By Monte Wehrkamp and Christopher Cudworth
Exactly what is a Schwinn? This family-owned Chicago bike company grew and became the zeitgeist of a generation with bikes called Stingrays that often featured banana seats. Whether single speed, 3-speed, or 5-speed, the banana seat and ape hanger bars captured the hot rod, muscle car craze in America at the time and gave to us young boys the hope, however slim at times, of actually being cool.
Remember the colors? Orange Crush. Candy Apple Red (that’s the one I got for Christmas). Perfect.
Then Schwinn launched the concept of bike as transportation in America by bringing us the 10-speeds like the Varsity. Sure, there were Columbias and other brands of bikes, and later Raleighs won a certain zeitgeist as well, but it was Schwinn who originally drove the consumer bike market with their Varsity line — much like how GM dictated the entire car market when they accounted for fully half of all American sales up through the early 70s.
Alas, Schwinn began to suffer under its own weight, literally. The bikes were being outclassed by imports, which were also cheaper. Schwinn found it impossible to compete price-wise with its Chicago-built bikes vs those from Taiwan and Japan. The European bikes, while more expensive, were made by master race bike builders utilizing Campagnolo components, so Schwinn was getting beaten in the race bike market as well.
So Schwinn sought to find a partner – someone overseas with cheap labor but a good manufacturing base. Someone they could teach bike building to, then import these Schwinn-Approved (and branded bikes) to the US to compete with Japan Inc. They found a company in Taiwan, sent over designers and engineers from Chicago, tooled up their plant, taught them how to build very good bikes.
In the meantime, Schwinn closed down Chicago but kept their custom shop in Waterford, Wisconsin, where the hand-made Paramount was built.
The Paramount was Schwinn’s answer to the Euro race bikes. Top end components. Lustrous paint. Race geometry. But too expensive. Some of us settled for the last US built Schwinn race bikes built that were a step below Paramount. Shared geometry, but with slightly heavier tubing and instead of Campy components, the next-level Schwinns were fitted with Suntour (now making a comeback today) components.
But for Schwinn, it was apparently all too late. They’d lost too much market share. Their brand name, which was once very much in their favor, became known for stationary exercise fan bikes. Independent bike stores became the trend and the old Schwinn bike store locations, with their perceived fuddy-duddy Schwinn bikes, slowly closed, or re-opened selling other brands, like start-ups Trek and Cannondale, and the European invasion – Calnago, Bianchi, Willier, to name just a few.
Schwinn launched a new ad campaign. The creative director that worked on it took off six months from work and rode bikes. Marin County, California. Hung out with the mountain bikers. Learned the culture. The language. Came back and wrote brilliant stuff. Great ad campaign. But too late. Schwinn went bankrupt. Closed its doors.
Today, Schwinn, the brand, is owned by a Chinese investment group and they slap the Schwinn logo on mass-produced assembly line bikes that are sold mostly in Walmart.
They’ve started to build up a decent line as well, mid-price point, mostly sold through Performance Bike and their subsidiary. Those bikes are sold by Nashbar (Famous Maker No-Name Bike, they call them). They even brought back the Paramount name for awhile. Didn’t stick. No young riders today remember Paramount and what it meant. Toward the end of the product run last year, you could get a new Dura-Ace gruppo’ed carbon Paramount for under $1500. Incredible bargain, but no brand recognition.
The Waterford, WI plant never closed. A Schwinn grandson runs it to this day, and if you want a custom fit, custom built steel bike, you won’t go wrong having Waterford build you a dream bike.
Vestiges of the original Schwinn also lives on in Taiwan. The manufacturing company Schwinn selected to build their bikes — the one that learned from the original Chicago Schwinn engineers and designers — is still going strong today. They go by the name Giant, and they build both recreational and world-class bikes used by pro road and mountain and cyclocross teams all over the world.
So Schwinn, in a way, lives on. Just like its old bikes, made in Chicago many decades ago.