A Short History of Schwinn: 1930-1950 - Doug Barnes

Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Short History of Schwinn: 1930-1950

Early Schwinn Bicycle Illustration
The Popular 1949 Schwinn Autocycle
(Image: Schwinn Catalog 1949)
Schwinn was founded by Ignaz Schwinn during the safety bicycle boom of the 1890s.  Around 1910 that boom turned to a bicycle bust and Ignaz Schwinn turned his attention towards motorcycles. He founded Excelsior motorcycles to counter the decline in bicycle sales. During this era of the early automobile, it seemed only normal to move from human-powered to motor-powered cycles. Despite the high quality of the motorcycles produced by Schwinn, in the late 1920s, the Great Depression put an end to this business.  People quit buying high-priced motorcycles.  Schwinn returned to its roots in the 1930s and once again began to focus on high-quality bicycles. After 1930, Schwinn was very innovative and initiated models including the children's Autocycle and the adult Paramount.

The full history of Schwinn bicycles as a family business can be found in a separate, much longer article called "A Short History of Vintage Schwinn Bicycles." 

This article is about Schwinn's history in the 1930s and 1940s and it is also is part of the full history. 

Schwinn Catalogs provide an interesting source of Schwinn history and can be found at Vintage Schwinn Bicycle PDF Catalogs.

Gamble on Promoting Style and Quality in the 1930s

Frank W. Schwinn, who was the son of the founder, returned from a research trip to Germany in the early 1930s.  On the trip, he saw sturdy balloon-tired bicycles surviving Germany's rough cobblestone roads. In the US, most bicycles at the time were made from poorly welded low-quality steel and had thin tires that hadn't changed since the early 1900s. They were produced for quick sales by mass retailers who could care less about durability. The trip set off what some may call a bicycle design revolution in the US, spurring Schwinn to develop a wide-tired bicycle that looked like a mini-motorcycle.  

Illustration of Schwinn Bicycle
Schwinn Introduces New Balloon Tire Bicycles, 1933
(Image: Schwinn Catalog 1933)
After the early 1930s tour of Germany, Frank W. Schwinn developed a new line of high-quality bicycles for kids and marketed them through retail bicycle shops rather than mass retailers. The new bikes were called autocycles or motorbikes. These new bicycles were a radical departure from others produced during the same period. Just to be clear, these bikes are not motorized. They were distinguished by motorcycle-inspired features such as the front "knee action spring fork" and coaster brakes. Schwinn was so confident about the durability of these bicycles, the company offered an--unheard of for the times--lifetime guarantee. This line of durable, high-quality bicycles became very popular and reinforced the reputation of Schwinn as being a force in the business. Sales increased 20-fold during the 1930s.  

1940s Bicycle Displayed in Museum
Schwinn Autocycle, Circa 1940.
(Photo: Doug Barnes at Bicycle Heaven, Pittsburgh)
As a testimonial to their durability, in the 1970s these long-forgotten 1930s bicycles were rediscovered by the inventors of the mountain bike in Marin County, California. Looking for a sturdy bike to race down a mountainside trail, they modified these old classics to deal with mountain terrain. As a precursor to the mountain bike, the 1930s Schwinns fit the bill. The autocycles and motorbicycles had sturdy frames, front suspension, and internal coaster brakes. The inventors rode and raced these bikes down a dirt mountain fire road that now is known as the famous Repack Course on Pine Mountain. The course got its name because of the necessity to repack the overheated coaster brake grease after each race. 

Toward the end of the 1930s, Frank W. Schwinn had shaken up the bicycle industry and firmly established his company as a dominant manufacturer.  The trifecta of producing high-quality bikes, designing them to look like motorcycles or airplanes, and selling them through independent dealers rather than department stores had catapulted Schwinn from subservient to large retailers to an independent leader in the bicycle industry. Many of the innovations in the children's line of bicycles originated with the experience of selling motorcycles in the 1920s. With the Schwinn motorcycle business now becoming a distant memory, many of the same Excelsior and Henderson engineers were recruited to design bicycles with an attitude.

Frank W. Schwinn was not satisfied that he had changed the children’s bicycle market.  He wanted to make an even larger mark on the bike industry.  After another trip to Europe in 1935, he was delighted to see adults riding bicycles. He was especially enamored with the sturdy internal 3-speed roadsters he had seen gliding over the streets of England. He decided that Schwinn should enter the adult bicycle market with a unique twist.

Frank W. Schwinn and his engineers got to work after his trip to Europe. The team began to develop a new line of adult lightweight Schwinn bicycles. Determined to once again reshape the bicycle industry as he had in the early 1930s, Frank W Schwinn hired one of the USA's best-known bicycle race mechanics name Emil Wastyn. With this collaboration in place, he learned that the manufacturing process had to be radically realigned to produce bicycles for adults. Under the supervision of Frank and his new lightweight bicycle engineers, Schwinn began to produce light chrome-moly lugged frames along with finely machine bicycle components that such as sprockets, hubs, cranks, and headsets.

Schwinn Paramount Racer, 1939
(Image: 1939 Schwinn Lightweight Bicycle Catalog)

As chronicled in the 1939 Schwinn catalog, Schwinn made the bold claim that, 

With the production of these super-fine lightweight touring and racing bicycles, the United States of America takes its rightful place among the leaders of the fine bicycle manufacturing nations of the world.

 In 1938, Schwinn christened the top-of-the-line lightweight bicycle the Paramount. The Paramount was destined to be an iconic product but the line was never very profitable. Frank W. Schwinn understood that the Paramount was a market leader that would set a high standard for all Schwinn adult bikes. To market these bicycles, the company sponsored a successful Schwinn Race team to participate in the popular 6-day races of the day. They also financed an attempt at breaking the world speed record and succeeded.  On a Schwinn Paramount in 1941, Alfred Letourneur rode close behind a specially designed motor vehicle and he set the world speed record at an incredible 108 miles per hour.

Schwinn Paramount World Speed Record, 1941
(Schwinn Catalog, 1949) 

The Paramount was never the most profitable product for the company but it firmly engraved the Schwinn name into the annals of bicycle history. One goal of the Paramount line was to market the Schwinn brand as producing bicycles of the highest quality. This strategy would succeed and the Schwinn Paramount would become part of Schwinn's enduring legacy for quality and innovation until the company’s bankruptcy in 1993. 

The 1930s was a period in which Frank W. Schwinn established himself as a creative force in both his company and the bicycle industry.  The decade started with an emphasis on motorcycles and ended with Schwinn firmly established as the highest quality bicycle maker for both adults and children. The innovations of the 1930s, such as the balloon-tired children's bikes, front suspension, front drum-style brakes, and the Paramount Racer set the direction for  Schwinn to next several decades. 

WWII Pause and Pivot to Marketing in the 1940s

The war years hit Schwinn hard. The company was not under financial duress because new government contracts to support the war replaced bicycle sales. The problem was that at a time when Schwinn was gaining momentum producing new models and its own parts, the company was required to hit the pause button. Most manufactures in the USA were required to shift their focus from consumer goods to assist the war effort and Schwinn was no exception. To erase any doubt about its patriotism, Schwinn as a company founded by a German-born immigrant gladly embraced this role. The company became an early recruit by the US government for the war effort. In 1942 Schwinn pivoted completely from bicycles to war materials. 

Schwinn Manufactures Own Crankset, 1941
(Image: Schwinn 1941 Catalog)
Schwinn did retain some marginal government contracts to produce plain bicycles without Schwinn’s high-quality chrome for use by the military.  Schwinn also produced some prototype bicycle products for the war effort but none ever gained favor among the military brass. A folding bicycle was developed that could be dropped behind enemy lines to provide mobility for paratroopers.  The 30-pound folding bicycles were impractical to parachute into a war zone and they never were deployed. So the Schwinn factory that previously built bicycles was kept busy producing artillery shells, frames for radar, tripods for machine guns, and parts for airplane cockpits. 

In the era of Rosie the Riveter, the composition of Schwinn’s workforce also changed. Male and some female Schwinn employees were reporting for overseas duty in large numbers. Schwinn adopted a policy to encourage the family members of those leaving for military service to fill their vacant jobs.  Many mothers, wives, and sisters began working on the Schwinn’s factory floor as their loved ones headed for the military conflicts in Europe and Japan. During the war years, women became the main workforce for Schwinn.

The end of the war brought with it better times both for Schwinn and the country. The post-war years were an era in which new families were being started. Soldiers returning from the front lines wanted nothing more than to pick up the pieces of the time they had lost while they were in the military. The resulting baby boom was followed by a surge of new spending on houses, radios, refrigerators, washers, and consumer items.

During this fresh start, Schwinn turned its energy towards marketing during this period of growth of consumerism. At Schwinn, the engineering culture established in the 1930s had laid the groundwork for producing a variety of new high-quality bicycles. Now in the latter part of the 1940s, the company with its stable of high-quality products was poised for the coming increase in demand generated by the return of war veterans. The question was how to sell them.  

The seeds for how to market Schwinn products were spread during the 1930s. Frank W. Schwinn was eager to reduce the company’s reliance on large retailers and had begun investing resources in developing direct relationships with small bicycle dealers across the nation. The consequence of this shift was that Schwinn had a pipeline of information about consumer preferences from those on the front line of bicycle sales. By the end of the 1940s, Schwinn had reduced its relations with large retailers and focused on its relationships with bike shops.  In 1939, Schwinn even produced a Hollywood bicycle model, one of the first to be specifically designed for and marketed to women.

Schwinn Woman's Bicycle 1949
Schwinn Hollywood Model Kicks Off Film Star Marketing Campaign in 1939
(Image: Schwinn Illustrated Catalog, 1949)

Selling bicycles through smaller shops meant that that Schwinn had to develop its own marketing strategy. Schwinn boldly stepped out of its engineering comfort zone and recruited many of Hollywood's top stars to promote their innovative bicycle lines. The luminaries featured in the 1946 poster catalog included Dorothy Lamour, Roy Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, Janis Paige, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Bing Crosby. 

1940s movie star with bicycle
Dorothy Lamour Promotes Schwinn, 1941
(Image: Schwinn Catalog 1941)

With a line of quality bicycles and a marketing strategy fine-tuned to consumer demand in place, during the late 1940s Schwinn was off and running. With the Hollywood stars endorsing Schwinn products combined with its reputation for quality, their bicycles began flying out of stores.  Schwinn increased sales to 400,000 bikes by the late 1940s and by 1950 had a 25% market share of bicycles sold in the USA.

With the manufacturing capacities in Europe and Asia decimated, the company became one of the dominant bicycle manufacturers in the USA. Within two decades that included a pause for World War II, Schwinn did not miss a beat. Frank W. Schwinn had changed a failed motorcycle business and a floundering bicycle company into a powerhouse that was on its way to becoming an American cultural icon.

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