The precursor to the modern-day bicycle was the 1817 Draisine, named for its German inventor, Karl von Drais. This two-wheeled machine lacked pedals, so cyclists straddled the bike and pushed it along with their feet. Despite their primitive design, these "swift-walkers," as they were sometimes called, were quite popular in 19th-century Europe and the United States, but as novelties rather than a serious means of transportation.

Around 1863, the wood-and-iron velocipede or "boneshaker" appeared in England and France. This was the first true bicycle, with pedals attached to the front wheel so that riders could propel themselves up hills. Some models had a rear "spoon" brake; most had a bell to keep horses from being spooked.

Because gears for bicycles had not yet been invented, the only way for engineers to increase the speed of a bike was to enlarge its front wheel. This led to the development of high-wheel bicycles in the latter part of the 19th century.

High-wheel bikes (also called penny-farthings) were eye-catching and not as difficult to get onto as they looked, but they were next to impossible to stop once they got going, which often resulted in crashes that would send the rider flying head first over the handlebars. Smart riders learned to ride downhill with their legs draped over the handlebars to mitigate the impact of sudden stops.

Manufacturers tried to solve the "header" problem with models like the Star and the Eagle, which placed the bike’s small wheel in front of the large one to give the rider a slightly better center of gravity. Tricycles with a small wheel in the front, two large wheels in the back, and a seat between them were another solution, favored by women in elaborate Victorian dress as well as professional men, for whom high-wheelers were not an especially dignified mode of transportation.

By the end of the 19th century, the high-wheelers were replaced by so-called "safety" bikes, which resemble the bikes we ride today. The key was a chain to drive the rear wheel.

In addition to steel, wood such as hickory and bamboo was used to construct the frames. Elliott Hickory Cycle Co. of Boston went so far as to tout the wood used in its bikes as "...

Some of these turn-of-the-century bike builders would go on to become prominent manufacturers of automobiles. George Pierce was making bicycles more than a dozen years before his company produced its first Pierce Arrow in 1903. The Pierce bicycle’s "monoshock" suspension was a far cry from the boneshaker bicycles of a half-century before. Similarly, Lozier cut its teeth on its line of Cleveland bicycles before becoming a renowned builder of luxury cars in 1900.

For collectors of antique racing bikes, the bicycles produced at the beginning of the 20th century are of particular interest. Track bikes by companies like Peugeot were designed to be stiff and responsive, with deep-drop handlebars to reduce the rider’s wind resistance. Chainless drives were also tried but quickly discarded. And by the 1930s, John "Pop" Brennan was producing frames that are considered prototypes of the contemporary handmade bicycle-frame industry.

The arrival of the derailleur in 1908 changed everything. Americans were slow to accept the device, and the English thought three gears were quite enough, but the French embraced the device. Consequently, a culture of cycling evolved in France, while bikes in the United States largely fell out of favor.

The vintage balloon-tire cruisers from the 1930s to 1950 brought the bicycle back into fashion in the U.S. In 1941, Colson made the Cruiser and Super Cruiser models for Firestone and the Clipper for Goodyear. Many vintage bikes from this era had fake gas tanks to imitate the ones on motorcycles, and built-in headlights and taillights. Some were gloriously painted two-tone jobs; others showed off their aluminum and chrome.

Murray was another company that had its own line as well producing bikes for third parties. In Murray’s case, it supplied bikes to Sears. Its house brand was the Mercury. Among other collectible brands from the pre-war era are Shelby, which made the gorgeous Speedline Airflow, whose sweeping and curving lines suggested movement even when the bike was standing still.

But it was the Schwinn that really changed the American perception of the bicycle, in particular with the 1933 Aerocycle with its awesome Buck Rogers design. The Auto Cycle followed, as did the heavily fendered and chromed Phantom and Jaguar.

By the middle of the 20th century, Schwinn was, as Schwinn collector Jim Snell puts it, "where bicycles came from for Christmas." In the 1960s and 1970s, if you were the luckiest kid on the block, that meant you spent Christmas morning riding your high-handlebar, banana-boat seat Stingray, Apple Krate, or Grey Ghost, some of which had a black-handle "Stik Shift" attached to the frame. Also collectible are the three-speed Schwinn Paramounts and Travelers from the 1950s and 1960s, and the classic 10-speed Varsity models from the 1960s and 1970s.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Jims59.com

Jims59.com

Jim Snell’s tribute to the 1959 Chevy Impala and other Chevrolets (Bel Air, Two-Ten Wagon, etc.) from the 1950s a… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1950 Schwinn Hornet Mens Straight-bar Tank Bicycle Vintage Panther B6 Dx S2 Red!1981 Gt 26" Vintage Bmx Cruiser W/ Bullseye Hubs, Redline Flight CranksVintage Schwinn Admiral Pre-war Bike 26" Balloon Tires All Original Fresh FindSick! 1984 Vintage 20" Pink "custom" Hutch Trickstar Bmx Freestyle Carpet QueenAir Uni 80's Old School Freestyle Unbuilt Bmx Redline Design Rare Hard To FindGt Pro Series Old School Vintage Bmx Race Bike Redline Flight Cranks Hutch HaroBarn Find 1930's Elgin 28" Skip Tooth Balloon Tire Bicycle Schwinn 1968 Apple Krate 5 Speed Stingray Original Paint WowOld School Bmx 87 Gt PerformerRare 1980 Mongoose - Super Goose Bmx BikeVintage Prewar Fleet Wing Roadmaster Bicycle 1963 Schwinn Corvette Mens Cruiser Bicycle Coppertone Vintage Typhoon Jaguar S71972 Schwinn Stingray Boys Muscle Bicycle 5-speed Disc Krate Frame Apple ProjectBarn Find Elgin 26" Skip Tooth Balloon Tire Tank Bicycle 1967 Nov. Schwinn Stingray Deluxe Og Blue Paint Frame & Fork No Reserve Look !Antique 1920s 1930s Elgin Motorbike Toolbox Tank Bicycle Prewar Motor Bike SearsJoseph Lucas & Sons "mediophote" Bicycle Bike Cycle LampAmf Evel Knievel Bmx Original Stunt Motorcycle Bicycle 1976 Bike & Owners Manual1965 Esso Tiger Muscle Bike Hand Grips Schwinn Stingray Corvette Sign Huffy RailSchwinn Orange Krate 1970.1968 Schwinn Fastback Stingray Muscle Bike Krate Vintage! Green Banana Seat S6!1969 Schwinn Stingray 3 Speed Runabout Vintage Bicycle1970 Schwinn Pea Picker Krate Stingray Bicycle *rare Antique Powell & Hammer Rear Acetylene Motorcycle/bicycle Lamp*original*1980 Mongoose Bmx Old School Compition Racing Frame.. Chrome Moly. Vintage!Nos Early Schwinn Stingray Solo Polo Tufted Seat Cover Vintage Muscle Bike 19651974 Raleigh Chopper 3 Speed Sturmey Banana Seat Bike Ape Hanger Muscle Bicycle1940s-50s Monark Balloon Tire Rat Rod Cruiser Bicycle Super Firestone Dx B6 19501990's Gt Mach One Mini Frame And Fork, Old Mid School BmxVintage 1968 Schwinn Stingray Fastback 5-speed Bicycle Schwinn Stingray Bendix 2-speed Kickback Hub+rim Fastback Krate Deluxe 1960s S5Old School Bmx 87 Gt Pro Performer Freestyle TourWhizzer Motor Engine Bike Nos Crank Shaft Roller1980's Roger Decoster Bike Bmx Products Inc Old School Mongoose SchwinnSchwinn Stingray 5 Speed Muscle Bike1938-39 Schwinn Paramount Bike BicycleVintage Mongoose Decade Freestyle 20 Inch Bike Complete. Very Old Antique Bicycle Seat Hercules Model L20 Very Rare Example1975 Schwinn 20" Stingray Bicycle Bare Frame With Chicago Head Badge & KickstandIver Johnson Rear Steer Tandem Pre War 1897 Wood Rim 28" Antique Bicycle1960's Schwinn Coppertone Sting Ray Bicycle Bi3 Speed Shifter Banana Seat Slick1984 Redline 500a Series Three Bmx Bike (all Cro-mo Frame) (nice Original Bike)Schwinn Stingray Rare 1969 5 Speed Stik-shift Shifter Fastback Krate W0wVintage Person's Ribbed White Silver Glitter 18" Banana Seat W/ 47" Sissy Bar1971 Schwinn Stingray Boys Muscle Bike Vintage Banana Seat ***original Owner***Schwinn Sting-ray Krate Bicycle 2007 Walmart Black Friday Boys Stingray Bike1960s Schwinn Stingray Leopard Solo Polo Bike Seat Saddle! Huffy Rail EliminatorAll Original Raleigh Chopper Mk1 Great ConditionVintage 1930's 40's Delta Bicycle Headlight Bike 34 Buick Fender LightVintage Hiawatha Arrow Pre War Airflow Girls Bicycle Rear RackVintage Ritchey Mountain BikeBicycle Lamp Cycle Bike Calcium Carbide Old Light Acetylene Gas Road MemorabiliaVintage "rocket" Bicycle Tank W/horn Assembly Intact*antique Powell & Hammer 'revenge' Acetylene Motorcycle/bicycle Lamp*Antique Glass Motorcycle License Plate Topper Reflectors Indian Schwinn Bicycle1955 Schwinn Spitfire Dx 20"1984 Mongoose 10th Anniversary Model Old School Vintage BmxVintage Prewar Schwinn Sawtooth 52t Sprocket Crank Autocycle Cycleplane DxVintage Meade Ranger Boys BicycleVintage Hiawatha Arrow Pre War Airflow Girls Lobdell Bicycle Seat