwinns with a 5 speed gear shift and a springer front end with a smaller tire with, if I remember, a drum brake. It was a cool bike to tool around on, but you really couldn't stand up to gain max speed.

Ever since my cousin lent me his brothers Schwinn 10 speed I wanted one. I had a friend that had the same bike. They were well build, solid, and fast as hell for the time. A few years ago I found one in the used section of a local bike shop - $99. I did the dumbshit move of going home to think about it. Long gone by the time I came back.

Glen Filthie said...

The problem with the Chinese is that you can't trust them in anything. I have seen it with other things, most notably with tools. Manufacturers experience a sudden drop in quality - and you KNOW they've outsourced to China. They will fake mill certs without a second thought, QA/QC is non-existent, and they've actually killed thousands of people round the world with their shoddy products.

I think the best stuff is still coming out of Japan. Last time I looked, the high end deraillers and shifters were made by Shimano and Deore, if I remember correctly. Until the chinamen learn to do ball bearings... they are pretty much excluded from the high end market.

Ya get what you pay for, and nobody wants a cheap bike.

Greybeard said...

I too owned a Schwinn Phantom, and rode the wheels off the thing.
Parents gave it away to a cousin when I was drafted... against my wishes.
I bought a 1962 "Schwinn Twinn" a few years ago. Solid, quality bike.
And my bride and I get smiles from everyone every time we ride.

lee n. field said...

Oh, yes, I remember Schwinn. I remember Captain Kangaroo advertising them. "Slightly higher in the west and the south."

I never had the one speed bomber style. OK, one maybe, briefly. Had a Continental 10 speed in the '80s. It was older then. This was the Schwinn electrically welded frame.

Now have and ride a Schwinn Voyegeur, and 18 speed "loaded touring" bike from the nineties. Really, so I have read, a Japanese made Panasonic under the skin.

Pete said...

I worked in a Schwinn franchise dealer shop as a kid for many years with my grandfather. I used to assemble the bikes out of the box (they'd come in boxes on a train to California.). I'd do repairs like fixing flat tires. A great experience. I remember really wanting a Paramount...

Spin said...

Speaking of weird experiences with bicycles, I actualy had breakfast with some Trek engineers and designers in Taiwan about 5 years ago. I was going to go see a friend who owned the company that made all of GT's bike seats. About 2 days later I had dinner with the Managing Director of GT. We killed a half bottle of JW Special Black talked Swiss watches. My friend could not sell seats to Trek as GT would cancel his contracts. So business goes. By the way we can make everything here. CSMC makes complete guns from soup to nuts in Connecticut. Whirlpool in Findlay Ohio makes washing machines. The big issue is making the tooling to make the parts. A lot of tool are made in China now but they are a loooong lead item and kind of junky. It would have been great if the second stimulus had gone to underwriting tooling costs for American companies. Loan them the money with a 10 year payback at a low intrest rate and prorate the loan length by 10% for every year the tool is used to make parts. 5 years of producing parts and the tool is paid for. We get the opportunity to train tool makers. win-win.

Spin Drift