Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bike Boom Bargains

As described in my article on the American Bike Boom of the 70s, millions of bicycles were sold during the Boom, but just because people bought the bikes doesn't mean they actually rode them. Barns, basements, and garages all over America have been hiding innumerable examples of bikes from the Boom and the decade that followed, many of them having barely ever been ridden. Some of those 70s era machines, while dated, could still make decent riders -- city bikes, commuting workhorses, etc. -- without breaking the bank.

Raleigh Record -- selling for about $50 on eBay. The Record
was a lower-priced model from Raleigh -- nowhere near
as nice as their Reynolds 531-built models, but lots of
update/upgrading possibilities here. Somebody already
 replaced the saddle on this one.
The biggest sellers during the era were in the lower-to-mid end of the market -- the lowest-of-the-low being those made for the discount department stores. Those bikes are truly horrible and should be avoided. But many bikes in the lower price range had decent (though a bit heavy) frames. Some examples would be the Peugeot UO-8 and the Raleigh Record or Grand Prix models. Components on these bikes were typically lacking. Expect to find steel-rimmed wheels, steel cottered cranks, and lots of other steel parts. Typical derailleurs would be Huret Allvit or the plastic Simplex units. Some of the Japanese models, like the Fuji "Special Racer" and "Special Tourer" were often a bit better than their European counterparts, as their Shimano or SunTour derailleurs worked better than the others. That, and the Japanese frames at that price level were often built better -- uneven brazing being an occasional problem on some low-end European bikes where workers were building as fast as possible to keep up with the demand. Well-built but super heavy, the Schwinn Varsity would be another example from the low-end category -- one of the best sellers of the time.

This orange Fuji Special Tourer and the purple one below
were being sold as a pair. Well made, but the cottered crank
and steel rims mark it as a lower priced bike from the time.
Still, with a few selective updates, it would make a great
rider with classic style.
While components on the low-end bikes were definitely lacking, those parts can be changed pretty easily. However -- factor the cost of upgrading components into the purchase price of the bike. Upgrading these lower-end bikes is kind of debatable as some will say it isn't worthwhile. They aren't really collectible, and will never be worth a lot in resale. I say it depends on how much you like the bike and how much of a bargain you get on it. Expect to pay a lot more for a vintage bike on eBay (prices for individual components can be a different story). Typically, if someone is selling the bike on eBay, they already have an idea that it's worth something (even if it's not!) and will expect a higher price. With bikes like this, the real bargains are at yard and garage sales, where you can often get them for $50 or less -- but of course, that means a lot more time and effort searching.

This Fuji Special Tourer, and the orange one above
 were on eBay recently from the same seller --
asking $300 for the pair. Both bikes looked to be
virtually new. 
Mid-level bikes from the Bike Boom could be pretty nice. Look for lugged frames and frame tubing stickers that identify a better-quality tubing. Some mid-level bikes might have Reynolds tubing (either the straight-gauge version -- or perhaps the 3 main tubes only), or Vitus or something else. Japanese bikes might be labeled with Tange or Ishiwata -- maybe a manganese alloy, occasionally chrome-moly, or something like Fuji's Valite tubing. Aluminum rimmed wheels are a nice feature on some of the mid-range bikes, which means one less thing that needs to be updated, assuming they are in good shape. Though some mid-level bikes from the period still had cottered cranks, the better ones would have some kind of cotterless model. In the early 70s, even some high end bikes still came with center pull brakes, so don't let that throw you off. Schwinn's mid-level bikes, like the Sport Touring and Superior models look at first glance very similar to their low-end Varsity, but look more closely to see a sticker identifying them as having chrome-moly tubing. Those bike are lugless -- fillet-brazed -- and some of them sell for more money than one might expect (a lot of people have a soft spot for old Schwinns -- myself included). Making component upgrades/updates on these bikes is subject to less debate, but one should still consider the cost of those upgrades -- set a reasonable budget and try not to exceed it. Try to remember that bikes like these are not financial investments, but they can be very nice to ride, which is a completely different kind of value.

This Schwinn LeTour looks like it was never ridden. Spotted
on eBay for $175 (a little more than what it probably sold
for when new). Made in Japan, these came decently equipped
with Shimano derailleurs and a cotterless aluminum crank. 
As far as component upgrades go, steel-rimmed wheels are really heavy, and braking with steel rims (especially in the wet) is terrible. Aluminum-rimmed replacement wheels make a big difference, but are also probably the most expensive item to upgrade. Searching online, one can sometimes find pretty basic, no-frills replacements for around $100 - 150 a pair. Used wheels in good condition, especially in the 27" size (630 ISO), can be found for less. Aluminum cotterless cranks are another good upgrade -- lighter, and a lot easier to install/remove for maintenance -- and clean, lightly used vintage models from Sugino and Sakae/SR can often be found on eBay pretty cheap. Most of these bikes came with center pull brakes, which could be okay or not -- it depends on the brand and model. If one decides to keep the brakes, I would recommend at the very least replacing the cables and pads with more modern versions, which will improve the feel and stopping power a lot. Derailleurs are some of the cheapest and easiest components to upgrade -- good, lightly used derailleurs can be found for only a few bucks, and models from as far back as the 80s will often work as well as modern ones. Even lower-end modern derailleurs can be found pretty cheap, and work nearly as well as their more expensive brethren (something that was not true in the early 70s). Some more extra weight can be dropped from these bikes by replacing steel seat posts, handlebars, and the like -- but those are less important upgrades. Let the budget be the guide. The resulting bikes can offer a nice ride with a lot of that classic style that's missing from most bikes today.

An image from an early-70s Raleigh catalog. The International
and Professional were good examples of the higher-end Bike
Boom cycles. Reynolds 531 throughout, and Campy components.
Higher-end bikes from the Bike Boom and the rest of the 70s can be real classics. Raleigh's Professional and International models, Peugeot's PX-10, Gitane's Tour de France, the Schwinn Paramount, and many more, were built with high-quality tubing (usually Reynolds 531, but Columbus or Super Vitus could also be found on some models) and most were equipped with good componentry throughout. Look for cotterless aluminum cranks, like Campagnolo, Stronglight, or TA. Campagnolo parts are a good sign of quality and value in general, though some good bikes from the period will have Campy Nuovo Record components all around, except for the brakes which might be center pulls. Some of the French bikes in this category might still have those awful plastic Simplex derailleurs (replace that with a vintage Simplex Super LJ, and you've really got something there). A lot of the higher-end bikes were equipped with tubular/sew-up tires.

These higher-end bikes are definitely worth keeping and riding, and very few changes would be needed for a lot of them. Because these bikes are usually worth more, and some of them might even have collector value, it might be worthwhile to keep them "period correct." If one wants to update components to make the bike more friendly to their current riding style (such as wanting clinchers instead of tubulars, or a change in gearing, for example), I might suggest keeping the original parts set aside so the bike could be returned to its original state should one decide to resell it someday. With the lower- and mid-range bikes, I wouldn't hesitate to re-paint or even powder coat a frame with battered paint -- but with these higher-end models, or any bike with some collector value, I might be reluctant to do anything that would lower the value, or which couldn't be undone later. Having said that, I should also make clear that the bikes I'm describing here were still mass-produced in huge numbers in big factories, so don't feel too paranoid about making changes to them if it makes the riding experience more enjoyable. They were meant to be ridden, after all.

If someone wants more info on some of the classic bikes and models from the 70s, I'd suggest looking into the Classic Rendezvous site. For more useful info on updating Bike Boom era bikes, the late Sheldon Brown's website has a lot of tips.

Overall, the bikes from the Bike Boom era have a lot of classic style, and it's a shame so many of them sit languishing. If someone finds one of these bikes and gets a decent deal on the price -- again, garage sales are where the bargains are -- there are some worthwhile upgrades that can make them sweet-riding bikes. Vintage bikes like these are satisfying to get back on the road, and will very likely turn heads wherever you ride.


  1. I've never really understood the "not worth upgrading" mentality. If it's a bike that fits you, and you enjoy riding, then why wouldn't you put better derailleur/crank/handlebars on it? Make it that much better and more enjoyable/reliable to ride. Seems silly to keep a crappy bit on a bike just because somebody else says so.
    Unless you're a flipper, "value" is relative.

    I used to always think centerpull brakes where junk and would usually trade them out for sidepulls. I built up quite a stockpile of Wienemann (sp?) and Dia-Compe brakesets over the years. Something changed (maybe my coming around to liking fenders), and now I tend to go the other direction. I've got good a good sidepull set on one bike, and all the rest of the non-canti bikes are carrying centerpull brakes. Seems to be super easy to set up, easy to pull the straddle cable to spread 'em open for tire removal, etc. Haha, maybe it's just that I've gotten lazy?

    You mention a fondness for Schwinns... do you have any in your stable? One of my Le Tours is the same "Kool Lemon" as the one in your post. It was wearing a brown saddle, tape, and handlebar bag, gum hoods, Pasela gum walls, and red cable housings and saddle bag. It was a little flashy, but I liked it, and it was like riding a Cadillac. It's currently stripped of all my "upgrades" and going to get all of its original "Schwinn Approved" hardware back on. I think it's time for somebody else to enjoy it.


    1. It might be surprising, but the only Schwinn I have right now is an Orange Krate, like the one I drooled over when I was a little kid. I don't really have room in my house, basement, garage, etc. to add more bikes to my collection, but if I could justify more bikes, a few that I would like to have include: a fillet-brazed Superior or Sport Tourer; any 60s or 70's vintage Paramount with Nervex lugs; and a mid 80s Madison track bike.

  2. My daily ride is a 16 lb Scott SL, but it is just a hunk of plastic untouched by humans. I ride a 1988 Schwinn Paramount that I updated to early DA STI, carbon fiber handle bars and decent clip-less pedals. I could ride this bike all day! I have a 1978 Raleigh Professional MK 5 in "from the factory" condition. It was a one owner bike until 6 months ago. It will stay just the way it is and ride it for the joy of what it is - a 70's bike (friction shifting, six speeds with low gears, Brooks leather saddle and toes clips). I love steel and that a master craftsman built these bikes. I am restoring a 1973 Raleigh Tourist DL-1, but that is another matter (rode one everyday for 3 years on my paper route). Thanks for your thoughts. Jeff