Sunday, June 26, 2011

Back when the U.S. was a manufacturing powerhouse

Uh oh. This dirty little item popped up at a neighbor's garage sale.
As a prologue, it should be noted that I neither spotted nor purchased the bike that is the subject of this post. That honor goes to my keen-eyed wife, Julie. I merely served as advisor and mechanic. I do have the ability to not buy every bike I see. Really. Now that this important point has been established, on with the story.
A classic 1956 Corvette, not of the Chevrolet, but the Schwinn variety.
Meet the latest addition to our herd, a 1956 Schwinn Corvette middleweight bike. It's the type of bike that was once a staple of school-aged kids in suburban America for decades. The seller said that the bike had belonged to her aunt originally. This bike has apparently been a life-long Denver resident.

After a little googling of the serial number, I discovered that the bike was manufactured on February 2, 1956. I remember this type of bike as being a standard offering at garage sales of my youth, although they don't show up very frequently any more. They certainly aren't often found in the condition of this one, untouched, complete, and rideable. This one had been encased in a sheath of waxy, dried-up oil, grease and dust for decades.
A nearly pristine Denver bicycle license plate from 1959. Rocky and Bullwinkle, one of my all time favorite shows, was new to the airwaves at the time.
As I ordinarily do with old bikes, I started fussing with the Corvette. I adjusted the basket, which had been rubbing on the head badge for decades, inevitably greasing some dry threads along the way. As is typical of me, that lead to noticing that the bearings of the front hub were dry and a bit loose. Of course this meant that I had to rebuild the front hub. After that, things deteriorated into an unplanned and extended session of disassembly, cleaning and reassembly. The internal workings of the bike haven't been seen in 55 years. After a considerable amount of sludge removal and a new slathering of fancy waterproof grease, all the bearing assemblies on the bike are in as-new condition.
The Arnold Schwinn and Company insignia meant you had made a good investment.
I've worked on bikes for most of my life, ranging in manufacture date from the 1930s to the present. However, it's been a few years since I really dove into a Schwinn of this era, and I'd forgotten about how good they were.

At the time, Schwinn was the pinnacle of modestly priced, U.S. manufactured bikes. It's no surprise that they were successful in the market for decades, as the Schwinn name was synonymous with quality. Parts that would likely go unnoticed by typical owners, regardless have a feel and precision to them unmatched in any modern inexpensive equivalent of bicycle components. In a time when very little is currently still made in this country, this is a bit of an astonishing realization.
I enjoy attention to detail such as the stylish and modernist art deco 'New Departure' lettering.
A little difficult to see, but 'New Departure' is stamped into the bearing retainer. That sort of pride of manufacturing detail just doesn't happen at this price point any more. The bearings are silky and feel precise.
Nearly every part of the bike is identified as having been manufactured by Schwinn.
Whether rebuilding bikes, Coleman stoves or other U.S. manufactured mechanical goods from this era, I am consistently impressed from a forensic standpoint. After much comparison, I consider Japanese-built bike parts of the late 1980s, just prior to when the yen to dollar balance began to shift against the yen, to be among the best quality bicycle components ever built. Although many technological advances in bike components occurred between the mid 1950s and the late 1980s, especially in terms of sealed bearings and the use of aluminum alloys, the Schwinn parts are just as well engineered as Shimano parts of 1989, given the materials available, and as importantly, just as well manufactured.
This bottom bracket lock nut exudes precision similar to what I would expect from a modern Chris King part. Whoever made it was a master craftsman.
It is truly staggering to consider all that this country has lost in largely abandoning domestic manufacturing. However well built Schwinns were, they were just one group of products from a broad array of companies that manufactured a huge quantity of other products. It was a time when it wasn't unusual for an individual skilled with manufacturing equipment to make a decent living while making high quality goods.

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when U.S. manufacturing quality was in decline for a number of reasons, but also when an intentional dismantling of production capability occurred as corporations shifted factories overseas. I won't get into the whole greed v. quality or shareholders v. unions debates, and from a societal standpoint I certainly don't pine for the good old days that never actually were. I do lament the collective loss within the population of skill, capability, ingenuity and justifiable pride.
The head badge was partially rubbed away because of a poorly adjusted basket. Now it's fixed.
Something else that we've lost is the concept and expectation of durability from the things we buy. I rebuild a lot of inexpensive bikes, mostly for the purpose of giving to kids I know. I won't work on many bikes built for kids from the past 15 or 20 years. My temperament won't allow me to work on bikes below a certain level of original quality, as I can't tolerate equipment that is intended to fail after a short time. It's made me selective about projects, avoiding those with design flaws, such as too many plastic or non-serviceable components.
Ready to roll again. Schwinn Westwind tires, somewhat cracked but in amazingly good condition after 55 years.
Shiny, happy steel beaming with renewed vibrancy.
With the Corvette, all the parts of the bike are made of easily serviceable steel except the tires, tubes, grips and seat cover. After over half a century I gave the bike what was likely to have been its first service and was able to do so using only simple tools. The quality of the parts allowed me to clean and adjust the bike until it was as good as new. I fully expect that this bike is capable of being ridden at least for another half century. I wouldn't say the same for any bike of today in an equivalent price range, or even those that cost much more.

To end on a positive note, although the days of broad manufacturing prowess in the U.S. are probably not to return, some of the best and most creative products of recent decades have come about through cottage industries, many of which are associated with bicycles. It is with these small scale manufacturers that any hope rests of at least some respectable form of a U.S. manufacturing base for everyday goods.
A girl and her new-again bike.


  1. Thanks for the post.

    I've been reading your blog because I have a Big Dummy on order.

    That bike will include a NuVinci hub from Leitchfield, Kentucky, a FlightDeck made from recycled milk jugs in Syracuse, Indiana... and if I were to purchase a WALD wire basket similar to the one in the photo, then that would come from Maysville, Kentucky.

    So yes, some of these niche industries are alive and well.

  2. I'm sure that you'll enjoy your Dummy. Mine has truly been a life changing bike. Good job on using regionally sourced parts. I went the route of installing mostly used components on mine, but I've ridden a bike with a NuVinci hub and was very impressed.

    Have fun with your build and happy riding!

  3. Great post.
    I too grew up in the 70's and 80's -- when many of Schwinns of this era were even more plentiful. Along with BMX bikes, which were, mechanically speaking, pretty much identical -- these Schwinns just kept going after we dished out every abuse we could think of. Your post really makes me appreciate the quality, though, of the earlier Schwinn stuff -- the reference to the precision work of King is both a neat and a sad commentary.
    As for fixing shit bikes -- I hear you. My buddies and I started a non-profit bike deal here in Spokane a few years ago. One thing we did, and still do, are "free bike tune-ups" in poor neighborhoods. The crap bike that come out of the woodwork -- with nearly no serviceable parts are just heartbreaking. Really -- I know that sounds dramatic, but it is: these kids are screwed, they're riding screwed bikes, most of them don't have the resources to fix the screwed bikes, and then the bikes couldn't even be fixed if they did have the resources. Even the shittiest coaster-brake BMX bike is 10x better than the best wally world double boinger bike-shaped object -- from a service perspective.

    I wrote a heavy-handed post on a crap dept store bike a couple years ago. Turns out the "play" in the rear wheel was a broken axle.

    This also reminds me of how the Schwinns "evolved" into the Varsity era. yow. What turds, but man. They go forever, even if you can't stop them.

    Or the freewheel-in-the-cranks era. Double yow.

    Anyway, you really sparked something there. Thanks

    1. Wow. Somehow I missed this thoughtful and detailed comment about a year and a half ago. Thanks for your thoughts. There's not much more to say than what you have said.

      The only thing I might add is that crappy bikes are a disservice to the perception of viability of bikes as a real form of transportation. It's always a sad thing to have to tell someone that their crappy bike isn't worth fixing because it shouldn't have been built in the first place. It sort of discourages people from even trying, and contributes to a perception of bicycle elitism. High cost doesn't necessarily make a bike good, but there is a minimum quality threshold for which initial cost/value is a key factor.

      The funny thing about Schwinn Varsities is that, when I was younger, they were practically free at garage sales, and as such, many tallbikes or other oddities have Varsities at their core. Now, a Varsity has a revered following among the hipster set, and they now fetch illogically high prices.

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  5. I just came across your site as I've been trying to identify a bike I recently bought off a guy down the street. Turns out it's an identical model to your Corvette, except it's black. You're spot on with your quality comments. The guy let me take the Corvette for a test spin... after 58 years in a garage his bike rides smoother and feels better than a base model coaster brake cruiser I purchased in 2012. I now count this Schwinn as one of my treasured items, and can't wait to restore it!

    1. Congratulations on your find! These bikes of this era are mechanical gems, and a pleasure upon which to work. I'm sure with your effort, the Corvette will be ready for another half century or more of fun and dependable service.