Everyone has their Rosebud. This bicycle is mine. That one treasured artifact from their childhood that reminds them of better, simpler times. As we become older and life becomes more complicated, the desire to get back to that place and time becomes stronger. Even though it is not possible to return, there are items that can transport us there in a manner that feels more real than just closing our eyes and imagining. As a parent, we can share those items with our kids, share in their wonder and discovery and see that world again through their eyes. Restoring this bike is that journey for me and my son Clayton.
This is the bike, this rusted fossil, at the beginning of this project. It lay in dormant hibernation in my Father's backyard shed for the last 20 years. A "barn find" if you will. How did such a treasured possession fall into such a state of disrepair? For this one, I can honestly blame my sister...
This bike was a relic when I got it. My father brought it home for me as a box of parts that he picked up from the Maxwell Street Market, Chicago's own unofficial swap meet that took place every Sunday morning. Need a tool or a hot car stereo? Before Ebay and Craigslist, Maxwell Street was the place to get it. My first bike, a 16-inch Schwinn Mini Scrambler, was new when I got it. When it was time for me to graduate to a 20-inch bike, I got this, which around 1979 or so was already 10+ years old. My initial reaction was "WHAT is THAT?" The answer was: a father/son project for me and my Dad. The most important piece, the metal flake green banana seat was still in great shape. The rest came together with a little elbow grease. New or not, it became my favorite bike ever.
Here is a picture from a family bike ride back in the day. Must have been cold that day, since we are sporting period correct puffy jackets and hats! We took a lot of family trips to bike trails through various parts of Illinois and Wisconsin. Having a bike with speeds did make it easier to cover long distances over a variety of terrain.
As a kid, I rode this bike everywhere. To the corner drug store. To the pet shop. On 50 mile family bike rides. Through snow drifts. The party piece that made it all possible was the 5 speed stick shifter. This was my first bike with speeds, which is a big deal when you are a kid. I always took care of this bike, kept it clean, kept it locked. The problems started when I went away to College. I did not want to take it with me for fear of it getting stolen or wrecked out in the elements. Unfortunately, my younger sister discovered how cool it was and started riding it while I was away. She left it outside in the rain and elements - the metal flake seat rusted (ruined!!!), the gears no longer worked and eventually the freewheel in the back froze up. When I came back from school and saw the damage, I was mortified. By the time I graduated and came back home, I honed my bicycle repair skills working part time at bicycle shops. I set about restoring the bike around 1995.
The key element that I needed to source was the seat. Luckily, the company that made the famous banana seats for Schwinn, a Chicago company called Persons, was still in business... barely. I recently found out that they stopped production in the mid 90s, so I was just in time. With the seat sourced, I set about removing the rust, repacking the bearings, replacing the cables and tuning the old bike up. I re-spoked the front wheel. The rear wheel was a little more tricky, since it needed two different sized spokes and a new freewheel. I was able to modify some spokes to fit, but I left the job of re-lacing the wheel to my father, who was a pro at it. Unfortunately, life got in the way and the back wheel never got finished. The half-disassembled bike went back into my father's shed until December 2019 - 24 years later!
Clayton seemed generally enthused and excited to work on repairing this bike. Schwinn bikes of that era were made in Chicago, and made to last. Rust is removed with grade 0000 steel wool and metal polish, as Clay demonstrates in this photo. The handlebars, the shifter, the rear fender, the chain guard and the "sissy bar" all came back to life.
Another key part to this build was sourcing a new back wheel. I had the original back rim, but the freewheel, new spokes and spoke protector were all missing in action in the depths of my parent's basement. I was able to source an original back wheel off eBay for around $100, including the freewheel. Not bad, considering an entire Stingray bike is worth around $1500 these days! With a little clean up and a quick spoke true, the bike was set to go back together.
Other new parts included a new chain, rim strip, and inner tubes and tires. Here you can see how the "new" Schwinn tires compare to the originals. Fortunately, my father purchased these tires back in 1995 when we tried to restore the bike the first time and they were still in good shape.
Once we got the bike reassembled, we couldn't wait to ride it! Like a Michelin Star restaurant, all the elements of this bike come together for an unforgettable experience - the ape hanger handlebars, the stick shifter, and that sparkling seat. Time to ride!
The bike performed flawlessly on its maiden voyage. It really is an experience you can't get with any modern bike. For me, the memories came flooding back. Clay is already making plans for riding it this summer.
The seed for this restoration was planted back in November at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals show. Koolestuff, a business that refurbishes and resells these old "muscle bikes", had their Show Within a Show bikes on display. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to get my bike back together.
The Christmas of 2019 will forever be remembered as the year I got my bike back, and Clay found a new appreciation for the way things were back in the day. Depending on how much we ride it this summer, I can see us adding another one of these bikes to our stable. In the mean time, it feels good to be back in the saddle again!