RSS

No Hands: The Rise And Fall Of Schwinn Bicycle

28 May
No Hands: The Rise And Fall Of Schwinn Bicycle

No Hands

In 1895 a German immigrant to the United States by the name of Ignaz Schwinn founded the Schwinn Bicycle Company in Chicago, Illinois. After the invention of the automobile the sale of bicycles in America declined and many of the more than 300 bicycle manufacturers were in financial difficulty. Schwinn seized the opportunity to buy up these troubled companies (and their valuable patents) and in the process built of the best known brand names in the world. At one time Schwinn Bicycle Company was as powerful and innovative as Apple is today. No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution tells the story of how this once powerful company was destroyed by incompetent leadership in the 1980’s and was later forced into bankruptcy. This book was co-authored by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman, who at the time of writing were journalists with Crain’s Chicago Business.

When I was a child my first “real bike” was a Schwinn Sting-Ray (with a fat rear slick tire, banana seat, chrome fenders, coaster brake, and a on-the-frame gear shift). When I got a bit older my father bought me a Schwinn Collegiate 10-speed. My father bought both of these bikes based upon his love for quality engineering, and when Schwinn had “an obsession with quality.” Unfortunately, like most Americans, I put my bicycle away the day I got my first car. Twenty-five years later when I decided to take up cycling again the first bike I looked at was a Schwinn—not knowing that they went into bankruptcy in 1992 and company name had been sold. The Schwinn bicycle sold today bears no resemblance to the quality of bikes I rode as a child, so I passed on buying a Schwinn and purchased a Trek instead (actually I bought four of them).

Crown and Coleman open the book with a story from the 1970’s. A team of engineers from Schwinn headquarters in Chicago flew out to Marin County California to talk to a young racer and entrepreneur named Gary Fisher (“Spidey”) about what was considered to be a new niche market at the time—mountain bikes. These brilliant engineers thought Fisher was a jerk and knew that no one would ever be interested in buying a mountain bike. The book quotes Fisher as saying, “The Schwinn engineers were going, ‘We know bikes. You guys are all amateurs. We know better than anybody.” This is just one example of many where Schwinn management misread the market and this led to their demise.

Part of the problem with Schwinn was an outdated business model. Maybe a bigger problem was that in the 1970’s, “through the miracle of nepotism,” the company was run by men with MBAs who didn’t know how to ride a bike. Then in the 1980’s their workers voted to join the UAW (a kiss of death for sure). By the late 1980’s Schwinn had opened a factory in Hungary and their advertising posters on streetcars in Budapest had the slogan, “They’re not as bad as you think.”

Even if you never owned a Schwinn bicycle you ought to read this book if you have any interest in the industry. You will probably never find a better history of the bicycle industry than in this book. You can read of how Schwinn dealt with competitors like Raleigh and upstart companies like Shimano, Trek, Cannondale, Specialized and Giant.

No Hands is a joy to read and serves as a cautionary tale for manufacturers today. The hardback  book is 350 pages long and is extremely well documented. Now for the bad news: this book was published in 1996 and is now out of print. However, you can still find gently used copies on Amazon.com and they sell for around $35. I know that price is kind of high for a used book, but if you have any interest in the bicycle industry you need to get a copy.

 
17 Comments

Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Book Reviews

 

Tags: , ,

17 responses to “No Hands: The Rise And Fall Of Schwinn Bicycle

  1. billgncs

    May 28, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    my first Schwinn bought in the ’60s was a thing of beauty and I rode it off slides, through rivers all over the neighborhood. The only think that stopped it, I grew taller.

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      May 28, 2012 at 9:28 PM

      I am not really sure what happened to my old Schwinn bikes — I presume my younger brother “inherited” them when I left home. at age 18.

       
  2. hughonabike

    May 28, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    As a young fit cyclist I asked one of my old and established LBS if I can test one of them new mountain bikes I had heard about. I swear he answered, “Nay lad, there just kids toys, there’re not for real cyclists, we wont ‘ave ’em in shop”…………………I then drove 30 miles to an other newly opened bike shop run by a young guy who was my age and asked the same question……………..Answer, ” I only got the top-of-the-range one left”,.He looked into space and said, ” I think they’re going to be popular”. I bought it and soon all my mates bought one……..It was the beginning………………..I’m in my mid fifties now and ride a Pugsley……..Go figure, same old,same old.

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      May 28, 2012 at 9:29 PM

      That was funny! As I was reading the book I kept thinking about my Pugsley as well!

       
  3. John Seacrowe

    May 28, 2012 at 10:17 PM

    My first bike was also a Schwinn, and I believe it was a Stingray, and was also the very bike on which I learned to ride at the old age of 7 years. In spite of growing out of it, I hung onto it as I graduated to larger and faster bikes like the “ten speeds” of the era.

    Every once in a while it was great to hop on and relive the thrill of a simple single speed with a Bendix drum brake that worked by backpedaling.

    Alas, my old Beauty was stolen from me, as was also the innocence of youth…

     
  4. Jeff Shone

    May 29, 2012 at 2:35 AM

    A nice write up, I got one on order now! I love your writting style. You have a real talent.

    A small bone pick though 🙂
    “You can read of how Schwinn dealt with young, upstart companies like Shimano, Trek, Raleigh, Cannondale, Specialized and Giant.”
    Raleigh is an older company than Schwinn. 🙂 Like Schwinn, Raleigh had an obsession with quality at one point. Remarkable how the two companies made the same mistakes.

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      May 29, 2012 at 11:56 AM

      Jeff, thanks for the kind words. You are absolutely correct about Raleigh being an old company as well — I’ll correct it in the article (thanks again).

       
      • Jeff Shone

        May 29, 2012 at 9:27 PM

        Nice one.
        Another interesting factoid… Many Americans believe that the Raleigh company was always an American company when in actual fact it was originally a British one, based in Nottingham.
        It is a shame that such a great company has gone the way of many and is a shadow of its former self. Not listening to your customers has been, and will continue to be, the death nail. From your write up it seems the same is true of Schwinn.

         
  5. Gary

    May 29, 2012 at 2:05 PM

    Schwinn also missed the mark with the entry level 10 speeds. I bought a Raleigh Gran Prix which was light as a feather compared to the Schwinn Varsity for the same amount of money. We used to joke that the Varsity was made of plumbing tubing. Those Paramounts were cool bikes but none of us could afford them. Oh yeah I wanted a sting ray so bad, but my baloon tired Typhoon could beat them in a race around the block easily. Better gears.

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      May 29, 2012 at 2:17 PM

      Schwinn was truly set in their ways — the book even discusses their mindset that allowed them to believe that every innovation in bicycles was “just a passing fad,” and that their management always knew better than the users themselves.

       
  6. Mark

    May 29, 2012 at 8:39 PM

    Sheldon’s site (of course) has a great description of Schwinn’s unique framebuilding process. http://sheldonbrown.com/varsity.html

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      May 29, 2012 at 8:45 PM

      Mark — thanks for the link! That was a very interesting article.

       
  7. Mike

    June 4, 2012 at 5:52 PM

    Reblogged this on I Love (A)Mystery!.

     
  8. JimCee

    June 8, 2012 at 5:34 PM

    I remember a conversation I had some time back with a man who was an old time Schwinn bicycle dealer. He said that the upper management were mostly lushes. I think the management at Schwinn generally were more familiar with a golf club that a bicycle, they essentially lost the ability to read a market that was changing radically from their perceived model. (I have, by the way, read the book “No Hands”, it’s a great read, highly recommended!).

     
    • All Seasons Cyclist

      June 8, 2012 at 6:14 PM

      I’ve talked with a few old-time Schwinn dealers myself and they all say the same thing you did.

       

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
The Seeds 4 Life

Seeds of Inspiration, Wisdom, and Positivity

The Shameful Sheep

shit storms, shame, and stories that make you cringe

Grow With Me, Child.

My Journey of Being a Stay-At-Home-Mom

Les Posen's Presentation Magic

It's time for a paradigm shift in how presentations are performed. One presenter's blog on how to present as if all your audience members had a brain.

Mommyfriend

...finding perfection in imperfection daily.

ragtime cyclist

cycling | pro cycling | the bits inbetween

Bike Like Crazy

whatever the weather

Ferrell's Travel Blog

Commenting on biblical studies, archaeology, travel and photography

ἐκλεκτικός

Steve Wolfgang's view of the world from suburban Chicago -- or wherever he may be on any given day

It's A Marathon AND A Sprint

And a 10K and a 200 Mile Bike Ride and an Obstacle Race and Anything Else We Find!

SmirkPretty

Eyes ten degrees above the horizon

BikeHikeSafari

Bicycle Touring around the world and thru hiking the worlds best hiking trail

the drunken cyclist

I have three passions: wine, cycling, travel, family, and math.

Cyclerist

Cycling and weightlifting, mostly

Long Distance Cycling Cleveland

We host a series of long distance preparation rides each weekend from January - June in the Cleveland, Ohio area

Kerrie Is Running

Started with the C25k and now we're here!

Intentional Twenties

Fitness. Food. Finance.

foodbod

healthy tasty food that I love to make and eat and share

grayfeathersblog

Diabetes, Cancer Survivor, Cycling, Photographer, Exercise, College Parent, High School Parents, Teenage girls, Twins, Boy Scout Leader, Life

Travel Tales of Life

Travelers. Adventurers. Storytellers.

Kite*Surf*Bike*Rambling

KITESURFING, CYCLING, SUP: ramblings, idiocy and not much more

Fatbike Brigade

Exploring the world on fatbikes

A Sierra Fatty

A Dyslexic Journalism journal about downhill, fatbike, cyclocross, dual slalom, snowbike, adventure, bikepacking, xc, dh, enduro, ridebikeswithfriends, paddleboard, snowboard, ski, cross-country ski

PaleoHikerMD

REAL FOOD, REAL HEALTH, REAL ADVENTURE, REAL FAMILY

The HSD

What happens when a medical doctor becomes a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom

The Jordan Project

Teach. Cook. Explore.

FueledByLOLZ

Running and Laughing through the Garden State

Tinkadventures

Inspiring Climbing and Mountaineering Adventures - Ordnance Survey 2017 #GetOutside Champion

First Responders: Be A Marriage Hero

You Save Others. Now Save Yourself

Fat Girl to Ironman

My five year journey to awesomeness...

MPLS MAMA BEAR

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Christov_Tenn

Always Thinking, Reading About, and Up To Something

30,000 Miles of Experiences, Adventures and Thoughts

Thoughts, views and opinions of a northwest cyclist and adventurer

Midlife Moments

Leaning in to a Magical, Mystical and Miraculous Time

Sports Bras And Sippy Cups

This Mama Lifts More Than Just Babies!

The Right Side of 50

Stories: true, real, funny and inspiring, and getting life right!

A Promise to Dad

"You don't have anything if you don't have your health"

Triathlon Obsession

Triathlon, Sport and Healthy Living

XPLORE

Out and About

Serendipities of life

Taking the road less travelled

The Chatter Blog

Living: All Day Every Day: Then Chattering About It

chasingmailboxes.wordpress.com/

2 wheels 2 feet. washington d.c.

Fit Recovery

Stay Clean Get Fit

Chatter Gets Fit

From Couch Potato to Triathlete to Ultrarunner... My Journey

Nancy Loderick's Blog

Musings on technology, marketing and life.

MTB blog from super happy Tokyo girl!

~マウンテンバイク初心者女子のチャリ日記~ Play hard, Ride tough, Eat a LOT then you got nothing to worry about!

%d bloggers like this: