See also: Schwinn documents

Country: USA

Arnold, Schwinn & Co was founded in Chicago in 1895, by Adolph Arnold and Ignatz Schwinn. Schwinn soon became one of the most prominent bicycle manufacturers in the US.

By the 1950’s the company, headed up by Frank W. Schwinn, dominated the middle market for bicycles in the US. Although Schwinn bikes were always regarded by Europeans as horrendously heavy and crude, they were American icons widely admired in their home country for their engineering, and models such as Aerocycle, Paramount, Phantom, Varsity, Sting-Ray, Krate and Homegrown are now collectors items.

In 1955 Schwinn introduced their first derailleur bicycle - the Schwinn Continental. It was not a success. However in 1960 they introduced the Schwinn Varsity model and kicked off the first in a series of booms in the sales of derailleur bicycles that reverberate to this day.

The Schwinn Varsity was often sneered at for not being a real racing bicycle, and it certainly cannot  claim to be pro quality - some people claim it was initially aimed at teenagers. But it did have dropped handlebars, derailleur gears, narrow 26 X 1 1/4 tyres and an accessible price. It introduced a generation of Americans to the pastime of cycling.

Schwinn’s first breakthrough was to realise that bicycles were no longer utilitarian transport for adults. In the 1950’s car ownership in the US was many times higher than it was in Europe. Schwinn realised that, to prosper, they had to sell bicycles to families that owned cars. This lead them to realise that their future lay with children’s models, with models for students, with models that adults would use for sports and leisure and most of all with models that people wanted to use, rather than needed to use. Tiny, niche manufacturers in Europe had long thought this way - but Schwinn was the first mass manufacturer to ‘get it’.

Schwinn’s second big idea was to realise that derailleurs that were suitable for French enthusiasts were not necessarily suitable for everyday American consumers. Their solution to this problem was to work with derailleur manufacturers to produce derailleurs that were ‘Schwinn Approved’. Schwinn’s concerns were less the traditional ones of light weight, gear capacity and brand prestige, and more consumer issues like safety, reliability and an appearance that instilled confidence in the ordinary person.

The first Schwinn Approved derailleurs were Huret Allvits. I have been told that the ‘bash guard’ on the outside of the second style of Allvit (introduced in 1961) may have been added at Schwinn’s request. Certainly the timing would match, as Schwinn moved their Varsity model from Simplex to the Huret Allvit for the 1961 model year. This was before the Schwinn Approved label was in use.

Schwinn called the Allvit various names in its ‘Schwinn Approved’ guise:

  1. From 1964 they rebranded the Allvit as the ‘Sprint’ with a Sprint logo prominent on the bash guard.

  2. Schwinn then branded an updated Allvit version as the ‘GT200’ series. This is simply labeled as ‘Schwinn Approved’ on the bash guard. I am uncertain about dates for the GT200 series, but it was certainly in place by 1970. The GT200 series also included a long cage version (a rebranded Huret Super Allvit), and a version called GT210, although I am not sure if these were the same thing.

  3. Finally, in 1975, Schwinn adopted the Allvit Safety (Schwinn were probably responsible for Huret’s decision to create of this monster) and called it the ‘GT500’ series. This was an Allvit with a pulley cage optimised for safety in some mysterious way that met US Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations. Huret could feel the pressure from Shimano for Schwinn’s business (see below) and were hoping that this ‘safety’ angle would get them back into pole position. A key feature of the GT500 seems to be the ability to back-pedal safely (?) - Europeans could only guess what madness was at work here - the safety of young people was clearly a national priority - so let’s draft them all into the army and send them to Viet Nam - although Nixon and Kissinger would presumably have held an abiding interest in the ability to back-pedal safely. There was a GT500, a GT510 and a GT515, which are all close variations of the Allvit. The various models in the GT500 series had their model name helpfully stamped on the bashguard.

Due to a shortage of bikes (and possibly derailleurs) during the bike boom and a catastrophic history of labour relations at the Chicago plant, Schwinn took the bold step of importing Japanese products branded as Schwinn. They imported complete bikes fitted with Shimano derailleurs and then imported Shimano derailleurs to fit onto US made bikes.

Schwinn’s history of Shimano-made models goes something like this:

  1. The first model was a Shimano Lark modified with the addition of a massive bashguard. It was branded as ‘GT100’. I am not sure when this was introduced but I think it was fitted on the 1970 model range - and may have been used before this. I do not think the GT100 was fitted on bicycles made in the USA.

  2. The second model to be introduced was the ‘GT300 Le Tour’ introduced in 1973. This was a Shimano Crane GS with different branding and was offered on top-of-the-range touring bicycles. I do not think that Schwinn offered a short cage GT300.

  3. In 1974 Schwinn started to move towards Shimano and away from Huret. The GT100 was replaced by the ‘GT120’, which was also a Shimano Lark with a bash guard, but with smoother styling and a more Allvit-like look.

  4. In 1974 Schwinn also offered the ‘GT400 Le Tour’ range. This was a Shimano 500 (?) rebranded. It had the same geometry and knuckles as the Crane, but had steel parallelogram plates and pulley cage plates. In time, I think there was a GT420 and a GT440, mirroring Shimano’s changes to the Shimano 500 model. I do not think that Schwinn offered a long cage derailleur in the GT400 series.

Schwinn’s 1973 decision to adopt the GT300 Le Tour was one of the turning points in the history of the derailleur. At the time, Schwinn was enjoying strong demand for high-end touring bikes, but had been using the disastrous 1970 Campagnolo Gran Turismo. Desperate for a touring derailleur that deigned to actually work, Schwinn turned to Shimano and their excellent Shimano Crane GS. Campagnolo tried to win back Schwinn’s business with the 1974 Campagnolo Rally (adopting the geometry and materials of the Shimano Crane GS) but the Rally was hugely expensive and did not work as well as the Crane - so Schwinn gave the Rally a body swerve. This was hugely significant. The largest US bicycle manufacturer had decided that a Shimano derailleur was preferable to the very best that Campagnolo and Huret (the cream of Europe) could offer.

The next year Schwinn further humiliated Huret by adopting the GT400 Le Tour, a much cheaper Shimano derailleur, and offering it as an upgrade for bikes fitted with the Allvit based GT200 and GT500 series. Schwinn’s verdict was clear (and widely understood by cyclists) - Japanese derailleurs were simply superior to European offerings. From the mid 1970’s Schwinn started to use standard models from Shimano (and to some extent SunTour). Shimano obligingly produced the Shimano Eagle, a Lark with Shimano’s own design of bashguard, but essentially the war was over - the American consumer had embraced the derailleur as the best form of bicycle gearing, and had fully grasped the idea that the best affordable derailleurs came from Japan.

It has long been fashionable to laugh at the ‘Schwinn Approved’ derailleurs as horrendously obese symbols of US consumer nationalism, but they played a key role in the battle between Europe and Japan, in the history of Shimano and in the creation of the modern bicycle.

Unfortunately Schwinn went into a tail spin in the 1980’s from which it never really recovered. The original company filed for bankruptcy in 1993, was bought out and then merged with GT in 1998. Schwinn/GT Corporation then filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and was bought by Pacific Cycles, which, in turn, was bought by Dorel Industries in 2004. Schwinn bicycles are available to this day. They offer a competent but (to my taste) uninteresting range. It’s a curiously similar story to that of Raleigh (and possibly of Peugeot and Bianchi).