You can’t talk about the evolution of modern-day bikes without throwing the Schwinn family business in the mix.
Schwinn was among the old-time pioneers of bike manufacturing and has contributed a lot to the modern-day cycling industry.
While the Schwinn bicycle company doesn’t have much glamor and glitz as it did years back, they still have rare and high-quality bicycles that could cost a fortune. So, I would want to brush them off easily.
And today, we’ll be looking at Schwinn’s history in detail to understand its origin, contributions to the cycling industry, and its demise.
I’ll detail everything chronologically to help you understand more about the brand and even provide some insights into why Schwinn is no longer the giant it used to be a few years back.
Founding of Schwinn
Schwinn was founded by Ignaz Schwinn in 1895. Ignaz was a German, born in Baden, Germany in 1860.
Ignaz Schwinn emigrated to the US in 1891, where he met his business partner Adolph William Arnold.
Together, they pulled their resources and formed the Schwinn company. Originally, the brand went by the name Arnold, Schwinn & Company.
Coincidentally, their company launch came when there was a mad craze with bikes in the US. There was a bicycle bust, and the demand for bikes was high. Schwinn’s brand capitalized on that by the turn of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the craze didn’t last for long, especially considering hundreds of new bike entrants in the market.
With the fall in demand for bikes and the rise of motor vehicles, many of the players in the bike industry were in a dire financial situation and couldn’t afford to run their daily operations. Most of them even collapsed.
Schwinn wasn’t any different and was particularly hit hard by the bike recession.
While it didn’t completely go underwater, it was faced with stiff competition from the remaining bicycles brand, independent dealers, and the department stores & bike shops.
With the general decline atmosphere, Schwinn bicycle company executives realized the need for reinventing themselves to stay afloat in the cut-throat market.
They acquired two other bike firms and merged them into one huge firm.
Their first acquisition was the Excelsior company in 1929, before adding Henderson in 1917 to form the Excelsior-Henderson brand.
In addition to the new acquisitions, the brand then diversified its production to include motorcycles.
It was a welcome decision among the general population. It didn’t take long before it caught up with some already established brands such as Indian and Harley Davidson.
In 1920, however, the motorcycle industry took a turn for the worst during the stock market crash, decimating the industry.
Excelsior-Henderson motorcycle brand wasn’t spared either and wrapped up its operations in 1931.
On the other hand, the Schwinn brand faced tough moments and was nearly bankrupt.
Seeing that their poster child was about to go underwater like the Excelsior-Henderson brand, Frank. W. Schwinn, Ignaz’s son, took a more hands-on approach to the management of the firm.
The son directed all his efforts to revive the firm to its lost glory and looked for innovative ways to appeal to the market.
The first thing Frank. W. did was to model the brand as a low-cost manufacturer. It allowed the brand to produce bicycles for the common masses but, more importantly, ensured the brand would stay afloat even in case of downturns.
The other thing Frank. W. Schwinn did reinvent their business model, particularly the choice of products.
He was inspired to develop a new product after traveling to Europe.
And after he got back to the US; he introduced the Schwinn B-10E motorbike.
It wasn’t a true motorbike but rather a simple youth bike that resembled a motorbike. It had all the physical design cues borrowed from the traditional motorbikes.
Was it a hit?
Yes, the Schwinn B-10E motorbike gained so much popularity with the masses. It was such a huge success that the manufacturer even revised the model and renamed it the Aerocycle or the paperboy bike.
But the big problem with the new bicycle design is that there weren’t manufacturers building stock parts for the unique design.
So, Schwinn had to convince American Rubber Co. to customize their “motorcycle-bike” part.
Fortunately, F.W Schwinn was a persuasive and suave businessman and convinced the manufacturer to build the imitation bike parts.
F.W Schwinn’s innovative ideas seemed to pay off, and with time, the brand was already on its feet and wasn’t struggling anymore.
So much was their success that Schwinn bicycle company even began sponsoring sports events, particularly the bike racing events.
Under the Schwinn bicycle company umbrella, some of the major athletes included Emil Wastyn, Jerry Rodman, and Russel Allen.
Schwinn’s dominance took the in 1950.
F.W Schwinn came up with a novel idea that would help catapult the Schwinn brand to new heights.
Traditionally, bike manufacturers would sell their bikes in bulk to department stores which would, in turn, distribute them for bicycle sales as store brand models.
It was like selling your bike rights to the department stores.
So, Schwinn decided to do away with private labeling of their bikes and insisted that Schwinn name had to appear on their products.
Along with this new move, Schwinn bicycle company also created a robust marketing team. Team Schwinn began persuading bicycle retailers to give the Schwinn brand preference over other brands.
By then, the bicycle sales were still in a relatively go-slow mode, and nothing much was happening.
Fortunately, their efforts really paid off during the first bike boom in 1900. Their dominance was over the roof, bicycles sold were in thousands, and their market share was increasingly growing by the day.
But it wasn’t long before the emergence of foreign-made bicycles threatened their market dominance.
After the postwar, the “English racers” started making their way into the US market and were a huge favorite among the locals because of their lightweight design.
So, to counter the dominance, Schwinn responded by producing bicycles (lightweight). The new options were not only lightweight, but they also drew most of their inspiration from foreign bikes.
Along with the new bike categories, Schwinn also decided to hold hands with other US-based manufacturers to campaign for an increase in bike import tariffs.
It was a sure way of keeping the home-grown bike manufacturers competitive in the market.
But Schwinn’s problems were not over yet.
While most bike manufacturers participated in cycling competitions, Schwinn company was quite conservative, preferring to sponsor the local events only.
It had restricted its participation to the US events only, which meant it was missing quite a lot on brand recognition and keeping up with the newest technology.
With time, Schwinn’s styling and technology allure started to fade away. A case in point is the Paramount series. It was once a premier racing bike, but it began to atrophy from lacking modernization.
The woes were not over forSchwinn. The brad was struck with another challenge in 1963 with the death of F.W Schwinn.
Schwinn Dominant Marketing Categories
With the demise of F.W Schwinn, there was a change in the management, with Schwin’s founder grandson, Frank Valentine Schwinn taking over the management.
The new management took it up to continue Schwinn’s legacy and, in particular, focused on what the brand had already established to be its strong points.
Some of the categories that Schwinn stood up for were:
Schwinn invested heavily in the kid’s market and even went ahead to create promotional ads on TV to woe their market.
Schwinn also sponsored a Kid’s TV program, Captain Kangaroo, to make the kids believe Schwinn was the best bike for them.
However, their direct marketing approach didn’t go well with the US government, and they had to change the script to make it less direct.
One of Schwinn’s popular competitors against foreign-based bicycles was the corvette.
It was a middleweight bike Schwinn developed to win over the “English-racer” bikes.
The bike was promoted through pictures of Schwinn executives standing behind the bikes.
Corvette was in the market for ten years and was included in the Schwinn catalog in 1955.
The Schwinn Twinn is an ultra-light option built for cyclists looking for more speed.
It was a speed-star and probably one of the easiest bikes to manage.
These bikes were produced between 1950 and 1980.
Schwinn Sting Ray
The Sting ray was simply a retrofitting of bicycles with the trappings of motorcycles.
These bikes were characterized by high-rise handlebars and a low-rider banana seat.
At first, it was quite an unconventional design, and many parents objected to the idea. They were looking to get their kids the more streamlined and traditional bike designs.
However, once the bike started becoming a common sighting in town and neighborhoods, their popularity and acceptable grew, and sales took off.
The Ten-Speed bike was a road racer bike, primarily built to take on the freshly imported European racing bikes.
Most of the imports featured multiple derailleur-shifted gears, so they were advanced in gear shifting and speed.
So, Schwinn thought they would develop a lighter alternative for better speeds.
But rather than reinventing the wheel and adding up production costs, the brand saw it fit to customize the already popular Paramount series bike category.
The original paramount bike was given a lift over, including the addition o quality lightweight double-butted frames.
It was also outfitted with quality European components such as hubs, gears, and derailleurs.
With time Schwinn realized that their lightweight bicycles were selling more than their bulky counterparts.
The thing is, Schwinn had some really nice and quality bikes. Their options were also durable.
But most parents preferred lightweight and affordable foreign bikes. They figured that they didn’t need the expensive and durable Schwinn since the bikes imported would outlast most of their kid’s interests.
From there on, Schwinn started to devote most of its marketing and manufacturing toward lightweight bicycles.
Yet, the brand couldn’t capitalize on the bicycle boom of 1971 to 1975.
The problem was that Schwinn was rigid in their marketing approach, had a limited Schwinn catalog, and rather than cater to the ever-growing young cyclists, they stuck with the adult category.
For example, their Paramount series was geared towards the adult road bike market.
This meant the manufacturer lost a lot of business on the would-be potential young cyclists.
Another factor that deprived Schwinn of the market share was the weight and choice of materials. Most of their “lightweight” bikes, while slightly weighing less, were still bulky and as heavy compared to other bulky, mass-produced models.
It seemed the brand was still riding on its former glory. The bulky models such as Schwinn Varsity and Continental had seen so much success in the 1960s. But they had nothing on them against the newer models.
I mean, the lighter competitors were more responsive, easier to use, faster, and maintained similar durability to the old models.
Another reason that threw Schwinn off discourse is that it lacked an identifiable and specific market. In particular, it missed catering to the road racing cyclists, which were on rage by then.
Instead, most Schwinn bicycles were usually targeted to the general leisure market, or rather buyers without the cycling enthusiasm.
Plus, their bike still had the antique technology, such as the kickstands that many cyclists had done away with.
For example, many cycling enthusiasts were not starting to get specific on the materials they wanted for the frame of their bikes.
One of the popular materials was steel alloy. It was a great choice of material because it promised the sturdiness and durability of regular steel without carrying its heftiness.
Other specifics that most young cyclists were looking for included aluminum-based components, advanced derailleur shifting, and multiple gears.
Unfortunately, that seemed like too much to ask from Schwinn, and they couldn’t simply keep up with the demand.
What followed was a mass exit and brand-unfollowing from Schwinn. Buyers started to look for alternatives in the market.
Another important category that Schwinn failed to capitalize on was the BMX bike category.
They had a failed star approach to BMX manufacturing because they had previously claimed the idea was dangerous.
However, after seeing the popularity of BMXing, they changed tune, but it was too late.
By the time they introduced the Scrambler in 1975, the market had evolved and moved on.
The other thing with their design is their BMX bikes were a lot heavier, bulkier, and sluggish.
Their BMX assembly was also not fine-tuned to perfection.
Despite all the troubles, Schwinn kept pushing and was surprisingly quite successful in the BMX discipline.
They took nearly eight percent of the BMX market share as a latecomer, which was quite a feat.
Schwinn never seemed to learn from the past mistakes, and when the mountain bike riding was introduced, their marketing team quickly discounted it as a fad.
The brand didn’t take much of its initiative to build a bike primarily geared for mountain climbing.
Instead, they thought they would repurpose the Schwinn balloon-tired cruiser bikes and fit them with derailleur gears.
It was far from the perfect match for the gnarly terrains and a far cry from what was already fronted in the market.
The mountain bike enthusiasts, for example, fronted mountain bikes featuring modern butted chrome alloy steel.
On the other hand, Schwinn seemed not to embrace building true mountain bikes.
For example, their Klunker 5, a version of their mountain bikes, proved incapable of navigating the rugged off-road.
Despite its heavy marketing, the bike wasn’t even listed in the Schwinn catalog, and this goes to show they weren’t even confident with their offering.
Nonetheless, the brand experienced some success in the Mountain biking scene, but at later stages.
They fielded a mountain bike racing team, which managed to scoop two consecutive medals in 1986 and 1987.
However, they never realized the same success as some mountain bike competitors, such as Specialized and Fisher Mountain bikes.
Schwinn Bike Factory Problems
By now, Schwinn’s bicycle factory relied on an outdated form of technology, especially when compared to its competitors.
New and modern bike firms in Japan invested their proceeds in upgrading their machinery, manufacturing capacity, and materials, including new-joinery techniques.
On the other hand, Schwinn was stuck with the old and traditional bike manufacturing. The manufacturing on their side became expensive and required more resources.
The brand had even thought of relocating to a single facility, but the endeavor would have been expensive.
Schwinn alone wouldn’t have managed to finance the move to a modern factory, and it would only be made possible through the external investors. The Schwinn board of directors rejected the move.
Schwinn Demise; Fall of the Schwinn
Under the pilling pressure of non-performance and dwindling fortunes, Frank Valentine Schwinn stepped down in favor of his nephew Edward Schwinn.
But the change in management didn’t do much to change the tide.
Already, there was dissent and dissatisfaction among the workers.
For example, in September 1980, there was a strike among the Chicago factory workers, who decided to down their working tools and left their jobs for thirteen weeks.
Even with the end of the worker’s strike, only 65% were recalled at the Chicago plant. This came when there was rising competition from the foreign manufacturers, especially from the East.
The Schwinn woes were further exacerbated by the inefficiency of their old technology assembly line and equipment.
The Schwinn management decided to source their bikes from different manufacturers to save their brand from going under the water.
They started with Panasonic Bicycle, then added Giant bicycles, and finally started to import more Asian-made bikes.
By the end of it all, they had minimized their production and were more a marketer than manufacturers.
Along with sourcing bikes from the Asian bike tigers, Schwinn moved their production plant to Greenville, Mississippi.
The new location seemed ideal because of the low labor costs, but it turned out to be a poison chalice.
The reason was it was quite remote, especially from the port. Plus, the costs of the location were still much higher than those from Asia.
Ultimately, the manufacturing plant in Greenville was closed down in 1991.
Schwinn’s operation was further undermined because most of the US-based bike competitors had grown into established brands and their reputation was immense.
Brad, such as Trek, Cannondale, and Trek, had a huge brand following and had cut on a large part of Schwinn’s following.
Ultimately, Schwinn couldn’t put up with the cut-throat competition and was declared bankrupt in 2001.
Schwinn filed for bankruptcy, and their assets and Schwinn family name rights were auctioned to Pacific Cycle.
The remaining assets were acquired by Direct Focus Inc, which subsequently became Nautilus, Inc.
Schwinn History Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Are old Schwinn bicycles worth anything?
A: Yes, some vintage Schwinn bikes go anywhere between $100 to $700 depending on the model. Generally, the older the Schwinn bicycle, the rarer and more expensive it is.
Some of the rare Schwinn bikes in mint conditions can go as high as $850.
Q: How do I tell how old my Schwinn bike is?
A: Usually, the Schwinn bicycle frame has a serial number. It gives you the exact age when a Schwinn bicycle was manufactured but won’t provide information on the exact model.
Q: Where were Schwinn bicycles originally made?
A: The first Schwinn bike factory was founded by Ignaz Schwinn in Chicago.
Q: What is the rarest Schwinn Bicycle?
A: It’s the Grey Host Schwinn bicycle. It’s up there with other models, such as the Cotton Picker.
Now, you have it, and that’s everything you need to know about Schwinn bicycle company history.
In my opinion, the fall of Schwinn seems to have come from the neglect to adapt to new changes. It had a technological lag, limited Schwinn catalog of bikes, and wasn’t flexible enough to match the upcoming needs of modern-day cycling.