“Be home for dinner.”
If you remember hearing your parents shouting this just before you flew out the door as a kid, there’s a fair chance that you’ll likely also remember what gave you the freedom to escape – your bike.
Sometimes with a box of stuff strapped on your book rack (for me, jars for bug collecting, BB gun, Snickers, a bottle of Nesbitt’s orange soda), you raced to meet your friends. Where you’d end up, no one really knew. You just rode – sometimes without hands, sometimes standing, always yelling, laughing, talking.
Freedom. Bike. Two of the same.
Although bikes have been around for a long time, there was a special time when they showed a couple generations the meaning of independence forged with an indestructible iron frame painted blue, red, green, or black with white pinstriping on the tubes, the front wheel fork, and fenders. Schwinn.
The only safety feature was a single, red reflector on the rear fender. And no helmet.
You didn’t come home early unless you’d taken a spill on the asphalt.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Fighting the Four Horsemen of Nature Suppression, and still having room to enjoy life and the beauty around me, has been a major challenge over the past 17 years. Daily email reminders, “Have you seen this!?,” of yet another destructive habitat clearance project by Cal Fire or the US Forest Service were slowly consuming my heart. After multiple attempts to deal with the abyss, I finally learned how to protect myself through my 7th Rehab experience.
One of the most effective therapies during rehab was, and remains, discovering a task that involves creating something with my hands, something that allows me to set an achievable goal, something that allows my mind to create new neural pathways to replace the well worn ones that descended straight into the abyss.
The task didn’t take long to reveal itself – the 1961 Schwinn Speedster bicycle my parents had given me when I was a kid.
I’d stopped riding the bike in high school when I left it for a more fashionable Schwinn Continental 10-speed. My brother sold it to me for $100. My dad made me go to the bank and withdraw $100 in $1 bills to pay for it. He said it would teach me the value of money. I just thought it was weird.
Being fashionable, the Continental was eventually abandoned to the tool shed at my parent’s house after I bought my first car. I’m not sure what happened to it. I think it was sold at the garage sale after my mom died. But the Speedster, I’d rescued it from the tool shed at some point long before, taking it with me during each move I’d made over the years. It finally found itself in the rafters of the tool shed that I’d built at my own home. There it lay, for several decades, slowly rusting. Apparently the rust had been helped along by leaky bottles of pool acid and ammonia on a shelf in the shed.
The chain was frozen solid. Most of the original blue paint had been replaced by rust. The front fork still looked good, but that’s mostly because it wasn’t original. I had replaced it at some point with a newer one after slamming into too many walls and curbs. The surfboard dart decal on it didn’t match the rest.
The pedals were also newer versions as they had reflectors. The safety police attained control of the bike industry in the late 1960s and mandated reflectors everywhere. What should have been metal bearings in the pedal were replaced by cheap, plastic retainers, which had long since deteriorated.
I’d replaced the original handle bars with “ape hangers.” They accommodated my own growing frame. The seat and seat post were gone as was the Schwinn head badge. Not sure what happened to the seat. I vaguely remember removing the head badge to make the bike look cool.
First order of business was to go where one goes these days to figure out how to fix things – YouTube. In short order I discovered bikemanforyou. I love this guy. He ran a bike shop in Long Island for years. His dad and son provided fun diversions. He closed up shop in 2018, made a huge life change, and opened up The Happy Oyster Company – a huge chunk of his life is on display, part of history.
My therapy began with the chain.
After a long bath in Evaporust (a wonderful, relatively safe rust remover), then a refreshing spray of WD-40, I applied gentle but determined action with two vise grip pliers to each link to free it from decades-long freeze with its adjoining partner – back and forth until the connection moved smoothly.
A friend told me I was crazy. I should just buy a new chain. In fact, that was the general advice I was getting from lots of people. But chains today don’t come close to the quality of Schwinn chains back in the ’60s. I kept working with the original.
The clock lied when it said I’d spent three hours with my chain that morning. I’m absolutely sure it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes.
Then came removing the rust from the chrome. I received all sorts of advice on this as well, but for small spots, I found the best thing to do is a wet aluminum foil rub. Take a sheet of aluminum foil, fold it up a few times, wet it, and rub it back and forth over the rusty chrome. There’s some chemical interaction going on that removes the rust. I looked it up. Basically, the oxygen in the rust is more attracted to the aluminum than the chrome, so off it goes with each loving rub.
Alternatively, if you just want to take a nap and use a more passive rust removal technique, you can soak your smaller rusted parts in a tray filled with Evaporust. The stuff is marvelous.
Removing rust from the frame and the fenders required a bit more ingenuity. Evaporust is bit too expensive for a big bath. Instead, I bought a 10 pound bag of oxalic acid. It comes in a sugar-like powder. After a long, frustrating search to discover how much of the stuff to use, I came upon a reliable source and determined 3 tablespoons of acid per gallon of water is about right.
I bought a large oil drip tray to put the acid mix in. If I’d been smarter, a plastic kiddie pool would have been cheaper. Overnight the rust combines with the acid and forms a pretty green precipitate.
The acid bath also made the paint a bit more fragile, so I had to be careful when washing off the remaining rust. The fenders were especially rust-damaged, so elbow grease applied with a Scotch-Brite pad was needed. As a result, most of the original blue was lost, revealing red primer underneath.
Losing the blue set me back a bit. Then one of the old masters on the Schwinn bike forum said he kind of dug the two-tone red and blue. A good friend said the same. I readjusted my attitude, realizing I was in control of how I felt and could be happy about the outcome if I chose. Turns out, that realization was part of the therapy too. Marcus confirmed this, something I’ll discuss in my next post.
There’s a whole community out there of Schwinn aficionados happy to give quality advice. A lot of them are grumpy old guys who know more about old Schwinns than you could ever imagine. A few wild women too.
On to the beautifully engineered coaster brake all contained within the rear wheel hub. If you do anything like this, keep a record of how stuff comes off. Putting things back in the proper order is kind of important.
The coaster brake is a marvel of craftsmanship. Crammed inside the hollow wheel hub is a beautiful assemblage of gears, brass brake pads, bearings – all sorts of wonder. Once they are all polished up, they qualify for the Getty Museum of Art.
I used some 800 grit sandpaper to shine up the brass brake pads and coated them with high-temp grease. I used regular grease to repack the bearings. Then I put the whole shebang back together. As I’m into ceremony, it was important to have a best friend present for the re-installation. Fortunately, Tom was with me. He’d brought his own bike over for some chrome restoration after hearing about my adventure. The bonding experience was secured with a bike-grease handshake.
In case you didn’t know, the coaster brake engages when you back-pedal either slowly, or really fast if you want to lay some rubber on the road. If you’ve ever done that, you know how it feels. You want to do it again now, don’t you?
The action part of the bike, and the part of the bike that makes the ride especially smooth, is the pedals. It took me awhile to find replacements for the cheap knock-offs that I had. I finally picked up a beautiful pair for $50, with metal bearings and the Schwinn logo on the outer hub. There’s a whole bunch of different kinds of Schwinn pedals, so I had to be careful to find the ones I wanted. Earlier Schwinn pedals had pads that weren’t properly secured, causing them to eventually loosen up and spin – not a good thing. The problem was resolved by crimping the metal edge pieces over the pad ends.
Truing the wobbly rims required new spokes.
After trying to find the right sized, original spokes to replace the few that had busted, I was lucky enough to connect with Tim. He ask me a bunch of questions via email about how I was measuring the length of the spokes I had. I thought we’d figured it out, so I placed my order. Then he called me a few days later.
We talked for about an hour. Tim wanted to make sure I was getting what I really wanted. He first asked how obsessed I was about original equipment. He had the original Schwinn spokes but said he didn’t think they were worth the price. He’d sell them to me, but thought the whole idea was really kinda dumb. The standard bunch of 36 would run me close to $200. He said he didn’t understand why anyone would spend that kind of money when just-as-good newer ones cost around $30. He said it would be hard for even Schwinn experts to notice the difference unless they got up really close. I went for the $30 ones. They work perfectly.
Tim told me lots of stories about bikes, Schwinns, the freedom a bike gives. His knowledge of Schwinns, and bicycling, is encyclopedic. After being absorbed by bikes as a kid, Tim spent more than 20 years as a competitive racing cyclist, won a few state championships in Michigan, and spent the winter of 1980 with the United States Olympic long road cycling team. He came to know many of the legendary people from the bicycle world like Roger Durham (Bullseye) and Harlan Meyer (Hi-E Engineering). He was also lucky enough to acquire all the excess Schwinn parts, stored in dozens of large trucking containers, when the company went bankrupt.
“I’ve been in this business for more than 50 years,” Tim said at the end of our call. “People always ask me what the best bike is. You know know what I tell them? I tell them, the best bike is one that’s ridden.”
In a follow up email, Tim shared with me he had just finished the day with a twenty mile ride on his bike, “at a rather brisk pace, in weather that most cyclists would likely stay inside.”
After spending a couple days removing rim dings, replacing broken spokes, truing the rim by turning spokes one half turn at a time, and finding tires that would fit the unique Schwinn S-7 rims (only tires labelled 26 x 1 3/4 will fit, not 26 x 1.75), I was ready for the final touches.
I added a replacement Nos Gulotta #375 reflector for the rear fender, new head badge, and replaced the rare Schwinn Quality seat tube decal used only in the early 1960s. I removed those off-putting surfboard darts on the front fork with original darts. I was also lucky enough to find an original two-toned seat in such perfect shape it must have been on a bike that was stored safely away in a dark, cool place for a very long time.
The evening I finally put everything together, I grabbed a beer and sat down in the old wooden office chair in the garage, rolled left and right, and stared.
Her blue-red skin definitely showed her age, but also her smiles, bruises, and history – lots of history. I wouldn’t think of giving her a facelift (paint job). To protect the ancient patina and any exposed bare metal, I gave her a custom skin conditioning treatment – delicately rubbed on with a terry cloth rag dipped in a custom formula (3/4 cup of odorless mineral spirits poured into a 32 ounce container with the rest filled with boiled linseed oil). I’ll repeat the skin treatment every 9 months or so.
I spun the pedals and listened to the tiny, free bearings roll and spin as they hadn’t for more than 50 years. I placed my hand on the blue and white Mesinger seat and ran my finger across the alligator skin texture. I decided the inaugural ride would be the next day.
I discovered she rides like silk. And as Tim would say, she is indeed, the best bike.
Next: Marcus Aurelius
What a great story, and with great photos too. After reading it all I feel even more honored that I was allowed to ride this treasure briefly in your yard. 😊
Having you ride it sealed the whole wonderful effort 🙂
Thank you for a smooth ride of long ago with my bike wearing the same adventure badge. You have many gifts to share and your writing with a knack for the details warms my heart.
Wow Rick, this is an impressive restoration. Just the right amount of rust removal- the original Schwinn soul is still shining through.
Your story brought so many childhood memories to mind and key among them was the fact that my beautiful metallic two-tone teal green Schwinn led me to a philosophical crisis when I noticed the large bike box out by the trash cans after Christmas. I recovered and remain a non-believer, but I did get to roam the streets and dusty hills of Southern California on that bike with all the freedom that any kid could want.
Looking forward to your next project.
Liz, that box moment, yes, I’ve had a number of those. So many lesson in unexpected places.
You go Rick! What a great project, and great story. That loving restoration project must have been very good for your bicycle soul. The aluminum foil trick is a good one I never knew.
The beloved bike of my youth was a red Sears Spyder bike. It was Sears’ answer to the Schwinn Stingray: single speed, coaster brake, with banana seat and high rise handlebars, 20″ wheels. But no sissybar, because we were not sissies! We’d slam on the coaster brakes to impress each other by competing to make the biggest skid marks. Sometimes we attached playing cards to the rear wheel forks with clothes pins to strum against the spokes and make our bikes sound like motorcycles. As Beverly Cleary noted in her book “Runaway Ralph”, there was something magical about the sound of a motorcycle. The cards physically slowed the bike a little, but the sound inspired us to pedal harder and ride faster! We made ramps for progressively bigger and higher jumps until we blew out wheels on the landings. We laid our friends and siblings out under the bike ramps – 5 or 6 or ’em lying side by side – to jump over like Evel Knievel. We spend endless hours digging up empty lots in our neighborhood to manufacture dirt track banked turns, whoop-di-doos, and other adventuresome bike terrain.
As is traditional, my dad gave me a push and I rode straightaway into the telephone pole in front of my house while learning to ride. One Christmas he helped me install a speedometer so I could see how fast I was going – best bike accessory ever. Years later I rode into another telephone pole in a nearby alley while trying my damnedest to set a new speed record (I hit 20mph – fastest I ever got with my one speed). It’s not clear to me how I walked away from a 20mph collision with a telephone pole with no protective equipment of any kind- I must have managed to brake some before impact. But we were immortal and made of rubber in those days.
Freedom indeed. But only until dark. My mom impressed upon me seriously in those days – not only was it unsafe but it was actually illegal(!) to ride a bike after dark without a light. For years I imagined being apprehended by the police some evening if I were to push my luck a little past dusk. Never happened. I guess I needn’t have worried.
After happy years of riding I finally traded it in (along with every penny of my allowance I could save over about three years) to get a new Sears Free Spirit 10-speed derailleur bike with 24″ tires. That was a glorious ride of a different kind for a bigger kid.
I could not ride that Spyder bike bike today – too small! I’m glad your bike is still rideable by the lanky likes of you. Ride with pride! But be home by dark. 🙂
“The best bike is the one that’s ridden.” Words to live by. Thanks for stirring up the old memories.
Thank you Robert for this. The telephone pole – my gawd, how we had no fear of death. What a wonderful time to grow up!
I think the surfboard pinstriping was cool. But I know we can’t all be surfers. Terrific work in any case! 🙂
Agreed. It was cool. But alas, it was an internal battle between restoration to days past and days not so past 🙂