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Interest in Old Bikes Is Ballooning

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In an age when bike manufacturers race to produce the lightest, fastest machine on two wheels, Rod Monday prefers to plod along on 65 pounds of gleaming metal known as a 1950 Schwinn Phantom.

“It’ll tire you out,” says Monday, whose only concession to modern technology is a three-speed gearshift installed on the old frame.

For Monday and a growing number of vintage bike enthusiasts, it matters little that their bikes aren’t the fastest on their blocks.

While other cyclists weigh the merits of carbon fiber and titanium frames, vintage collectors want a bike loaded with gizmos: balloon tires, bells and buzzers, streamlined battery tanks, funky headlights andthose shiny chrome fenders.

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Monday rides his Phantom on the boardwalk near his Newport Beach home every day, then polishes the fenders and frame until the bike shines the way it would have on a Christmas morning 40 years ago.

“This is my baby,” he says.

His enthusiasm for old bikes is shared by at least 3,000 collectors nationwide, says James Hurd, curator of the Schwinn History Center in Chicago. The museum, the “King Tut’s tomb of bicycles,” has about 700 bikes dating to the 1860s and 50,000 bicycle-related items.

Collecting vintage bikes is “an infant hobby that has just woken up,” he adds.

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Some buy old bikes as an investment. On rare occasions, bikes found at garage sales have been resold for up to $10,000, Hurd says. Collectors have seen prices for balloon-tire bikes inflate five-fold in the last three years.

Yet the real reason many treasure vintage bikes is not to make money, but to live out a long-cherished childhood fantasy.

“Riding one of these,” Hurd says, “makes you feel like a kid again.”

While turn-of-the-century bikes have always been considered collectibles, Hurd says it’s the later models produced in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s that have caught fire with collectors.

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“They remind us of an era when we first had mobility but limited responsibility. You could jump on one of these bikes and in a minute and a half you’d be far enough from home where you couldn’t hear your mother calling you to mow the lawn.”

Hurd sounds just like a kid when he says: “There’s nothing like putting a baseball card in a clothes pin, clipping it on the fender brace and placing it in the wheel so it sounds like a motor.”

Vintage bikes have grow especially popular with the baby boom generation, whose parents often couldn’t afford to buy them the bikes when they were children.

Monday, 46, remembers looking longingly at ads for the Phantom in the back of comic books.

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“I always wanted one, but my dad made 90 cents an hour and he said ‘No way,’ ” he says. The bikes originally cost $79.95, a large sum in those days but not as large as what they sell for today. Monday recently turned down an offer of $2,500 for his Phantom.

Everywhere Monday rides his Phantom, passers-by greet him with stares and the same old jokes.

“They always say, ‘Oh, it’s a Pee Wee bike.’ Then they make that laugh Pee Wee Herman makes,” Monday says with a shudder. “If it happens one more time, I’m gonna. . . .”

Monday can blame Pedal Pusher in Newport Beach for his troubles. The vintage bicycle store restored a 1948 red Schwinn DX for the movie, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.”

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“The producer came in here, saw the bike and took it back to the studio. Then we got a call from the studio saying they needed 13 bikes exactly like it,” says Mike Vorgang, owner of Pedal Pusher. “We were calling all over the country looking for parts” to build more bikes.

Vorgang and his mother, Gertrude, started restoring and selling vintage bikes 15 years ago. Pedal Pusher now helps Monday and others rebuild bikes from parts they find nationwide, using old catalogues to figure out how the machines looked when they rolled off the assembly line.

Schwinn introduced the first bike with balloon tires in Chicago in 1933, Hurd says. The cycles had 26-inch frames and 2.125-inch-wide whitewall tires. They remained an industry standard until 1959, when 10-speeds with skinny tires took over the market.

About 38 million balloon-tire bikes were produced from the ‘30s to the ‘50s, but finding them in good condition isn’t easy. The batteries in the tanks that operated the front headlights and electric horns leaked, corroding the tank and frame, Vorgang says.

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Young owners also sometimes stripped the bikes, yanking off fenders to make them lighter and faster. Years of neglect, damp weather and dirt did the rest of the damage.

Still, some lucky collectors have found old bikes mostly intact at garage sales and swap meets. One collector found a Black Phantom for $35 at a garage sale, Hurd says. Phantoms, among the most sought-after of the classic bikes, usually sell for about $2,000.

“Balloon-tire bikes can still be found at affordable prices, and they all have a personality,” Hurd says. “The Schwinn Streamline Aero Cycle had outlandish lines, with a tank that wrapped around the front.” A headlight shone from the tank instead of its usual position atop the front fender.

Many models like the Aero Cycle had an aerodynamic look, which did as much to increase their speed as streamlining did for the toaster. Says Vorgang: “The bikes just look like they go fast.”

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Bike buffs range from weekend hobbyists with one or two vintage bikes to serious collectors who stock their garages with museum-quality cycles.

Jed Donahoe, his wife and three sons all ride vintage bikes. They float on the fat tires, sounding their horns and bells. “The bikes turn heads when we ride them,” says Donahoe, a Huntington Beach resident.

His son Colin, 11, has a 1947 Schwinn DX much like Pee Wee’s that he and his father assembled from parts and painted cranberry and cream. “Most of my friends like the old horn and the things they used to have on the bikes back then,” Colin says.

Rob Miller built a 500-square-foot cottage in back of his Buena Park home to house his collection of rare, antique bikes, which he jokingly calls “the dirty dozen.”

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Miller favors turn-of-the-century bicycles, such as his 1884 high wheel safety cycle by Smith Machine (it’s called the Star). With the help of four or five machinists, he restored luster to the cycle’s spindly, nickel-plated frame.

The bike sold for $135 when new, making it a rare specimen because only the wealthy could afford to buy one. It differs from most high wheels because it has a small wheel in front instead of in the back.

Miller sold off a larger collection of balloon-tire bikes for the earlier models because he likes the handiwork that went into the antique bikes. “I was an art major in college and this is metal art,” he says.

For him, the fun part of collecting bikes is “the hunt and the find. You can still find these bikes in secondhand stores.”

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When found, most vintage bikes look like Miller’s ’34 Aero Cycle, with its rusty handlebars, corroded frame and red tires shredded.

Collectors easily spend more than $1,000 lavishing chrome and paint on the bikes so they look new.

Jim Bailey, owner of Vintage Cycle Saddles in Long Beach, has made a full-time job out of restoring old leather saddles for balloon-tire bicycles. Demand for the saddles is great, especially those for the Schwinn Phantoms. Bailey restores 50 to 60 bicycle seats a month.

“Usually the seats are dilapidated,” Bailey says. “The springs are rusty and the leather is gone. It looks like they came out of a junkyard.”

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He restores the saddles by re-plating the metal, making new pads and adding fresh leather. The saddles cost from $80 to $450 for his top-of-the-line toolbox saddle, which has a toolbox built into the back of the seat.

As the supply of original bikes and parts dwindles, some companies, like Columbia, have re-issued classic models.

“The nostalgia look is going strong in all of the hobbies,” Miller says. “It’s kind of an escape.”


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