Schwinn Bikes: A Brief History

When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission. Learn More.

The history of a brand starts with the birth of the visionary, whose idea makes the brand what it is in the coming years. For Schwinn, that visionary was Ignaz Schwinn, born in 1860 in Germany.

Ignaz Schwinn started working in a machine shop in the 1880s. His love for making bikes became evident in 1889 when he convinced a local manufacturer ‘Kleyer Bicycle Works’ to let him design the diamond frame.

Ignaz’s design turned out to be a huge success, and he was put in charge of planning & building of a new factory of the bikes. He was 29 then, and two years later, he sailed off to live his legendary American dream. 

That’s how the century of Schwinn’s adventures began! Let’s see them in the span of two decades!

1890-1910: The Beginning

The young, restless Schwinn started working with Fowler bicycles in Chicago, and then she spent two years in building a bicycle factory for International Manufacturing Company.

Ignaz Schwinn met Adolph Fredrick William Arnold, a german-born investor, in 1894, and this was the turning point for Schwinn.

Arnold saw two things: fire in Schwinn’s eyes and the craze of bicycles in the USA. And that’s how Arnold, Schwinn & Company was started in 1895, in Chicago.

Arnold, Schwinn & Company immediately started spreading the wings of imagination and began experimenting with horseless carriages in 1896.

The company made excellent racing bikes, and Schwinn soon came up with a bike for every purpose and price range. 

But competition was tough, and although Americans were buying a million bikes per year, the rising trend of cars tore the bicycle industry to shreds.

That’s when the focus of the market and Schwinn shifted to kid’s bikes.

In 1907, the company produced 50,000 bicycles, but profits were low. As a result, Arnold bailed in 1908. Now it was just Schwinn with the reigns!

1910-1930: The Experimenting

The experimenting became intense in the coming decade when the bicycle industry was overshadowed by motorcycles.

Schwinn bought the struggling Excelsior Motorcycle Company in half a million dollars and started building motorcycles. The Excelsior venture did well, and Schwinn built the largest motorcycle company in the world right in Chicago in 1914.

In 1917 acquired another struggling Henderson Motorcycle Company of Detroit and shifted it to Chicago. This venture inspired some of the most popular Schwinn bikes, including the ‘Motorbike’ in 1920.

However, this boom soon saw its end as the 1920s were not that good years for motorcycles. Although Schwinn managed to float for a while and did well, it was hit hard by the crash of 1929.

And as the decade came to an end, Schwinn had to combine the R&D departments for bicycles and motorbikes.

1930-1950: The Rephrase

With no buyers lined up, Excelsior was shut down completely in 1931.

At this point, Ignaz Schwinn was 71 and retired. His son, Frank W., started running the company as Vice President, but Ignaz still retained his right of investment decisions, as the President of the company for the next 17 years.

When Frank W. returned his attention to bikes, the market was chaotic for the manufacturers as they were only buying components from their makers and assembling them into a bike.

Frank put the now-free motorcycle engineers to work, and in 1933, they released the first bike with a wide balloon tire. This bike could roll over the pieces of glass shards without any damage.

Schwinn became the standard of innovation and quality. It developed mudguards, the cycle lock, the Fore-wheel brake, Cantilever Frame, and the “Spring Fork.”

By the 1940s, the production had reached 350,000 units annually, and Schwinn added 40 patents to their collection.

In 1941, Alfred Letourner, a French racer, set the speed record for the fastest mile on a bicycle at 108.92 mph on the Schwinn Paramount bike. 

In 1943, Schwinn started innovating devices, bikes, and other necessities for the military in WWII.

In 1948 the founder, Ignaz Schwinn, passed away.

In 1949, Schwinn Black Phantom was introduced as the best balloon tire bike line, which also included Schwinn Panther, Autocycle, Hollywood, and Starlet. These bikes went and became the icons of the 50s in America.

1950-1970: The Rise

In 1950, one in every four bicycles sold was a Schwinn in the US. If there were a bicycle in a movie, it would be a Schwinn.

Frank was impressed with the sales of Whizzer and decided to hire Ray Burch as the sales promotional manager.

The first road bikes, the Varsity, and the continental were introduced in 1960. 

Much younger than his father, Frank W. died of prostate cancer at the age of 69 in 1963.

In the same year, Schwinn introduced Sting-Ray, its ultimate bike for kids that sold 45,000 units by the end of 1963. 

In 1968, Schwinn sold 1 million bikes in a single year. 

1970-1992: The Growth

In the 1970s, Schwinn noticed the mountain biking culture. By the 1980s, Schwinn had put multiple BMX bikes, including BMX Sting and Sidewinder, in the market. They were a huge success.

The 1970s witnessed a bicycle boom, and in 1971, Schwinn sold 1.2 million bikes by itself.

However, in the middle of 1981, Schwinn had a new plant opened in Greenville, Mississippi. This was the start of the downfall of Schwinn.

Greenville had no skilled laborers, and with a very few of the former employees ready to move from Chicago, quality suffered.

Schwinn shifted most of its production to Giant, a Taiwanese company. By 1983, Schwinn was $60 million in debt.

By 1986, Schwinn outsourced 80% of production to Giant. Everything seemed to be against Schwinn. 

In the late 80s, Schwinn decided to cut off Giant, and thus, they came head-to-head in the market.

Schwinn got into a contract with a Chinese company that did not deliver as promised, and eventually, losses just increased.

Schwinn lost a suit filed related to patents of Air-Dyne, followed by Greenville’s loss of $7.6 million. In 1992, Schwinn filed bankruptcy and was purchased by Scott Sports group in 1993.

That’s the history of Schwinn, the bike manufacturers that are still preferred for its innovation and quality.

Leave a Comment