ANTIQUES & Collectables / cover article
Hop on Your Bike – Let’s Go!
By LinDee Rochelle
“We would skate up the avenue
But there isn’t any ice
We would ride on a bicycle
But we haven’t got a bike”
By the time Judy Garland and Fred Astaire lamented their lack of a bike in the movie, “Easter Parade” set in 1911, the popular two-wheeled contraption was already over 30 years old. For adults, however, its preferred status for traipsing the countryside was fast being usurped by its offspring, the abominable horseless carriage. Although most grown-ups still prefer the quick pace and all-weather comfort of the auto for common transportation, the venerable bicycle remains our first childhood symbol of freedom.
Along with automobiles, bicycles are one of our most endearing collectibles in the world of antiques. Seeing an old Roadmaster, Shelby, Huffy or Schwinn evokes a yearning to relive the innocent, frolicking memories of our youth. We feel a gentle tug toward an old Colson Clipper, or TV-inspired Rollfast Hopalong Cassidy complete with saddlebags, we fawn over and quite often, purchase, a fond tribute to the good ol’ days spent churning recklessly down a hill in hot pursuit of our best friend, pigtails flying and not a thought of a broken arm.
Although the actual inventor of the bicycle seems to be in historical dispute, there is no argument that early bikes are very collectible, and many of the oldest and most valuable are safely tucked away in museums. The Metz Bicycle Museum (www.metzbicyclemuseum.com/index.html) in Freehold, N.J., boasts a Zimmy bike (1896), built by Arthur Zimmerman, arguable, the world’s first bicycle racing champion of the 1880s and ‘90s. Another Metz trophy bike, the “lamplighter,” is over eight feet high and was once used in 1890s New York City to light the gas streetlights.
And the Bicycle Museum of America (www.bicyclemuseum.com) in New Bremen, Ohio, offers an 1869 “boneshaker” with the comment, “A large front wheel and a low saddle meant that a fast ride was possible, if only the rider could overcome the difficulties in pushing forward on the pedals while leaning back at a severe angle.”
A precursor to modern bicycle models was exhibited in Paris in 1818. It was made entirely of wood and required the rider to push his/her feet against the ground to glide forward. It obviously left much to be desired if it was to become a more convenient mode of transportation than the horse. However, many “backyard inventors” of the day produced varying versions of the precarious two-wheeler, and one account suggests that Frenchman Pierre Lallement brought his plans for an improved bicycle to America where he got the backing of investor James Carroll. Their patent application was granted in 1866 – reputedly, the world’s first public record of the pedal-powered two-wheeler.
However, the first popularized, manufactured American version of the bicycle has been attributed in most historical accounts to the colorful “Co. Pope.” Actually a captain retired from the Civil War, Albert Pope was inspired by a “pre-bike” velocipede display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. By 1877, The Pope Manufacturing Company was looking for an established manufacturing plant, as his first “wheel” cost $313. The Weed Sewing Machine Co. did the trick and in 1878 their 60-inch high wheelers sold for $125.00.
There have been many milestones over the years, following fashion, global events and street trends. The Davis Sewing Machine Co. produced a girl’s model for Harley Davidson (1917-1922) that included a web of string covering the rear wheel spokes to keep their long skirts from getting caught. During World War II, Huffman and Westfield Manufacturing (later, “Huffy” brand) was selected to produce a no-frills, olive drab GI bicycle that was used at every U.S. camp and most overseas facilities that were not at the front. And what Boomer doesn’t recall the infamous “Texas long-horn” or “ape” handlebars and banana seats that personify the phenomenon known as the Schwinn Sting-Ray, patterned after youthful zeal for customizing?
In 1963, Al Fritz had already worked years past the four months he’d planned, as a temporary metal grinder at Schwinn, finding himself as an aide to the company’s president. In our telephone conversation, the 80-year-old recalled what lead to his brainchild bicycle style that dominated the 1960s. “A road salesman (for Schwinn) called me about the crazy things kids on the West Coast were doing with their Schwinn bike frames – ‘You can’t beg, borrow, or steal a Schwinn frame here,’ the salesman exclaimed. I told him to send me one.” Based on a sample of the “chopped” and modified style, Fritz put together the prototype of the J-38/Sting-Ray the same week Mr. Schwinn passed away. The day of the funeral, with the factory closed, he invited three distributors to experience the J-38 prototype. “They rode around on them and they thought I was nuts, but they had so much fun!”
One evening soon after, Fritz was putting a J-38 in the trunk of his car to take to a distributor when Schwinn’s son happened by and asked him what he was doing. He recounted, “Frank, this is gonna be our top seller this year.” (This, despite the fact they had over 300 popular models, and it was already June.) “Frank just shook his head. I said, ‘Tell ya what, Frank, I’ll bet ya $20 we’ll sell at least 25,000 this year.’ ” He knows the exact total of Sting-Ray bikes sold by the end of December, 1963: “46,242 – we’d have sold more, but the tire manufacturer couldn’t keep up.”
The competition was quick to copy – by 1965-66, says Fritz, 60-70 percent of all bikes sold in the country were Sting-Ray types. “It’s a phenomenon that could be compared to the Mustang at Ford,” he says. The Sting-Ray’s edgy Fastback and Krate models of the late ‘60s emulated the muscle cars of the era and are very collectible today. Want to know more? Liz Fried’s “Schwinn Sting-Ray” book (Motorbooks Int’l, 1997) tells the whole story.
If you’re into collecting, however, and want to own, not just read about old bikes, the inimitable eBay and pricegrabber.com are good places to start – IF you know what you’re looking for, what price you should pay, and how to take care of it. That’s where other books like the “Bicycle Blue Book” or “How to Restore Your Collector Bicycle” come in handy. These and other great references are listed on www.peteandedbooks.com.
While some bikes may just be old and cost pennies on the dollar to decorate your yard with, there are the exceptional ones that serious collectors seek, like Pete Aronson’s (www.hyper-formance.com) rare 1973, handmade, Schwinn Paramount, once owned by an Olympic team member, worth thousands. But bike collecting doesn’t have to be just about the bike itself – consider collecting the multitude of accessories, many costing less than $10 – brooches, print ads, miniatures of all kinds, jewelry, even antique poker chips with a cupid riding a bike!
So grab your bike basket full of memories and go bonkers for antique bikes of the 19th century – a three-wheel in-line, or Columbia high wheel tricycle – or head straight for the vintage Montgomery Wards Hawthorne Silver King. And don’t be surprised if you hear Janis Joplin humming in your ear, “I rode my bicycle past your window last night …”
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ANTIQUE & Collectables Newsmagazine, February, 2005
© 2005, LinDee Rochelle