Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Handbuilt Schwinns

In the 60s and 70s, the Schwinn bicycle company was a giant in the industry, and their unique mass-production methods were remarkable. Nobody else built bikes the way Schwinn did. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that huge coils of steel strip were rolled into one end of the factory, and complete bicycles rolled out the other end. Inside the factory, those coils of steel strip were rolled and welded into tubing, while smaller pieces were stamped, rolled, and welded into frame fittings like head-tubes, bottom brackets, and dropouts. The seamed tubes and various frame components were flash-welded together in a process Schwinn called "electro-forging," which was used to build everything from kids' Sting-rays, to 26"-wheeled middleweights, to the 10-speed Varsity and Continental models -- and everything in-between. The "electro-forged" frames were sturdy -- built to withstand all kinds of abuse -- but they were also heavy. A Schwinn Varsity, one of the most popular "10-speeds" in America in that era, weighed close to 40 pounds.

I spotted this very nice early 70s Super Sport on eBay. The unique
fillet-brazed construction makes them stand out from the competition. 
At the top end of the scale, Schwinn's Paramount bicycles were hand-built with lugs (usually the lovely Nervex Professionals) and Reynolds 531 tubing, and equipped with lots of Campagnolo components. The Paramounts were offered in racing and touring models, track bikes, tandems, and even women's versions, and were the equal of anything coming from Europe at the time.

Less well-known, but still hand-built and noteworthy, were the mid-priced fillet-brazed models: the Superior, the Sports Tourer, and the Super Sport. These bikes were built alongside the Paramounts in a special section of the Schwinn factory, known as the "Handbuild Shop," which I have also heard was sometimes referred to as "The Cage." These models, first introduced in the late 1930s, featured frames built with straight-gauge, seamless, chrome-moly tubing, fillet-brazed and finished by hand. Their lugless, smoothly radiused joints almost gave the impression of having been carved from one piece. The look was like nothing else in their class.

That little sticker is the sign of a higher quality hand-built frame
-- built with straight gauge, seamless chrome-moly tubing.
Of the three "10-speed" models available in the 60s and 70s, the least expensive and probably the most common would be the Super Sport. It had the hand-built chrome-moly frame, but came equipped with a one-piece, forged steel, "Ashtabula" crank, Huret Allvit derailleurs, and other components that were mostly the same as those on the cheaper electro-forged Continental and Varsity models. However, it did have alloy rims and quick release hubs. The Sports Tourer, later re-named the Superior (a name which would come and go over the history of the fillet-brazed models), had a very similar frame to the Super Sport, but came equipped with upgraded componentry, such as a cotterless alloy crank and better derailleurs.

The round head badge with the 4-point star
signifies the higher-quality,
hand-built fillet-brazed models.
At first glance or to an uneducated eye, the hand-built models might not appear much different from the lower-cost, mass-produced models -- especially the Super Sport which shared more of the same components as its cheaper siblings. Keep in mind that the electro-forged frames were specifically designed to mimic the look of fillet-brazed construction, and for less-savvy buyers there probably wasn't much reason to pay more for the hand-built bikes. But look more closely at the frames and find all kinds of distinctive differences to set these bikes apart from lesser models. In fact, the distinguishing details go much deeper than paint and decals, and should be readily identifiable even if a frame has been completely obscured with the worst rattle-can paint job a person can imagine.

The white oval Schwinn head badge
marks most of the company's welded models.
For one thing, the hand-built bikes had a different head badge than the cheaper mass-produced models. A round badge with a 4-pointed star, and the words "Schwinn - Chicago" marks the nicer bikes, while the large oval badge with the vertical "Schwinn" name marks the flash welded bikes. But even if some unscrupulous seller re-badged a Varsity and stuck "Superior" decals on the frame (not that it happens, but you never know), it would still be easy to tell the difference. Notably, the chrome-moly bikes use larger diameter tubing than the electro-forged ones -- 1-1/8" diameter. Bikes like the Varsity and Continental have 1-in. diameter tubes that look almost spindly by comparison.

The fillet-brazed models can be identified by the larger
diameter tubes, the nicely radiused joint between
the top tube and the seat tube, and the distinctly
 bullet-pointed seat stays. 
The best place to look for identifying details is at the seat cluster -- the joint between the top tube, the seat tube, and the tops of the seat stays. Besides the fact that the tube diameters are larger on the hand-built bikes, the top tube/seat tube junction is smoothly finished with a nicely radiused joint, and the seat stays are topped with distinct bullet-pointed tips. Contrast that with the flash-welded bikes which have a very clear line where the top tube meets the seat tube, and the seat stay tops have blunt, more rounded tips. As another readily identifiable detail, the skinny seat post on the cheaper bikes is only about 13/16-in. (just over 21 mm) in diameter, whereas the hand-built bikes use a comparatively much beefier-looking 26.8 mm seat post -- a little more typical for a better-quality steel bike.


By contrast, the "electro-forged" frames have smaller diameter
tubes and a distinct line where the top tube meets the seat
tube. The seat stays on these frames have blunt, rounded
ends that attach a little more forward, slightly overlapping
the top tube, as compared to the fillet-brazed models. 
Although the seat cluster should provide all the evidence anyone needs that fillet-brazed bikes were a much higher-quality product, more can be seen at the bottom bracket area. Though Schwinn's builders spent less time filing and smoothing the joints at the bottom bracket than they did at the more noticeable head tube junctions, the joinery there is still much cleaner than on the flash welded bikes. On the cheaper electro-forged frames, the bottom bracket started out as a piece of flat steel stock. It was stamped with extensions for attaching the down tube, seat tube, and chain stays, then rolled and welded. When the chain stays were butt-welded onto the BB shell, a very obvious slag ring would be formed around the joint and no attempt was made to clean it up. Ditto for the huge welded seam that runs across the bottom of the shell. The Super Sport, Sports Tourer, and Superior, on the other hand, have a seamless bottom bracket shell, and the brazed joints look absolutely clean in contrast.

The Super Sport shared the one-piece forged steel "Ashtabula"
crank with the lower priced 10-speeds, like the Varsity and
Continental. The "step up" Sports Tourer or Superior had a
threaded bottom bracket shell and a 3-piece cotterless crank. Note
 that the joints on the fillet brazed frames are reasonably
smoothed, even around the bottom bracket and chain stays.
Look through old Schwinn catalogs from the era, and it becomes apparent that model names and specifications changed a bit from year to year. The first of the hand-built 10-speeds was called the Superior. Then it was replaced by the Super Sport in the early 60s. The Sports Tourer was added around 1971 as a step up from the Super Sport, then that model was later changed to the Superior (again). During the mid-70s, the Super Sport was dropped in favor of the lugged-frame Japanese-built LeTour, while the Superior continued as the sole fillet-brazed bike in the lineup until being phased out after 1978. I've read that there were still some fillet-brazed bikes available in '79, but they were apparently built up from frames left over from pre-'78, and didn't appear in the catalogs.

The Superior name was briefly applied to another hand-built bike -- made of Reynolds 531 with Nervex lugs, and barely distinguishable from the Paramount except that it was equipped with lower-cost Campagnolo Gran Sport components. Otherwise the Chicago hand-built bikes were replaced by lugged Japanese models like the Super LeTour, the Voyager, and the (short-lived) Volare. It was about that time that Paramount production moved out of Chicago and relocated to Waterford, Wisconsin. The "Handbuild Shop" was no more.

The "electro forged" frames have a big visible seam across
the bottom bracket shell, and very noticeable butt welds
at the chain stay/bottom bracket joints.
The fillet-brazed Schwinns were truly unique among their competition. Their smooth, lugless joints have an elegant look that sets them apart (and this coming from a guy who loves lugs). The building method was very labor-intensive, so it's really a bit of a surprise to think that one could get such admirable hand-built work at the price. Still, I'm sure that many bicycle buyers at the time didn't really recognize or appreciate the differences between a Super Sport/Sports Tourer/Superior and the mass produced Varsity and Continental -- many probably didn't see any reason to pay more. Too bad, really. But now, on the vintage market, the bikes come up for sale pretty regularly, and when the condition is really good, or the seller knows what they've got, the prices sometimes get pretty high -- I regularly see nice examples (like the ones shown above) sell on eBay for anywhere from $300 - $500. Clean, lightly used bargains are probably out there at garage and estate sales for someone willing to do the searching.

More information on the old Schwinns: 

The article Whole 'Lotta Brazing Going On, by Mike Rother, is on the late Sheldon Brown's website and has even more detail (including original pricing and specs) on the hand-built fillet-brazed Schwinns. It's a very informative article.

From the '73 Schwinn Catalog. There's so much I love about
this shot, I don't even know where to begin.
I'd also recommend reading Inside the Varsity, by Marc Muller, which originally appeared in The Rivendell Reader. It has the complete story of the "electro-forging" process and is absolutely fascinating. Muller headed Paramount production at Waterford, and helped start Waterford Precision Cycles with Richard Schwinn after the first collapse of the Schwinn company.

For a complete database of old Schwinn catalogs, check out Tom Findley's site, or the Waterford Bicycles site. Prices and specifications can be found within.

16 comments:

  1. Ahh, Schwinns. My weakness. I very much am a fan of the Le Tour models. Getting a Paramount is one of my "someday" bikes.

    To the best of my knowledge, the lugged Superior that you mention was a 1982 Superior, available in orange. Super lovely bikes, I wouldn't hesitate to bring one home. As you mention, it was a near-Paramount. You see them pop up once in a blue moon on the 'Bay for about half the price of the Paramounts.


    Wolf.

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    1. I just saw one of the orange lugged Superior frames on eBay a week or two ago. Great condition. Very nice bikes. People sometimes call them the "baby Paramounts."

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  2. The framebuilder who built my finest racing bike in the eighties told me he had cut Paramounts apart at the joints, and the tubes weren't even mitered, but cut off straight. That is not the equal of the better bikes coming from Europe at the time. But... I love your blog. Except the part about Miatas. Faster than a TR-7, and everything works.

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    1. I have to admit -- I've never cut one apart. But that's the first time I've heard that.

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  3. I've never seen a Paramount that's been cut across a joint, nor have I read/heard of anybody else doing it, so I certainly claim no practical knowledge on the matter, but I'm wondering why those joints wouldn't be mitered? Never mind the quality aspect of it, it just doesn't make sense from an operations/profitability standpoint.
    If you picture how the tubes would mate up, there would be a tremendous gap with straight-cut tube vs. a mitered tube joint. Think of all the (heavy) bronze that would be used to make that joint, it would cause the bike to weigh a ton, never mind the tremendous waste of material when you think of the scale of Schwinn doing that across 4 product lines for such a long period of time. (I'd assume that if the Paramount got butt joints, then the lesser models would too.). It would be basically inconsequential for an operation like Schwinn to set up a mill that would knock off the proper miters in practically the same amount of time a straight cut would be made.
    And I'm definitely stretching my understandings of bike building here, but... for a decent braze, I believe the two materials to be joined have to be pretty tightly fitted. I don't think a reliable braze can be spanned across too far of a gap. How much of a gap is too much for a joint like on a bike? I don't know.


    Wolf.

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    1. I certainly can't verify that Paramounts did or did not have mitered joints (and I'm sure as hell not going to cut one open to find out! -- Maybe if it was already destroyed in a terrible accident -- maybe) but there is one thing that at the very least makes me question the claim, or wonder was it an exaggeration? To the best of my knowledge (and the Mike Rother article supports it) the Paramounts were silver soldered. Silver is nowhere near as good at filling gaps as brass, so if all those Paramounts really had straight-cut tubes inside the lugs, which would result in huge gaps at the joints, I'd think they'd have been pulling apart left and right. I don't hear about that happening. It just makes me wonder.

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    2. If you look inside the bottom bracket, some bike frames have the tubes cut square, while others have been trimmed to follow the curvature of the inside of the BB shell. While the latter looks prettier, I can't see it making any difference. As for mitering the other joints, you could maybe get away without it when using the plain Italian style lugs, but not Nervex pro lugs.

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    3. When I visited the Chicago Schwinn factory in 1977, the area where Pramounts were made was an actual cage. It was a lockable caged area to keep the expensive tooling away from the other manufacturing. The cage was raised above the floor, you had to climb stairs to get in. Loved my sprint-frame Paramount, sorry i sold it even though it was too big.

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    4. What you describe of "the Cage" sounds exactly like I'd imagined it.

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  4. Great post! I had previously read the brazing article on Sheldon Brown's site, but your description of how to distinguish the different construction methods used is most informative. The article on the electro-forge process is also fascinating and gives me a new appreciation for those low-end Schwinns.

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    1. Thanks -- I've always been a fan of Schwinns -- at least the better bikes. It seemed to me that to see some direct comparisons, with pictures, would really help illuminate just how nice those fillet-brazed bikes are.

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  5. I love the old schwinn / paramount catalogs. They always had men posing the bikes in the most ridiculous locations! Yes, virginia, I was a kid in the 1970's and EVERYONE rode their bikes RIGHT UP TO POOLSIDE and almost INTO THE POOL!!! uhhhhh NOT NOT NOT !! :-)

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  6. Instead of weighing 37 lbs, these lightweight chromoly frames brought the weight down to only 33 lbs. Sorry, Schwinn, that's still about 8 lbs too heavy for the prices you were charging ...

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    1. By the "end of the line" for those fillet brazed models -- '76 - '78, the Superior was listed as 28 - 30 lbs. depending on size -- just a pound or two heavier than the Japanese-built lugged models like the Voyager. Yeah - that's still fairly heavy -- but really not that much heavier than other bikes in the class at the time. It's all relative.

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  7. wow...................this post is 2 years??? hi; I've been cycling for 27 years now and have bought 10 bikes and restored them and ride them. one for what ever ride i was doing. Now i'm looking for a vintage Schwinn. I always new this co. built nice bikes with good material. As much as i know bikes.......... I've never heard of these 3 models until one day as i was looking on ebay; i took notice of the way this one bike was built with the filet brazing. plus the look of the bullet seat stays! as i researched these bikes...they do range from 300-800 bucks. my story is.......i was in the hunt for the sports tourer and after a few weeks of waiting for one in my size; there it appeared..............the seller had it listed as a 1977 Japanese made schwinn sports tourer. right there i knew this seller wasn't familure with this frame. he had nice pics and the frame has huret forged drop outs and nervex bottom bracket.
    this frame had just come on ebay; 6 days and 22 hours and they already had 7 people watching in their watch list. with luck it was in my size and i didn't even put in my watch list; i just bought it! talk about having patients. upon arrival; it was hell. thank god for no dents or bends!, but the steal seat post was cracked inside the seat tube, the fixed cup was was n't going to come out easy, the right side drop out where the rear axle fits in was bent to where you couldn't install the wheel. The paint had hundreds of chips all over it; plus.........like i said: it looked as it was in the trash or someones backyard shed for 40 years. thank god i have my own bike work shop.
    So now the bike is straight and stripped, no signs of rust anywhere!
    the one paragraph where it was mentioned schwinn didn't pay any attention to detail on the bottom bracket or the rear drop outs. they were right; it was ugly. this is where i come in. i'm going to rework all the brazing. one more thing i did was go to schwinns site to look up the serial number and what a surprise that i actually have a 1973 not a 77. plus some one had repainted the frame with a different blue. i'm selling everything the frame came with. the bottom bracket i'm selling everything one piece at a time. i will be building this frame up with french goodies from that time period. no campy or shimano; it won't seem right? to keep the weight down; i will be going with a titanium brooks saddle, ti-seat post, ti-stem and a ti-bottom bracket.. this model only was available in 3 colors: yellow, orange or a light blue. i will stick with a factory color blue. to top off this story.........after only paying 80 bucks...then by the time i sell all the original equipment.....i will have found a "FREE SCHWINN SPORTS TOURER" WHAT A FIND!

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  8. Turned my mid 70's superior into a fixie, also found out that pink frame color on mines is very rare. So happy i saved this bike from being scraped.

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