Schwinn bikes were an iconic household brand name of bicycle in the US for nearly all of the 20th century.
But if you’re looking to cop yourself a classic vintage Schwinn bike (or even a vintage Schwinn exercise bike), what exactly should you look out for, and which models are worth buying?
Furthermore, why doesn’t Schwinn have the same reputation today that it held in its glory days?
The rise and fall of the original Schwinn Company is a fascinating tale that’s deeply woven into the history and evolution of bicycles throughout the 20th century. In this article, we’ll be covering:
- The Origins Of Vintage Schwinn Bikes
- Schwinn’s Era of Dominance
- The Decline Of Schwinn Bikes
- Which Models of Schwinn Vintage Bikes Are Worth Buying?
Ready to get the low-down on vintage Schwinn bikes?
The Origins Of Vintage Schwinn Bikes
Ignaz Schwinn was a German engineer who spent the late 1800s working on precursor designs to the modern bicycle.
After emigrating to the USA, he was financially backed by Adolph Frederick William Arnold and founded Arnold, Schwinn & Company in 1895.
After an initial massive boom in bicycle sales that coincided with the founding of the company, the industry declined. During this period, Schwinn bought up a number of smaller bicycle production companies in order to survive. They then built a small factory in Chicago, which was at that point the center of the bicycle industry.
During this period, Schwinn briefly had a successful motorcycle production division. However, once the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, this division went bust. Schwinn itself struggled to survive.
Over the next few years, Schwinn the Aerocycle, a kids’ bike designed to look like a motorbike, alongside a low-cost bike for adults. The firm also began sponsoring a racing team.
In 1938, the first bike in the Paramount series was issued, a high-end racing bike made of a strong Chromoly frame.
Schwinn’s Era of Dominance
Prior to the 1950s, high street retailers bought non-branded bikes from producers and then put their own branding on them.
However, Schwinn switched up the industry by instead insisting that Schwinn branding had to be retained on the bikes sold by stores.
Throughout the 1950s Schwinn continued expanding and buying up smaller companies. Schwinn also began producing a lightweight racing-style bike to rival those being imported from Europe, which at the time had become incredibly popular.
In conjunction with this, Schwinn, along with other USA-based bike manufacturers, successfully campaigned in 1955 to raise import taxes on foreign bikes.
In the 1960s, Schwinn focused effort on dominating the kids’ bicycle market, famously advertising heavily in the kid’s program Captain Kangeroo.
Throughout the decade, the company further expanded its range of 10-speed racing bikes with the launch of the Varsity, Continental, and LeTour models, in order to rival European heavyweights such as Peugeot and Gitane.
The Decline Of Schwinn Bikes
The Beginning Of The End
In the early 1970s, the US Bike Boom kicked in, and sales of adult road bikes skyrocketed. However, Schwinn failed to innovate and adapt to the modern bicycle market.
Although their models were favored by slightly older buyers, they weren’t able to find huge success in the growing younger market, which had leaned increasingly towards lightweight and technologically advanced road bikes.
Despite this, Schwinn still sold a huge number of bicycles in the early 1970s -but overall consumer preference had gravitated towards European and Japanese imported bikes.
Schwinn themselves began increasingly importing bikes from the Japanese producers Bridgestone and Panasonic, which were able to rival prestigious models such as the Schwinn Paramount, yet could be sold at half the price.
Another factor that contributed to the decline of Schwinn was the fact that they had not participated in and sponsored major bike races to the extent of major rivals such as Peugeot.
This not only presented Schwinn with a lack of publicity, but also meant that Schwinn did not keep up with the latest innovations in frame geometry, gearing, and other components pioneered by the professional peloton.
Crucially, Schwinn also failed to successfully break into the newly emerging markets of BMX and mountain biking in the mid/late 1970s. In both cases, Schwinn was initially dismissive of the new disciplines, before abruptly U-turning when they realized how popular they were – by which time it was already too late.
Factory Troubles, Workforce Issues, and Cash Shortages
By the late 1970s, Schwinn’s factory was terribly outdated compared to Japanese and Taiwanese rivals and lacked the financial backing to modernize their manufacturing process.
In the early 1980s, Schwinn increasingly faced labor issues too.
In 1980, 1400 factory workers went on strike for thirteen weeks to demand higher pay. This, combined with the import-dominated market and outdated factory, meant that the company management shifted the majority of production to Japan.
After some restructuring, the company survived by transferring large amounts of its production to a small Taiwanese firm: Giant Bicycles. Schwinn’s sales then began increasing in the late 80s and they started turning a profit, reaching nearly a million yearly sales.
However, after failing to purchase shares in Giant, Schwinn ditched their arrangement and moved manufacturing to China. Meanwhile, Giant was able to retain all of the manufacturing expertise learned through Schwinn, kickstarting its rapid ascent to become the world’s biggest bicycle company in the 21st century.
Schwinn also faced increasing competition from other high-quality US-based brands such as Specialized, Trek, and Cannondale.
Schwinn was stuck between a rock and a hard place. They lost prestige compared to other US brands due to their reliance on imports, yet also couldn’t produce bicycles as cheaply as foreign rivals.
Sale of the Schwinn company
In 1992, the Schwinn Company filed for bankruptcy.
The Schwinn brand was first bought by an investment group in 1993, then again in 1997 by Questor Partners Fund. Despite some success selling Schwinn mountain bikes (under the GT Bicycle moniker), they would up filing for bankruptcy once again in 2001.
Finally, the Schwinn Company was bought in 2001 by Pacific Cycles. Today, Chinese and Taiwanese-manufactured bikes continue to be sold under the Schwinn brand name.
Which Models of Schwinn Vintage Bikes Are Worth Buying?
Despite their fall from grace, Schwinn produced high-quality bikes for decades. Many were made in limited quantities and are considered highly desirable nowadays.
However, to properly answer the question above – it’s perhaps easier to think of it in terms of which Vintage Schwinn Bikes aren’t worth buying.
If you’re looking for a proper vintage Schwinn bike, then you probably don’t want any Schwinn bike sold post-1992, the year in which Schwinn declared bankruptcy and the brand name was sold.
Of course, at the other end of the table, older models (think pre-1960s) are going to be more outdated in terms of their technology and performance. Yet, they are still very beautiful bikes that are highly sought after by many and may certainly be worth buying, depending on what you’re looking for.
Whilst many of the post-1970 Schwinn bikes were partially made of imported components, this doesn’t mean they are lacking in quality. They’re generally likely to be better performing than much older counterparts.
All Schwinn bikes post-1948 have serial numbers, which you can search in Google to determine the model and help decide whether or not it’s worth buying. You can find the serial number either underneath the bottom bracket, the rear dropout, or in the head tube.
You also should have a think about what sort of bike you want to buy – do you want something that you can fix up yourself, or would you rather a pristine model? Are you looking for a classic style chopper or a road racer?
Here are a few iconic Schwinn vintage bike models to watch out for.
One of (but not the only) iconic motorcycle-inspired designs by Schwinn, the Stingray had high, hanger-style handlebars like a Harley Davidson, a long saddle (perfect for carrying a mate on), and a very relaxed frame design.
Introduced in 1963, the Stingray quickly became the must-have bike for American youths.
It was soon followed by even more accessorized models such as the Stingray Deluxe and Super Deluxe.
The Paramount was first introduced in 1938 and became one of Schwinn’s longest running models.
Schwinn Varsity, Continental, and LeTour
These mostly 10-speed bikes were introduced in the 1960s to compete with the influx of European racing bikes. By the early ’70s, the Varsity and Continental had become leading models and were produced in large numbers up until the 1980s.
Schwinn Superior, Sports Tourer, Sierra, and Super Continental
These models were similarly introduced in the early/mid-1960s and were 10-speed, but they’re quite rare as they weren’t produced for long.
The Superior and Sports Tourer were relatively heavy all-steel bikes. They were very similar to the Variety and Continental models, but cheaper.
Schwinn World Traveller and World Voyager
Although made with imported Panasonic components, these bikes still packed a punch. In fact, even at the time, they were nearly a match for the Paramount – but much cheaper.
And Many More!
It’s important to keep in mind that there are so many beautiful – but less widely-known -vintage Schwinn bikes worth buying beyond those listed above.
Notable mentions include the sophisticated and elegant-looking Corvette/Cruiser style bikes, or the iconic motorbike-inspired design of the Schwinn Aerocycle.
Bonus: Schwinn Vintage Exercise Bike
This famous vintage Schwinn exercise bike with a sleek and curvy frame was produced from 1966 to 1982.
Named the “Schwinn Exerciser”, they are highly sought-after nowadays, fetching $500 or more on eBay.