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Wheeling through history

Vintage bicycles aren't just for lonely bike mechanics any more
By ELIZABETH FLOCK  |  May 7, 2008

MICHAEL KAPLAN has a basement full of balloon-tire beauties, some worth thousands of dollars.

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In a cramped basement in Watertown, collector Michael Kaplan squeezes another box of parts next to his $10,000 1934 Schwinn Streamline Aerocycle. At a bike shop in nearby Cambridge, 32-year-old Cig Harvey, in search of a gift for her husband, checks out a 1971 Hercules three-speed, while a group of Harvard sophomores looking for a rad ride to school try to score a slightly rusted Raleigh for 50 bucks.

Vintage bicycles, once an obscure subculture’s obsession, are gaining popularity as highly desired collectibles or cheaper, cooler rides. Craigslist and eBay have made many hip to the trade in vintage cycles and created a national, electronic swap meet. Plus, with more people going green, more want to do it style.

A bicycle is considered vintage if it’s more than 30 years old. The range of brands, styles, and designs is seemingly limitless. “The interesting thing is that the industry has made so many different products,” says Cambridge Bicycle owner Kip Chinian. “And there’s a lot of aesthetic beauty in every bike.”

Collectors usually favor a specific bike or period. The Wheelmen, a national group of more than 1500 19th-century bike enthusiasts, for example, collect, restore, and ride only bikes produced before 1918.

“Pre–[World War I] bikes were the epitome of bicycle design,” says Wheelmen member Dave Toppin. “You rode up high, where it was smooth and quiet, no chains clanking. You can’t get that today.”

The majority of collectors, though, focus on 1930s balloon-tire models (bikes with low-pressure, fatter tires). “When Schwinn introduced the balloon tire, suddenly comfort and performance were upgraded,” says Kaplan, who collected such bikes for 30 years. “The bikes became stylish and streamlined. They were even made of aluminum.”

Part of the continuing attraction of balloon-tire bikes is due to their rarity. When consumer aluminum was recalled during WWII, many of these bikes simply disappeared into government salvage drives — ultimate destination, unknown.

After the war, bike production in the US and Europe skyrocketed — 50 million bicycles were made in the ’50s and ’60s — making post-war models easier to find today, but less precious.

Christopher Lier, who works at Broadway Bicycle School in Cambridge, rides a British three-speed from the 1950s. “They’re tough bikes that hold up like new, especially for commuting,” he says.

With more modern frames and a style inspired by muscle cars and space exploration, many bikes from the ’60s are sought for their rideability and aesthetic value. Bud Durand, general manager of Cambridge Bicycle, found his 45-year-old Raleigh at a yard sale. “It’s a commuter bike and it’s vintage,” he says, “I restored it with all new parts so I could ride it.”

Many vintage-bike enthusiasts are nostalgic for the way bikes used to be, even if they weren’t alive to see them. Daniel Palimeri, who has worked at Cambridge Bicycle for three years, says the biggest difference between vintage bicycles and newer bikes is mass production.

“Bikes back then weren’t made on a factory assembly line,” he explains. “Each one was hand-built by one person and you can really tell.”
Damien Enders, who works at Ski Market and restores old bikes — mostly 10-speeds from the ’70s and ’80s — with new parts, notes that “old bikes are made out of steel, and so they are more forgiving on the Boston city street. New bikes aren’t always so sturdy, though they are starting to be made out of steel frames. . . . I do it because of the cheaper price of these bikes, and because I enjoy working on bikes. But also, you can really customize an old bike for what you want.”

Vin Vullo, 51, who owns Menotomy Vintage Bikes in Cambridge, gets heated when he talks about the current state of the bicycle world.

“Cycling is all screwed up now,” he says. “You see an adult on a bike, you figure he must have a DUI. No one rides a bike in street clothes or normal shoes. That needs to be brought back.”

Vullo also laments the loss of fenders and kickstands. Not to mention the upright riding position. “The only time I see people riding a bicycle, they’re hunched over on a racing bike,” he complains. “And they’re in spandex shorts they look ridiculous in.”

Antique motivation
Vintage-bike buffs can become interested in yesterday’s two-wheelers for any number of reasons. For some, collecting has always been in the family. Others just like fixing things. Says Toppin, who can remember his father’s extensive pre-war bike collection from when he was just two, “I don’t know why I like them. I just do. They’ve always been a part of my life.”

Kaplan vividly recalls a scene from when he was seven years old. He wanted a Schwinn Black Phantom, which he says fondly was “loaded with features.” But when his parents went to buy it, the salesman convinced them otherwise. Kaplan threw a tantrum and tried to break the replacement bike. Twenty-eight years later, he finally found the Phantom again, at an antique show.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Bud Durand , Broadway Bicycle School , Antiquing ,  More more >
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