THE STORY ~ Ignaz Schwinn and later his son, Frank, were the undisputed leaders and innovators of the bicycle industry for well over a hundred years, including an era in the early 1900s when their motorcycle business, Excelsior was the third largest in America.
On a trip to Germany in 1933 Frank was inspired by the balloon-tire bicycles that were developed for the rough cobbled streets of German cities. In partnership with U.S. Rubber, the first Balloon Tire—a 2-1/8” automobile-type double tube—was introduced by Schwinn in 1933.
Balloon tires, the beautiful and structural cantilever frame, knee action spring fork, detachable seat post, a rear carrier for decoration, chrome, stylized fenders, and a custom tank—all of these contributed to the distinctive and stylish image. Such names as Excelsior, Autocycle, Whizzer, Aerocycle, and of course the Black Phantom call to mind images of these beauties from the past. The combination of innovation and classic designs led to the creation of the famous Balloon Tire era that was to dominate the bicycle industry for years.
During the early 70s in both California and Colorado, it was discovered that these old balloon-tire bicycles were perfect for wild descents down mountain trails. With coaster brakes, single speed, and considerable weight, these old “ballooners” and “curb slammers” were pushed up the mountain and ridden down. “Bombers” became a common term for them in those days.
Later, modified heavy cruiser bicycles, usually Schwinns, were retrofitted with better brakes, fat tires, multiple gears and BMX-style handlebars, and thus, the modern “klunker” was born. The old bikes were best at descending rather than climbing, and so the first “klunker” race, in 1976, was a downhill event in Marin County that came to be called the Repack. Because the old bikes only had rear coaster brakes, the results of hurling a heavy bike down a steep slope were a smoking hub and no brakes, necessitating a repacking of the hubs with grease before riding again.
The Repack event became a testing ground for new innovations and techniques in the evolution of the sport. This led to the genesis of custom frame building with a plethora of already-available parts. Thus, the mountain bike was born. Such names as Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, and Charles Kelly are synonymous with the evolution of the sport. Fat Tires were here to stay.
In 1994, Joe Breeze inducted Ignaz and Frank Schwinn into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, Colorado with the simple and solemn statement: “They gave us our tires.”