May 2010 Feature Article

The Enduring Style of 20th Century Bicycles     By Michael Kaplan, Photos by Leonard J. Eisenberg









In the last 20 years or so collecting has literally exploded with the force of an atomic bomb. Antiques Roadshow episodes, Kovels Collectibles articles, coverage by local media and magazines has spawned new categories, subcategories and niches that are popping up seemingly from nowhere. From cereal box art to fast food collectibles and non sports cards trying to keep up with it all is a big challenge but also GREAT fun. Imagine how boring the world of collecting would be if it was so homogenized that there was only one style or format.

Early on in the 20th century bicycles all looked very similar… they were plain and had very little variation because their design was dictated by function. The biggest stylistic differences were in the ornamentation of the artwork on the headbadges but by and large the aesthetics of the overall bicycle was constrained by austerity. In 1933 the Arnold Schwinn company changed all that with the introduction of the balloon cord tire. Now not only was ride, comfort and performance substantially upgraded but appearance was improved as well. The frames, forks, seats, handlebars and sheet metal quickly followed suit. Styling became all the rage and streamlining became all the style. Aircraft, automotive and  motor-

cycle styling were combined to create “new” “flashy” models that would lock up market shares with kids who wanted to be just like dad and with dads who wanted to ride things of beauty. In 1934 Schwinn introduced the Streamline Aerocycle  (Figure 1). With a torpedo like pressed steel tank and EA pancake horn, red tires and grips and pedals it looked just like a motorcycle exactly as intended.

All of the other manufacturers jumped in with their own interpretations. Shelby had the Speedline Airflow, Dayton had the Dayton Streamliner, Columbia manufactured a bike under the Elgin name that was sold by Sears Roebuck called the Elgin Bluebird that was billed as the Bike of the Century (Figures 2 and 3). At nearly $50 in 1935 it offered terms of $5 down and $5 a month to make it seem affordable and it featured an automotive style illuminated speedometer and an integrated headlight and horn. Today along with the Aerocycle (and the Bowden Spacelander) it remains as one of the holy grail pieces that any bike collector would love to find. Most of them ended up being scrapped and turned into tanks and jeeps for WWII and since there were few made to begin with (due to the huge price in a post depression economy) the majority of these beautiful streamlined bicycles were lost forever. Monark Silver King of Chicago formerly an Exide Car and motorcycle battery maker manufactured a line of Aluminum bicycles  (Figure 4) called Silver Kings which came out in the early 30s. These were art deco styled and carried nicknames such as Wingbar and Flowcycle. They featured locking steering to compete with the Schwinn cyclelock and ostensibly to thwart theft. They also offered a cool saddle that was called a toolbox seat that by means of a galoshes type latch could hinge down to store wrenches and other sundries (Figure 5). Around the country aluminum bikes were sold by Montgomery Wards department store under the name Wards Hawthorne but they were all made by Monark in Chicago and privately labeled for individual outfits (Figure 6). New Features, New Beauty, New Style, and sales appeal were the buzzwords of the day and all the manufacturers clamored to outdo each other with ever increasing dosages of glamour, dazzle, chrome and more chrome. After a brief return to drabness during the war years of 1942-1945 post-war bicycle manufacturers went all out to capture the hearts, eyes, and minds of the 76,500,000 babies born in America between 1946 and 1964. Murray Ohio-Art employed the imagery of a jet fighter with their Jet Flash model to entice would be blue angels. Shelby had the Flyer and Airflow, JC Higgins which replaced Elgin as the line sold at Sears had the Colorflow models with a popular Batwing headlight option which broke off the first time a kid did a riderless distance contest or laid the bike on its side (an early precurser to planned obsolescence). Schwinn had the Spitfire, Jaguar, Corvette, Hornet, Wasp, Tiger and others. Monark had the Super deluxe and Super Cruiser. By 1950 the venerable bicycle had become an expression of style and class rivaled only by the automobiles that they so blatantly mimicked. Today collector cars and collector bicycles coexist as highly prized milestones often cohabiting the same garages, gamerooms and collections.

In Real Estate there is a saying “Location, Location, Location.” With antiques and collectibles the maxim would have to be “Condition, Condition,  Condition.” These bikes are fun to search for and fun to ride and display and can be worth substantial amounts of money. But before you go scouring the countryside scooping every rusty bicycle carcass with dreams of early retirement, it is important to remember that condition is KEY. Many collectors will confess that their first ten to one hundred purchases should never have been made. They were in fact driven by infectious impulsivity coupled with a lack of knowledge and/or refinement. They bought anything and everything they could find in the euphoric giddiness of the chase. “The Bug” so to speak. Fortunately these initial “blind” purchases can be written off as tuition for a relatively inexpensive education and can prove to underscore the expression “if you think education is expensive…try ignorance.” The fact that more than 100 million balloon tire bikes were produced, and most made prior to planned obsolescence provides plenty of opportunities to find good or better examples and correct the earlier uninformed choices. Unless you own or have access to an autobody shop it is wise to be a stickler for condition. “Are all the parts there?” “Is it twisted, corroded, or mickey-moused?” Often passing on the bike is the better part of valor unless you have a willing buyer waiting in the wings for that specific bike in the condition found. Conversely it can sometimes be worthwhile to accumulate specific desirable bikes to strip for parts and create an inventory of hard to find parts so that if and when that special bike does pop-up incomplete it can be made whole again with parts on hand.

Girls bikes tend to have less than half the value of similarly equipped boys bikes. The upside is that they turn up in better condition most of the time. This is due in part to the fact that girls took better care of their belongings and weren’t seeing how far their bike could travel with nobody on board like most of the boys were doing in the 50s and 60s. Sometimes the parts on the girls bikes are interchangeable in particular springer front forks, chain guards, headlights and taillights. The whole bike might be worth grabbing for the sum of its parts. Additionally matched pairs of boys and girls bikes are a great way to involve a significant other in your hobby and passion.

While there are certain universal standards desirability really depends on the individual collector. The Schwinn Black Phantom (Figures 7 and 8) has proven to be one of the most popular, memorable and enduring models of all. Produced from 1949-1959 it sold for $75-$105 and was out of reach for most kids when their parents could buy a bicycle for as little as $17. Available in black or red or green as standard deluxe models, for $5 extra it could be a different color but few and far between were the parents who would add an extra $5 to an already premium priced cycle. Schwinn took advantage of the exclusivity of the mark with ads that played up the “swellness” of “It’s a Schwinn.”

Columbia, officially known as Westfield Mfg. was a New England manufacturer that also made bicycles for Western Auto under the Western Flyer name and produced bicycles for many hardware and department stores. Schwinn, Shelby, Colson and Columbia and others produced private label bicycles that beckoned to little kids at the Firestone and BF Goodrich tire stores. While dad was getting tires for the car, the kids were getting outfitted with bikes. Names such as Hi-Way Patrol played off the popularity of television shows and the intrique of pint-sized patrolmen on their make believe motorbikes helped pump sales. Having tire stores that already made tires for these bicycles offering bicycles branded with their own name was a logical marketing extension and boosted total units produced by Schwinn, Monark, Cleveland Welding Company and Columbia among others. Speaking of marketing, in 1949 the Shelby Bicycle company of Elyria, Ohio offered a Donald duck bicycle (Figure 9) complete with illuminated eyes and a horn that went Quack Quack in 20 inch, 24 inch, and 26 inch boys and girls models. Around this time DP Harris Rollfast company produced Hopalong Cassidy bicycles in the same three sizes and genders but added fringed leather look carrier rack, horsehair hide look seat and Hopalong Cassidy cap guns that fit into holsters on the tank. A Gene Autry bike was also produced with a horse head protrusion up front. Then later in the 50s with “Rock and Roll” in full swing the Huffy bicycle company came up with a new “twist.” The Huffy Radio bike as the name implies had a tube radio and speaker built right into the tank. (Figures 10 and 11). A kid could listen to Chubby Checker while doing the paper route. Huffy which began life as the Davis Sewing Machine company in New York became The Dayton company of Ohio which transitioned to the Dayton Huffman company and then Huffman and then just plain Huffy. They pioneered full suspension bicycles in 1937 with the Twin Flex. The bike pictured here is a 1937 Firestone Fleetwood Dayton Huffman TwinFlex (what a mouthful) complete with Firestone script tires and Porcelain Indian head badge with an Indian pulling back a bow and arrow. (Figures 12 and 13).

Full suspension was new, unique and novel although they had been debuted in the late 1800s by Pierce and others. The first incarnation Twin Flex had pivot point issues and was dubbed the death bike after some tragedies but was re-engineered and soon Colson had a twin suspension bicycle as well. What was old had become new again. Then in the early 60s bicycles appeared that sported rocketship graphics and names to match. The Flying Star, Flight Liner, Jet liner, Spaceliner and Spacelander were just a few. These bikes played on America’s preoccupation with space and space travel. With the exception of the Bowden Spacelander they show up frequently and reasonably, particularly when compared to the bicycles of previous decades. Called Middleweights they are easily distinguishable by their skinnier 26 x 1.75 or 1 3/4 size tires instead of the fatter balloon tires and they are also characterized by token attempts at weight reduction to keep them competitive with the Raleighs and other British invasion lightweights. Chromed plastic and smaller 1/2 tanks and spring carriers in front and back as well as mechanical bells replacing the battery operated horns in the tank or no bell at all are giveaways as to their age.

Age is not the determining factor in assessing value of bicycles. Some bikes from the 20s and 30s fetch less than $100 dollars while one of the most valuable the Bowden Spacelander (Figures 14 and 15) from 1959-60 has commanded prices as high as $19,750 (1997 Schwinn Museum Auction) Constructed of fiberglass it boasted in the original sales literature, “It is not a jet, It is not a Corvette, It is not from Outer Space, It is a Bowden” Only 522 were ever produced between December 1959 and February 1960. The story of its inspiration and design are fascinating. The famed auto designer BG Bowden ( of Healey Silverstone Race car, Tucker automobile, Kaiser Darrin fiberglass sports car fame) designed it out of composition in 1946 for the “Britain can make it” science fair. Then after a calamitous failed aluminum production attempt in 1951 in Africa where Mr Bowden lost 840,000 British pounds sterling, it lay dormant until 1959 when it was manufactured by a company in Grand Haven Michigan that was producing Fiberglass couches that vibrated with alleged therapeutic results. The immediately forthcoming Readers Digest article elaborating on medical quackery that prominently featured the couch as a worthless device spelled the end of the bike after ony 522 pieces were made. Fragile and easily breakable not to mention expensive at $89.50 in 1959 very few remained. So with the demand so greatly exceeding the supply a fellow bike collector and myself tracked down Ben Bowden in the late 80s and became licensed, authorized and endorsed to continue production of this amazing uniquity. We brought back and produced over 180 of these radical rolling sculptures that truly are rideable fine art.

What I tell people with regards to all aspects of collecting and particularly bicycles is … “Buy things because you like them not because you think they will make you wealthy” then if they do not go up in value… at least you like what you are stuck with to which I might add …

When is the last time you rode your Picasso to the park?

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