|By Larry LeMasters
May is National Bike Month, which includes National Bike to Work Day on May 17. In the last 20 years, bicycle commuters have grown more than 62 percent in America, but no matter how many people commute on a bicycle today, it seems impossible that bicycle riding will ever reach the level it did in the 1950s and ’60s when every child rode a bicycle nearly everywhere they went. Baby Boomers grew up wanting bicycles, and the bike that nearly everyone wanted was a Schwinn. In fact, in 1950, one in every four bicycles sold was a Schwinn.
Ignaz Schwinn, a German-born mechanical engineer, founded Arnold, Schwinn & Company in 1895. Schwinn founded his company just as the bicycle craze in America took off.
Chicago quickly became the center of the American bicycle industry with, by 1900, 30 bicycle companies manufacturing over 1 million bicycles a year. Sadly, this bicycle boom was short lived. By 1905, the automobile caused bicycle production to fall to 250,000 bicycles per year.
By 1930, the stock market crash destroyed the American economy, including the bicycle industry. Ignaz Schwinn retired, and his son, Frank “F.W.” Schwinn took over as president and took on the job of saving Schwinn. In 1933, Schwinn introduced the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike, which was a boy’s bicycle designed to imitate a motorcycle. In 1934, Schwinn renamed the B-10E the “Aerocycle,” and the Aerocycle helped save Arnold, Schwinn & Company during the Depression.
The Aerocycle had balloon tires (made by American Rubber Company), an imitation gas tank, a streamlined chrome-plated headlight with a push-button bicycle bell, and, by the mid-1930s, the Aerocycle became known as the “paperboy bike.”
The Aerocycle was not the only Schwinn bicycle used as a paperboy bike though. In 1960, my parents bought me a new Schwinn Panther II, which I used to carry and deliver the Sun Newspaper each Thursday in Omaha. Later, I stated delivering the Omaha World Herald, a daily, and my trusted Schwinn helped everyday. The Panther II’s design helped paperboys carry their heavy loads since the bike featured two carriers, over the front fender and one over the rear fender. During the 1960s, Schwinn, more than any other bicycle, helped paperboys deliver newspapers.
The decade of the 1950s was a banner 10 years for Schwinn. The company aggressively sought to expand its market share, and by 1960 Schwinn held a 25 percent market share of an annual 4.4 million-unit industry. Even with an influx of foreign bicycles, including less expensive, made in Japan bicycles, Schwinn held its market place through the mid-1960s. English racing bikes became a bicycle fad throughout the 1950s, but the bread and butter bicycle for Schwinn remained a boy’s bicycle, proving the 1950s a time of growth and family in America. And nothing spelled America better than a young paperboy on a Schwinn.
Throughout the 1960s, Schwinn worked to retain its dominance in the youth bicycle market. Schwinn, as early as 1958, was a regular sponsor and advertiser on television, especially Captain Kangaroo. Each show, Captain Kangaroo himself would tell children, “Schwinn bikes — the quality bikes — are best,” insisting that children buy Schwinn bicycles.
The on-air marketing scheme of Schwinn was so successful, in 1971 the Federal Trade Commission recommended Schwinn stop selling its bicycles using the show’s star, Captain Kangaroo, as its spokesperson. Captain Kangaroo stopped pitching Schwinn bicycles, but the show added a new character called “Mr. Schwinn Dealer,” who heralded Schwinn bicycles to children for several years.
Since I watched Captain Kangaroo as a child, it is possible that I saw the Schwinn Panther II advertised on Captain Kangaroo and pleaded with my parents for the bike. Another interesting tidbit about my first Schwinn was my mother’s insistence that she purchased my Panther II using S&H Green Stamps. Anyone who did not live through the 1950s and early ’60s can fully appreciate this S&H story.
Many collectors think 1960 was a banner year for Schwinn. Along with my Panther II model, Schwinn offered its Mark IV Jaguar, Hornet, Deluxe Hornet, Speedster, Spitfire, Corvette, Tiger, Tornado, Deluxe Tornado, Wasp, Racer, Traveler, Continental Sport, Continental Tourist, Varsity 8-speed, Town and Country Tandem, Fair Lady, Co-Ed, Starlet, Debutante, Hollywood, Spitfire Ladies, Deluxe Tornado Ladies, Tornado Ladies, Bantam, and Pixie styles of bikes.
In 1960 alone, Schwinn offered 27 models of bicycles, so it is easy to see how today’s collectors are forced to limit their collections, especially when searching for good conditioned to near-mint conditioned bikes. The single best thing all of these bikes had in common is this: They were genuine Schwinn bikes. And most boys and collectors agree, “You can’t do any better!”