Thursday, 15 January 2009

Classic American Bicycles, Jay Pridmore (1999)

MBI Publishing 1 58068 001 1 Quarto 96pp £9.99

A quick spin through the history of US cycle manufacture, lavishly illustrated in colour

At first glance this appears to be as much a picture book as anything else. On nearly every page is a sumptuous photograph of a bicycle – the most interesting being those from the 1930s balloon tyre craze to the post war ‘muscle bikes’ like the Schwinn ‘Krate’ series of bicycles. Interweaving the illustrations, however is a short narrative that contains much to interest those of us steeped in British, or European cycling.

The rhythm of US cycle development is unique – and has much to tell us about the development of manufactured goods in advanced capitalism. During the first cycling boom of the 1880s, Colonel Alexander Pope of Hartford Connecticut manufactured the countries’ first bicycles – high ordinaries, as penny farthings were known. But even then, Pope demonstrated some of the attributes that would define US manufacturing. He was an early enthusiast for mechanized mass production – boasting to a magazine in 1882, of ‘158 machines that perform automatic labor’. He invested heavily in publicity, founding the magazine Bicycling World and sponsoring Englishman Thomas Stevens on a round-the-world journey by bike. And Pope was an enthusiast for patents and litigation – he tried to claim ownership of nearly every aspect of the steeds he created.

It was one of Pope’s protégés, Charles Pratt, who started to pay attention to cycling clubs. These he organized under the umbrella of the League of American Wheelman, which by the mid 1890s has over 100,000 members. Little wonder then that Pratt, in his book The American Bicycler, was able to claim that ‘the bicycle is the most democratic of all vehicles’.
Technological development, however, was all coming from the other side of the Atlantic – the diamond frame of the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyres, most notably.

Then came the first world war. From this point the bicycle industry’s greatest spin out venture – the Wright brothers aeroplanes – really took off. But bicycles in the US fell from fashion, as the internal combustion engine appeared to sweep all before it.

In Europe during the 1930s the bicycle was still a logistical necessity for millions of people. In the US, however, it was the development of a wholly new take on the two wheeled transport that revived the sector. Rather than focus on their function, Frank Schwinn concentrated on creating bikes that would capture childrens’ imaginations. Suddenly bikes had fat tyres, chrome mudguards, headlights, and all the other trappings of the automotive age.

He created a sensation, and found many imitators. Indeed, the planned obsolescence of products that were given a new spin each year, powered the bicycle industry for decades to come. And the next big phase of US cycle development – muscle bikes – was really just more of the same. In 1963 a Schwinn employee noticed that children were customizing small wheeled frames with banana seats and ape-hanger handle bars. With a couple of tweaks back in the Chicago factory, the Krate series was born.

The story of the 1970s lightweight boom, BMXs and mountain bikes is touched on at the end of the book, but its real focus is the period up to 1980. If there is one message to draw from the book it is that the drivers of success in the cycle trade, or indeed any other, are as complex as they are varied. A quality product can easily be trumped by a well-developed dealer network, or an innovative means to re-imagine how bikes are sold.

PS January 2009

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