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Schwinn Home

1880s-1908
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1975-1982
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1981 Schwinn Head Badge
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The Schwinn BMX


1975-1982
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In the midst of the 1970s bike boom, a new market was rising, bicycle motocross or BMX. Born of the Sting-Ray type high-rise cycles developed by Schwinn in the 60s and the motorized dirt bike, BMX was a "fad" that would last more than a decade and account for 1/3 of all bicycle sales in the U.S. in 1982, the year that ET was whisked to freedom through the suburban developments in the basket of Elliot's BMX (Trivia: Bob Haro donned the red hoodie as Elliot's stunt rider). Frankie V. thought BMX riding was a lawsuit waiting to happen. Schwinn waited until 1977 to build their first BMX bike, the Scrambler. It sold well enough, but was not well regarded among serious riders. The Schwinn Sting came soon afterward. The Sting featured a virtually handmade frame of chrome-moly. It was handmade because Schwinn did not have the manufacturing capability to produce chrome-moly frames in any other fashion. The company could put together only 1,000 Stings in a year.

Trivia: The Mongoose was the king of the BMX era in America. Mitchell Weiner, creator of Centurion road bikes, and partner Mike Bobrick got into the BMX early on as well. They called their product Diamond Back after the rattlesnake that ate the Mongoose.

Meanwhile, the 70s boom was good for everyone and Schwinn was doing fairly well with the Varsity, the European style LeTour, and their other road bikes. But they had left a gaping hole at the top end of the American made road bike market where the Paramount was languishing. Along came 23 year old African emigrant Bevil Hogg and partner Richard Burke. Burke bought Hogg's five store bicycle shop chain during the American bike boom, sold it soon after, and together the two started Trek in 1975 to fill the hole. Trek had a slow start as the boom years ended, but Schwinn left the little upstart alone for so long that by 1986, Trek was a respectable company that could demand discounts from suppliers who wanted to hold on to Trek as a customer. They started producing cheaper bikes and encroaching on Schwinn's territory.

The 70s was certainly a chaotic time for Schwinn. The American bike boom came on the heels of Schwinn's wild success with the Sting-Ray. The boom itself, while good for the whole industry, changed the way everyone looked at cycling. President Frankie V. had a heart attack in 1974 and that, coupled with his scars from the antitrust suit perhaps made the aging Schwinn more conservative. Schwinn let the BMX craze largely pass them by. At the same time, mountain bikes were evolving. Schwinn remained timid here too. Ed R. Schwinn, Jr. would become president of Schwinn in 1979. In the meantime he was taking over power from Frankie V. bit by bit. And where Frankie had merely favored the marketing department, Ed seemed to harbor an all out grudge against R&D and manufacturing. He saw the old crowd at Schwinn as a part of the problem and he set about cleaning house while mountain bikes took over America and the neglected high-end of road biking was filled by Trek.

Schwinn had begun selling a stationary bicycle in the 1960s in an attempt to flatten out a very seasonal sales curve. But not much happened on the exercise bike front until 1978. Al Fritz and Ray Burch had both been with Schwinn for decades and had largely taken on operations after Frankie V.'s heart attack. For one reason or another, Fritz managed to rub Ed, Jr. the wrong way. When Lindsay Hooper walked into Schwinn with an exerciser that got Fritz excited, Ed saw a way to rid himself of the old man. Schwinn created the Excelsior Exercise Company and made Fritz president. This effectively exiled the old timer to the Chicago suburbs. It destroyed Fritz's power base at the Chicago headquarters and sent a clear message to the rest of the suits. It helped Ed assume power the following year when Frankie retired.

Schwinn was selling more than a million bikes per year in the late 1970s, but these were children's bikes. The adult market was going to the competition. In 1980, Schwinn sold 900,000 bicycles (15% of the market). That was the year that the Schwinn workforce unionized. Management had lost touch with the factory floor. Before the end of the year, Schwinn's local 2153 was on strike. Management had stockpiled bikes after unionization and immediately stepped up foreign production when their workforce walked. The strike ended in four months with some modest gains for the workers, but a clear shift in strategy for the company as a whole. Production would not remain long in a place where it would be subject to union control. The new direction was clear when Schwinn called back only 65% of the strikers.

By the middle of 1981, Schwinn had a new plant open and operational in Greenville, Mississippi. Mississippi was a state that was less friendly to unions. This seemed the sole criteria for choosing the Greenville site. Skilled labor was scarce. It was a three hour drive from the Memphis airport. It was 75 miles from the nearest interstate. Parts from Asia took months to get in and out of the plant. Executives didn't want to relocate to Greenville.

In the late 1970s, Schwinn took note of a subculture that was to become mountain biking growing in Northern California. These kids were taking the old steel balloon tire bikes and trashing them on mountain trails. The kids called their rides "clunkers." Schwinn put out the abysmal Klunker 5 that didn't even have the strength to handle a curb. It was discontinued before the end of the decade. 1980 saw the introduction of the Schwinn King Sting, based on their popular BMX Sting. It featured a stronger chrome-moly steel frame, but cheap brakes, poor geometry, and too few gears to be useful on the topography of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. In 1982, Schwinn modified the Varsity to accommodate larger tires and called it the Sidewinder. Again, the geometry was wrong and it was too heavy to appeal to serious riders. Meanwhile, the Specialized Stumpjumper ($750) was priced at three times the Sidewinder and catapulted creator Michael Sinyard to the top of the market.

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