• BIKES: Science on Two Wheels - Classic Bicycles
  • BIKES: Science on Two Wheels - Classic Bicycles
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BIKES: Science on Two Wheels

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Classic Bicycles

With the bicycle’s design and popularity solidified in the late 1800s, it was clear that the machine had staying power. After the turn of the century, Europeans continued to use the bicycle for competition and touring, but American adults shunned it in favor of the automobile. American bicycle manufacturers noticed this trend and shifted gears, producing the classic children’s bicycles of the early 20th Century.

These classic bikes show many variations in style, and many models were designed to resemble cars, motorcycles, and rockets. After World War II, the popularity of the television inspired designs celebrating Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, The Beatles, and even Donald Duck.

Although popular, these classic bikes were often heavy and difficult to ride – some weighed over 50 pounds! Most had only a single gear, which made climbing hills a true challenge. Bicycle frames got leaner in the 1960s and 1970s, and some added derailleur gear designs borrowed from European road bikes. These developments paved the way for modern mountain bikes and hybrid bikes.

B.F. Goodrich Streamline – 1930s
In the mid-1900’s, companies like Goodyear and Firestone sold bicycles and bicycle tires, but the bicycles they sold were made by other companies. This model was produced by Schwinn for B.F. Goodrich.

Shelby Airflo – 1938
Adult bicycle sales declined during the Great Depression because they were seen as a luxury item, so bicycles were increasingly built to appeal to children. Bicycles from this time period feature Art Deco styling, which was popular in automobiles and skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building.

Dayton Champion – 1940
This is a typical example of the then-new ‘cruiser’ bicycles available beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Bikes like this used balloon tires similar to today’s mountain bike tires. These were wider and had lower pressure than the European touring bicycles of the day, giving more contact with the ground for better traction. The trade-off is that traction = friction, which either reduces speed or requires greater energy to overcome it.

Black Phantom – 1950s
One of Schwinn’s famous “heavyweight” bikes, the Black Phantom weighs over 50 pounds. The heavy weight and single gear made them difficult to ride up hills, but Black Phantom’s looks ensured its popularity.

J.C. Higgins De Luxe – 1950s
J.C. Higgins was a popular line of bicycles sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. This model was designed with comfort in mind, using large springs connected to the front hub and under the seat as shock absorbers; when the rider hit a bump in the road the force compressed the spring rather than shaking the rider.

Huffy Radiobike – 1955
This Huffy features a radio built in to the fake gas tank. The batteries were housed in the back and the antenna ran along the bar between the handlebars and pedals. The radio itself used standard vacuum-tube technology, rather than the new-fangled transistor radios that were just being introduced. Transistor radios of the day sold for about $40 – almost the cost of this entire bike! – so it is easy to see why Huffy decided to use the older technology, but in a new way.

Schwinn Classics
Boy’s Manta-Ray – 1970s
Schwinn Fair Lady – 1960s
The Stingray was the definitive children’s bicycle of its time; these two bicycles are variations in this classic line. The banana seat and high-rise handlebars were inspired by customizations that were common in southern California, and which were based on the ‘counter-culture’ motorcycle ‘chopper styles of the era. The girl’s version of the Schwinn Stingray featured a lower, contoured frame but retained the Stingray’s banana seat and high-rise handlebars.

Schwinn Cycle Truck – 1960s
The Cycle Truck was designed as a working bicycle for paperboys and store deliveries. The built-in stand on the front wheel helped with loading and the basket could hold up to 150 pounds. The rider sat toward the rear of the bike and acted as a counterbalance while pedaling with a full load.

Big Wheel™ - 1970s
The famous Big Wheel tricycle of the 1970’s shares traits of the penny-farthing bicycles of the 1800’s, most notably pedals directly attached to the large front wheel, but the low center of gravity makes them far safer.

Honda Kick N Go – 1976
Scooters employ the simplest Newtonian ‘action/reaction’ physics to operate – stand on the platform, push with one foot, and enjoy the ride! The Kick N Go used a lever connected to the rear wheel by a chain, allowing riders to move the scooter by kicking the lever. The Kick N Go’s worked too well – its high speeds were deemed unsafe for children and they were recalled.

Schwinn Orange Krate –1970s
Bike design was often taken from other design trends, like the bikes in the 30s that reflected architecture or airplane design. The Krate was designed to resemble the popular muscle cars and motorcycles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It featured a five-speed stick shift mounted to the frame (which was outlawed in 1974 for safety concerns) and a small front wheel, making the Krate look like a dragster.

Huffy Bandit – 1978
Keeping with the tradition of styling bicycles to resemble motor vehicles, the Bandit was inspired by the Pontiac Trans Am driven in the movie Smokey and the Bandit.

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