One of the most well-known names in bicycling is Schwinn and the fact that the Schwinn company was founded and the bikes manufactured in Chicago makes it extra special to us. According to Mike Santomauro, Working Bikes volunteer and board member, and Trevor Clarke, Executive Director, speakers at the March 11 Chicago Cycling Club meeting, an initiative focusing on Schwinns has resulted in the refurbishment of over 350 donated Schwinn bikes that have been accumulating in their basement. These bikes are now available to return to the streets of Chicago.
When Ignaz Schwinn, a machinist who worked in the burgeoning bicycle industry in Germany, emigrated to America in 1891 he chose Chicago because it was known as a manufacturing hub. After a few stints working at existing bicycle manufacturers, Schwinn met Adolph Arnold, an investor and meatpacking executive, and together they incorporated the Arnold, Schwinn & Company in 1895. They rented a building on the northwest corner of Lake and Peoria Streets and started manufacturing bicycles under the “World” bicycle name.
There were booms in the bicycle industry (by 1982 one in seven city residents owned a bike) and busts (a glut in manufacturing and the introduction of the automobile) and a detour into motocycles along the way, but Schwinn enjoyed postwar prosperity. The Chicago-based family company manufactured one of every four bikes sold in America by the 1950s. Schwinns were known for their style, durability, and quality. Popular models were the Black Phantom, Varsity, New World, Paramount, Corvette, Sting-Ray, and Continental. Manufacturing eventually shifted to other locations in the South and overseas, and the last Schwinn rolled out of the Chicago plant in 1982. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1993.
The focus of the Working Bikes initiative are Chicago built Schwinns pre-1974. These can be identified by serial numbers under the head badge on the steering tube, always beginning with two letters, or in the case of the Paramont, on the left rear dropout. Some head badges have the name “Chicago” on them.
With the help of a grant from the Evanston Bicycle Club, Working Bikes hired a part time mechanic in August, 2019 to help volunteers refurbish the Schwinns. Non-functioning parts and rubber are replaced and finished bikes checked by a professional mechanic before they go back on the streets.
The Re-Schwinnification program is not the only initiative of Working Bikes. Since 1999 with the help of volunteers, staff, partners, and supporters they have enabled new life for 70,000 bicycles across the globe and tens of thousands in Chicago through their programs:
The next time you are out riding around Chicago, keep a look out for Schwinn bicycles, back on the streets again where they belong.
Sharon Kaminecki comments on adventures in bicycling and other stories