Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The American Bike Boom - 1970s

I've been reading that bicycles have outsold cars for the last few years in the U.S. and in many other countries long dominated by cars. Even during recent downturns when bicycles sales have fallen, apparently the sales of cars in those years have fallen more, keeping the bicycle ahead. Many people would probably be surprised by that news, but it gets me thinking about another time when bicycle sales outstripped cars in this country -- the American Bike Boom of the early 1970s.

The early 70s Bike Boom saw a huge bubble in which bicycle sales more than doubled practically overnight, only to see those gains almost completely erased when the boom went bust a few years later. Nevertheless, the Bike Boom marked a major shift in the American bicycle market, and sowed the seeds for huge changes in the manufacture and sales of bicycles and components around the world.

Sales chart from a 1978 AAA report.
Though bike sales, like any commodity, saw their ups and downs, in general there was overall a long-term growth trend, with small, incremental increases from year to year. For example, U.S. bicycle sales totaled about 2 million in 1950, around 4 million in 1960, about 6 million in '65, and about 7 million in 1970. Suddenly, in 1971, sales shot to 9 million bicycles. In '72, the numbers went to nearly 14 million. 1973 was the peak, with more than 15 million bicycles sold. The number fell back slightly to 14 million in '74. The bubble burst in 1975, with sales dropping back to their pre-boom level of 7 million. (AAA Report)

A lot of people mistakenly believe the Boom was caused by the oil embargo and the resulting shortages at the fuel pumps -- but the OPEC oil embargo didn't hit until the end of '73, and as the numbers above show, the Boom was well under way before that happened. So then, why did Americans suddenly start buying bicycles in ever greater numbers?

Could this have helped kick off the Bike Boom?
One of the better accounts I've read about the American Bike Boom was an article by Frank Berto that appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of The Rivendell Reader, #19 (most of the info can also be found in his book, The Dancing Chain). Citing a study conducted by Schwinn in the later 70s, Berto concluded that one of the major factors leading to the Boom was the "High-Rise," "Muscle-Bike," "Wheelie Bike," or "Sting-Ray" (call them what you will) bike fad of the 1960s. That fad got a lot of kids riding bikes, and in many cases, kept them riding past the age when they would have normally traded in their bikes for a set of car keys. Now, I'm summarizing a bit and leaving out a lot of detail, but essentially the assertion is made that the same kids who were riding those Sting-Rays and other muscle-bikes went on to "graduate," if you will, to the "10-speeds" that practically came to define the notion of the Bike Boom bicycles. By the way, I think it's worth noting that a lot of those muscle-bikes (at least the higher-end and more desirable ones) were often multi-speed derailleur-equipped bikes -- so it would seem like a natural progression that the kids would want to move up to the fast and exotic-seeming (at the time) 10-speeds that were starting to hit the market in greater numbers.

Another thing that contributed to the Bicycle Boom was the economic condition at the time for that other Boom -- the Baby Boom generation. Simply through their massive numbers the Baby Boomers had the ability to make big waves with any fad or trend they jumped onto. As Boomers came of age, reaching their teens and young adulthood, they also happened to be financially more independent than previous generations at the same age, having more disposable income to spend on discretionary purchases. Bicycles turned out to be one of those things they wanted to spend that money on.

Many people also believe there was a bit of a "counterculture" element to the Bike Boom. The previous generations -- the "establishment," if you will, were very much about cars -- the ultimate American status symbol. The new, younger generation was ready to question the priorities. There was definitely a different consciousness, and more interest in the environment, and bicycles probably fit into that idealism. Don't forget that the first "Earth Day" happened in April of 1970. In all I've read about the Bike Boom, nobody ever seems to mention that specifically, but I don't think it's an unrelated coincidence that Baby Boomers were finding bicycles to be an exciting alternative in the next couple of years.

The Bike Boom re-shaped the American bicycle market tremendously. Up until that point, bicycles were primarily seen as "toys" for kids. Few people rode bikes once they got their drivers' licenses. The American market was heavily dominated by kids' bikes -- like the 16" and 20" wheeled bicycles for younger children (say, age 4 - 9), middleweight 24" wheeled bikes for those older kids (say, 9 - 12), and middleweight or heavyweight (determined mainly by tire width) 26" wheeled bikes for the young teens. The "lightweight" category, aimed at older teens and adults, was more or less defined back then by 26 - 27" wheels with tires less than 1-3/4" wide (multi-speeds, whether internal hub or derailleur-equipped, were often a feature of the category as well). Of all those various market segments, the lightweight category typically accounted for no more than 10% of sales prior to the Bike Boom.

According to a Schwinn study, in the 60s, with the muscle-bike fad, the 20" category grew tremendously, but mostly at the expense of the 24" segment which took a huge hit (the late Sheldon Brown described that development as regrettable, and the 24" market never really recovered). During the Boom, the lightweight category exploded, growing to 37% in 1971, and peaking at 73% in 1974. Even after the bust, lightweights would continue to account for anywhere from 40% to 50% of the market for years after the Boom ended.

Another way the bicycle market was forever changed was through a shift in the manufacturing centers for the industry. With the huge increase in American demand for bicycles, the industry struggled to keep up. The big, well-known bicycle brands, like Schwinn, Raleigh, Peugeot, and others were at full capacity. The established component manufacturers, centered mainly in Europe, were also at full capacity and unable to meet the demand. For some brands, (especially in the lower price ranges) quality suffered in the attempt to increase production. Some manufacturers, distributers, and other companies, in order to fill the gaps in supply, turned to new sources -- and Japanese companies were ready.

The Schwinn Varsity was one of the best selling "10-speeds"
of the Bike Boom era.
Schwinn is a good example of what changes happened, but the story was repeated to some extent with many of the established makers. With bicycle orders far exceeding their production capacity, Schwinn started importing bicycles from Japan, badged "Schwinn Approved," and built by either Bridgestone or National Mfg/Panasonic. The Chicago-built 10-speeds that were the big sellers of the time were the Varsity and the Continental. They had heavy "electro-forged" (i.e. flash welded) frames, one-piece steel "Ashtabula" cranks, and Huret Allvit derailleurs. The Continental sold for about $15 more than the Varsity, and for that extra charge, one got tubular-steel fork blades, as opposed to the Varsity's flat-looking forged fork. The Japanese-built Schwinn World Traveler had a lugged steel frame, and Shimano derailleurs. It was priced about the same or slightly below the Varsity, weighed less, and worked better. How this would affect the American giant in the long run is practically a cautionary tale. In the face of how the Japanese-built Schwinns stacked up against the American-built models, did Schwinn take steps to make their domestic models better? Nope. They continued making bikes like the Varsity with nothing more than color and decal changes right into the early 80s (I realize there were probably a number of reasons for that, but I don't think anyone can deny that complacency was one of them).

Likewise, as some of the major component makers from Europe, like Huret, Simplex, and others, were unable to meet the demand, companies like Sugino, Shimano and SunTour stepped up to fill the gaps, and often provided better components for the money. A Shimano Lark derailleur had a similar design to the Simplex Prestige, but was all steel (as opposed to the plastic "delrin" Simplex), much more durable, and shifted more reliably. A slant-parallelogram SunTour cost less than a Huret Allvit and shifted better than anything else at the time.

Bicycle manufactures, like Fuji, Nishiki, and others, found many buyers willing to give a Japanese brand a try -- and were pleased with what they got. On the whole, the American market was opened up to the Japanese brands, and they proved to be some of the best bargains of the era in the lower-to-mid priced levels (where the bulk of Bike Boom sales were) -- offering the best performance and reliability for the money. When the Boom went bust in '75, those companies that survived were well placed to increase their share, eventually dominating the European brands.

When sales skyrocketed at the start of the decade, all kinds of people jumped into the bicycle business, but it didn't last. In a way, it was just another fad, and even the long lines at the gas pumps in '74 didn't keep the sales going into the next year. People have short memories, I guess. It also hurt that the fuel shortages led to economic downturn and inflation, so things were tough all over. After gearing up for huge production in the previous couple of years, 1975 found bike manufacturers and shops sitting on tons of unsold inventory. Many of the startups fell on hard times, and many went under.

The effects of the bust were just as dramatic as the boom, but the whole cycle completely changed the bicycle market for years to come. America became a major market for adult-style multi-speed bikes. Japanese companies gained major inroads to the market, and supplanted the established European brands both for components and complete bicycles.

After the boom ended, bicycle sales in the U.S. went back to their gradual rising trend -- some years good, some years taking a downturn, but generally trending upwards. Sales figures climbed more steeply in the early 80s as mountain bikes became the next big thing, and eventually by the 90s the numbers reached, and even exceeded -- the same levels they had attained at the peak of the boom in the 70s.


  1. Not too long ago I read a really neat story about that earth day and biking/ the bike-boom. I can't remember where, though. I think it was an old Nat Geo, or something else kind of unlikely, that somebody had forwarded to me. Shoot, I wish I could remember the source, it was really well-written and interesting.

    Growing up, all we had by way of new bikes was the Schwinn shop in town, or the crap at the department stores, so anybody that wanted a "real" bike ended up with a Schwinn of some sort or another. Old Varsities are still a dime-a-dozen around here.

    My first bike was a Schwinn banana-seat bike (I think it was a Sting Ray, but wouldn't swear to it). My parents bought that for me, and a couple of Continentals for themselves. Tanks, the lot of them. But I guess that fostered something in me, I still have a fondness for old Schwinns. I currently have 2 '74 Le Tours in my stable, and find them to be delightful riders with nice proportions. The Le Tours were made by Panasonic, and not one person that I know that's ridden a Japanese-made Le Tour for any decent amount of time/miles would rank them below anything else in Schwinn's line-up. Aside from a Superior or Paramount, maybe, but that's a whole different animal. As you stated, there sure seemed to be a lot of value in those imported Schwinns. I've actually just picked up a '80(ish) World Sport that was made in Taiwan, which should mean that it was made by Giant for Schwinn. No serious miles on it, yet, but the overall fit/finish is surprisingly nice. (Think I'm gonna' give it the "poor man's Riv" treatment.)

    I am totally a fan of the "bike boom" bikes in general, and the Japanese-made ones in particular. (up to about '83/'84, really, until the Dollar crapped out against the Yen. Things changed for import bikes then. At least what I could afford, haha) Definitely the era of bikes that captures my attention the most.


  2. Great post Brooks!

    Growing up in small town Ohio I was 10 years old in 1980. My family was relatively poor in those days as my Dad was growing the small business he started. I was very proud and happy with my department store banana seat bike decked out with rectangular shaped mirror and dynamo headlight/tail light.

    But it was the local Schwinn shop that was my window to the exotic bike world for me back then. looking back on it now it still amazes me that my small town of 15,000 people even could sustain its own bike shop. I remember seeing the occasional Orange or Apple crate and the plentiful varsities around town but those bikes were beyond my means. Eventually getting to know the proprietor of that shop I got a close look at his Waterford built tourer. Wow! I thought that was perfection.

    After working summer jobs I earned enough for my first real bike, an early 80's Schwinn Mirada. Although I had long since been a cyclist that bike introduced me to the fun off roading and also taught me the utility of bikes as a means of useful transportation.

    Thanks for sparking those old memories. Even though I'm just young enough to have missed the boom you talk about for sure I got to experience the effects in the late 70's and 80's.

  3. Sting Rays and their knockoffs built confidence in young riders because they were high trail and tracked solidly, so as an 8-year-old I could ride downhill no-handed and feel like I was flying. Plus a buddy could hitch a ride to the park. That plus living in suburbia, full of empty, bike-friendly roads, did it for me.

    1. I liked mine. They were wickedly easy to "wheelie." Though from a safety standpoint, that was probably a major drawback to the design, from a kid's view, they were a blast to ride. Lots of fun.

  4. Any chance you have Frank Berto's article in PDF form? I'm doing some research on the 1970s bike boom.

  5. Nice piece. (I got here from your New Bike Boom post this year).
    I think I'm older (born 1950), so I have a somewhat different set of memories.
    We grew up riding bikes in suburban California in the 1950s. Kids would go on bike rides together, explore, go on fishing trips. I rode a bike every day for bicycle routes. "10-speeds" were exotic, something to be regarded with awe, and I think only a few kids our age got one.

    I don't remember a "bike boom," and I've asked some other people my age if they can remember it. Nope. There was so much going on in 67-74, that paying attention to bike sales was very low on the list ... the draft, women/men, rock music, radical politics were higher priority.

    For me, bikes must have been part of a growing environmental consciousness. I remember in 1975 vowing to get around by bike and never get a car - for which I was accused of being a radical by my roommate. My step-father gave me a multi-speed bike about that time, and I remember that riding it gave me the sensation of flying.