This first Marvelous Machine has a special place in my heart. It’s an American classic which I depended on for many years. So without further ado, here is the classic Schwinn Varsity.
“Only two things will survive a nuclear blast…cockroaches and old Schwinn Varsity bicycles.”
German Engineer Ignaz Schwinn founded the Schwinn Bicycle Company in 1895. Schwinn chose Chicago, then a booming manufacturing center, as the home for his new company.
During the Second World War, bicycles were in short supply due to steel shortages and rationing. So as the war came to a close, and soldiers returned, many were excited by the prospect of owning one of their own. By 1950, bicycles were becoming even more ubiquitous across the country, and many Americans opted to purchase lightweight European-style road bikes. Seizing the opportunity, Schwinn developed their own light frame road bicycle, equipped with a 3-speed hub and hand brakes. Dubbed, ‘Model W-11s’, the Chicago-made road bike was a hit. And thus, the origins of an American bicycle legend emerged.
Over the next nine years, Schwinn continued to improve their new style ‘lightweight’ road bikes. In 1960, the Varsity was introduced to the market as a sporty 8-speed Men’s road bike, made in Chicago and backed by Schwinn’s excellent warranty. Priced about $20 cheaper than the 10-speed Continental, the bike was a massive hit with the public.
The new 8-speed road bike was easy to ride, light (for the time) and extremely durable. On top of that, it was cheaper than the imported models. America finally had its lightweight bicycle, perfect for its many new paved suburban roads. By mid-1961, the Varsity was upgraded to a 10-speed and ranked amongst the best-selling bikes in America in the 1960s and 1970s. The Varsity, along with the iconic Stingray became icons of the era to countless men, women, and children.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the Varsity was not everlasting, as sales declined and production moved overseas in the early 1980s. By 1986, the original Varsity was mostly a thing of the past. But due to its legendary durability and classic styling, the old Varsity seems to have gained a bit of a cult following in the 21st century, and can still be found in abundance. The image shown on the left is an excellent example of the typical 10-speed Varsity of the 1970s, with its large chrome accents and color-matched handlebar grips.
Back in middle school, my friend Chris received a yellow 1971 Schwinn Varsity 10 speed from his aunt. The moment I saw it, I knew I needed one. So, shortly after, I went and found a brown 1972 Schwinn Varsity, and took it home for $40. It was significantly more substantial than my parent’s modern road bikes, but everything was made of steel, and it stood out so well against the dreary, bleak imported garbage it sat next to at the school bike rack. As a kid, I just loved rolling around on something stamped, ‘Made in Chicago.’
It was not in good shape at all, but despite a rusted derailleur and numerous broken spokes, it stood up to all the abuse I could throw at it. Other than a handful of shredded tires, nothing ever broke over the years I owned it. That bike was jumped, knocked around, run over, and thrown in and out of pickup truck beds for years, and never let me down. My brown Schwinn turned heads and got comments regularly from the ‘old timers’ around town, who recalled stories of harrowing escapes and crazy stunts pulled on the old steel shredder. And, for a 5-foot-2-inch 14-year-old, I had pretty strong legs. Riding a bike like that up and down the hills of San Francisco will do that to you.
Unfortunately, no pictures of my first bike still exist. But last year, I decided I needed another. I found this beautiful green 1968 model in San Jose and brought it home. Even had its original owners manual too! Unlike my first Schwinn, this bike was meticulously and lovingly maintained by its original owners.
Fortunately, Chris still has his original yellow ’71, seen below next to my new green beauty. The classic bike crew was back.
I bought the bike with the intent of modifying it, to make it suitable for use in Wyoming. I carefully removed most of the original hardware (which is safe and sound, don’t worry) and made a few changes. I replaced the wheels and tires and installed a single fixed gear with a hub brake. I also added a rack and fenders, and I’m happy with the results. Someday, I’d like to fully restore all the hardware and return it to the original condition. But for now, I’m happy with the changes, and thrilled to show off this true American classic everywhere I go.
Leave a comment if you’ve ever been lucky enough to own one of these timeless, bomb-proof two-wheel tanks, and tell me your story. Here’s to a Marvelous American Machine, the classic 10-speed ‘Chicago’ Schwinn Varsity.