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The Schwinn Varsity (1960-1986)

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by Tom Shaddox
edited and HTMLed by Sheldon Brown
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Sweet are the uses of a Varsity -- John Allen, with apologies to the Bard of Avon.

  varsity

A Schwinn Varsity parked across the street from the State House,
Boston, Massachusetts, USA, still in regular use, November, 2009

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For a quarter century the easiest way to show you were a sophisticated, discriminating cyclist has been to make disparaging remarks about the Schwinn Varsity. It's true that the Varsity has the oxymoronic distinction of being one of the heaviest lightweight bicycles ever built. But to understand the bike, I think you have to take it in its historical context.

In America in 1959, bicycles were children's toys. The market for quality adult (including older adolescent) lightweight bicycles made up less than 1% of the total market. Except for small groups in a handful of large cities, Americans had never heard of, much less seen, a derailer-geared bike. An attempt to introduce derailer-geared lightweight adult bikes a few years before resulted in a warehouse of unsold bikes. The small bank account of the venerable League of American Wheelmen, founded in 1880, was about to be declared abandoned and closed because it had been so long since it had been accessed. The U.S.A. had not won an Olympic medal in cycling in almost a half century, about the same length of time since there had been an enthusiast cycling periodical. Contemporary accounts indicate that some bicycle retailers did not even know how to adjust a three-speed hub.

In 1987, the market for quality adult bicycles made up over 60% of the U. S. market, which had become the most vibrant in the world. Most American adults owned a derailer-geared bike, and referred to bikes generically as "ten-speeds". There were national touring, racing, transportation advocacy and off-road cycling organizations, and every city in the country had an active cycling club and a bicycle "pro shop". The U.S. Olympic cycling team had dominated the most recent Olympics, winning the gold in a number of track events and both the men's and women's road racing events. An American had just won the Tour de France.

In between 1959 and 1987 was the Schwinn Varsity.

Remembering the bike today, it's easy to forget that for the first years of its production, its sales (combined with its slightly upscale brother, the Continental) were greater than those of all other U.S. derailer bikes combined. When the production run was finally over, the Schwinn Varsity had been manufactured in greater numbers than any other single model of derailer-geared bike in the world ever. Built with unique technology to meet an entry-level price point, it was the only bike in the national market in the 1960s that was simultaneously inexpensive enough to get non-cycling adults to give it a try, and well-built enough to make them conclude, "Hey, this is fun!" The Varsity was the foundation of reintroducing American adults to the joys of cycling and a cornerstone in building the modern adult cycling infrastructure of events, clothing, magazines, clubs, businesses, etc...

The Varsity is the single most significant American bicycle.

I think what's important historically is the dedication the Schwinns had to the nonexistent U.S. adult bicycle market from the 1930s through the 1960s. They continued through this period to advertise and make available through their dealers various bicycle models for adults even though Americans didn't buy many of them. They couldn't have made much money doing this - in fact the Paramount was a money-loser for the company, supported by profits from children's bikes. But they believed in adult cycling, they stuck with it, and they continued to look for a bicycle that would entice the non-rider to be a casual rider, and bridge the casual rider into an enthusiast.

That bike turned out to be the Varsity.

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Understand that what I'm about to say is a lot easier to figure out with 30 years' perspective than it was at the time. The dark lining to this silver cloud is that Schwinn had the opportunity in about 1968 or so to say, "Hey, look! American adults are starting to ride bikes. It's catching on at college campuses. The AYH in the Northeast has rides all the time. In California there are active clubs, and not just young racers but older professionals like the folks in the IBTS [International Bicycle Touring Society] who have real money to spend. And in Ohio a couple of hundred people rode their bikes over 200 miles in a weekend! [The reference is to TOSRV, the Tour of the Scioto River Valley.] Dealers understand how to maintain and repair derailer bikes, and know how to sell them to adults. And the baby boom is about to hit the young adult years. It's time to retool the factory and start phasing in the next generation of product."

Unfortunately, they didn't. Conventional wisdom these days is that Schwinn began suffering from "third-generation family ownership" syndrome. Schwinn marched into the future building products more suited to the past. Then from 1971 to 1972 the adult lightweight bicycle market expanded by a factor of 40, and while millions of Varsities were stamped out (literally) during the bike boom, introducing more Americans to cycling than any other bike, Schwinn never really recovered from having the wrong product in the maturing and increasingly sophisticated market.

It is also unfortunate that we remember the Varsity as an inferior bike.

I think ultimately the Varsity is THE great 1960's American road bike that happened to get produced until the mid-1980s. It's not the first or only classic design that outlived the conditions it was designed for and was produced into obsolescence - the Model T and VW Beetle spring quickly to mind in this catagory. Just like those designs, the Varsity's high build volumes and durable construction mean it is now plentiful and inexpensive. The bikes are still fun to ride, interesting social artifacts and a good way for today's riders to relive "the way it was". My hope is that these bikes will begin to be appreciated for the important role they played in American cycling, and will perhaps be enjoyed once more on the streets and backroads of the country they transformed.

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Copyright 2000 by Tom Shaddox

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While no definitive book has ever been written about the Varsity, for more on the bike and its times see the books "The Schwinn Bicycle" by Pridmore and Hurd; and "No Hands" by Crown and Coleman. Also highly recommended is "The Dancing Chain" by Frank Berto.

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Related Pages on This Site:

Inside the Varsity, by Mark Muller

Chicago Schwinns by Sheldon Brown

The Fillet-Brazed Schwinns by Mark Rother

More Articles About Old Bicycles

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Stories by Tom Shaddox:

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