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The 1970s Bicycle Boom

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Maybe it was the fitness craze of the time. Maybe it was Sting-Ray riders growing up. Maybe it was the price of gasoline or the growing environmental movement. Whatever it was, the early 70s was host to an amazing bicycle boom. Everyone wanted back on the almost 200 year old invention. The bicycle outsold the car for the first (and last) time in decades. Everyone did well, including Schwinn. Almost 7 million bikes were sold across the country in 1970. In 1971 Schwinn sold 1.2 million bicycles by itself. At the height of the boom in 1973, the industry pumped more than 15 million new bicycles into America.

The Varsity sold extremely well throughout the 1970s bicycle boom, but what the masses really wanted were European racing bikes. The Europeans (and the Japanese) had been making high quality lightweight bicycles for years and had managed to develop some cache in the states. While the Schwinn Paramount was still a very high quality ride, it was American made and nothing American made was given much respect at the time.

George Garner sold 10,000 bikes in 1972. Schwinn was building 6,000 units every day. To say that Schwinn was stretched was an understatement. Most of the bikes they were making were already sold. Quality suffered in the rush to meet demand. And the market opened up to anyone that could get a bike into a retail shop. Foreign brands poured in-the English Raleigh, the French Peugeot, the Italian Bianchi-and began winning over the hearts and minds of the American consumer. Schwinn itself began importing bikes from Japan in 1972 and slapping the Schwinn name on them. The Le Tour was the first Schwinn road bike that stood a chance against the European competition and it sold well enough. But it sent a signal to Schwinn loyalists, if the Japanese could make a bike good enough for the Schwinn brand, perhaps the Fuji was a decent bike as well. And maybe these other foreign brands deserved a second look. The bike boom gave several brands a strong foothold in Schwinn territory.

At the height of the boom in 1973, 15 million bicycles were sold in the United States. In 1974, Schwinn sold 1.5 million bikes. In 1975, that number dropped to 900,000

Schwinn had spent decades building a reputation for quality, and in the kids' realm, quality meant durability. And durability meant heavy. And heavy meant slow. The Varsity was up to 40% heavier than its foreign competition, a huge difference. After all, it had been targeted at 12-14 year olds. As Schwinn kids grew up, they wanted an adult ride. So, while sales and profits continued to increase because of the industry wide boom, market share was dropping. At the start of the boom, as many as 30% of the 10-speeds sold in the U.S. were Schwinns. By the end Schwinn's share was less than 15%.

Construction of the Schwinn factory had begun around the turn of the century. New buildings had been created out of necessity and as new technologies were adopted. The result was a patchwork of inefficiencies. No continuous line of production existed at Schwinn. The result was that Schwinn could import bikes at lower costs than manufacturing them at home.

The market shift toward road bikes that Schwinn had helped engineer with the Varsity, left the American company behind. Schwinn was still building a bike to last while the lighter and faster competition was adopting new alloys and other modern technologies. Furthermore, Schwinn stuck with its vibrant red and blue color schemes while the rest of the industry moved on to more adult themes. The Schwinn brand, king of kids, did not translate into serious performance. The company had grown fat, complacent, and unwieldy.

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