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The Schwinn Brand

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In the months before Pearl Harbor (Dec 7, 1941) the Schwinn factory was already working under military contract making items unrelated to cycling. In 1942 Schwinn ceased commercial bicycle production all together (though the military ordered some 10,000 bicycles per year). Their reputation for innovation continued as they brought lessons learned during the lean times of WWII back to the bicycle industry following the war. In 1947, Schwinn produced 400,000 bicycles.

Another innovation of import came along during WWII, but not through the efforts of Arnold, Schwinn & Company. A small engineering company in L.A. put a little four-stroke engine on a heavy duty bicycle frame and called it the Whizzer. The motorized bicycle got 125 miles to the gallon and quickly became a popular mode of transportation for the gas conscious country. And it just so happened that Schwinn's patented cantilever frames gave the motors exactly the space they needed. By 1948 the little Whizzer was selling 200,000 units, many of which used Schwinn frames. It also happened that a certain Ray Burch was Vice President of the growing company.

Ignaz Schwinn died in 1948 of a stroke at the age of 88. He had stood at the helm of the great American bicycle company for more than 50 years. As sole owner of Arnold, Schwinn, & Company he was able to bequeath a 1/3 share of the dividends to Frank W. and each of his two daughters. But he left all shareholder powers to his firstborn son and indicated that Frank should do likewise.

In many ways 1948 was one of Schwinn's best years. It was the last year the Schwinn manufactured a bike for someone else to label. The Schwinn name stood for quality. Department stores sold toys. Each Schwinn came with a lifetime guarantee unlike anything else in the industry. Schwinn finally had the clout to walk away from the department stores entirely and seek out quality bicycle retailers. The move only strengthened the brand.

In 1950 one in every four bicycles sold in the U.S. was a Schwinn. Almost every movie, set in the 1950s and containing a bicycle, features a Schwinn bicycle. And if the director is particularly nostalgic, it's a Schwinn Black Phantom. The legendary Black Phantom was released in 1949 and represented the height of the children's luxury bicycle. It was the Cadillac of the bike world, but built like a tank and ready for curb jumping. Schwinn was producing 400,000 bicycles per year. As a private company, Schwinn was not obliged to make public its balance sheet, but former executives estimated sales in the area of $25 million a year, making Schwinn a respectable mid-size company in the 1950s.

But it wasn't easy. Walking out on department store distribution meant hawking bikes out of every outlet Schwinn could find: auto dealerships, gas stations, pool halls, and funeral parlors. Such fragmented distribution meant that Schwinn still had almost no say in how their bikes were sold, how customer complaints were handled, or how many models a seller carried. With 15,000 outlets, monitored salesmanship was a pipedream...until George Garner got out of the Marines (more on Garner later).

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