Shortly after he returned from Vietnam in 1968, Leon Dixon wandered into the garage of his Detroit home and discovered the stubby, black and red J.C. Higgens balloon-tire bicycle he had ridden as a kid. Although it had two flat tires, was coated with rust and missing at least half a dozen parts, all Dixon saw was its former beauty. On the spot, he determined to restore it to perfect condition. Today, the 31-year-old Dixon has 13 fully restored balloon-tire bicycles and parts for about 30 more spilling out of his house in Huntington Beach, Calif.
A few years ago, Gary Wm. Koehler was walking across the campus of Sonoma State College north of San Francisco when he spotted a spray-painted, 1938 Colson balloon-tire bike parked in a rack. "I was fascinated by its lines," he recalls. "Its big, bulbous look matched the designs of old cars like Packards and Hudsons. I bought it for $50 and restored it." Today, the 25-year-old Koehler has a collection of restored bikes worth an estimated $7,500.
Dixon and Koehler are typical of a growing number of cyclists who are trying to unsully the reputation of the oft-maligned 50-pound behemoth, which ruled the road until its underfed European cousin crowded it out of the market. The one-speed balloon-tire bike—bloated whitewall tires, pedal brakes, steerhorn handlebars, wide seats, rear carrier racks, pin-striping and plenty of chrome—was introduced by Schwinn in 1933 to stimulate the depressed bike industry. Other manufacturers quickly followed suit. The fat look flourished through the '50s, but began to flag in the face of competition from faster, lighter imports. By 1963 so few balloon-tire bikes were sold that even Schwinn had given up on them.
However, they are now making a comeback in the beach towns south of Los Angeles. Larry Mc Neely, owner of Recycled Cycles in Huntington Beach, sells 20 or 30 old balloon-tire bikes a month, and Gertrude Vorgang of the Pedal Pusher in Newport Beach does a booming business in parts. "I got tired of the sand from the beach freezing the gears on my 10-speed and the salt rusting them out," Mc Neely says. "The balloon-tire bike is so basic, hardly anything can go wrong on it. If you hit a curb on a 10-speed, it gets wiped out. A balloon-tire bike keeps on going. It's like a tank." Indeed, interest in balloon-tire bikes is growing so quickly that Dixon recently started a newsletter, Classic Bicycle and Whizzer News (the Whizzer Company made motors for balloon-tire bikes through 1952). He already has subscribers from as far away as New York, Sweden and Venezuela.
Generally marketed for children, balloon-tire bikes were designed to suggest fun and escape instead of serious exercise. They had features that were borrowed from motorcycles (many had horns shaped like motorcycle gas tanks) and cars (one expert claims the Schwinn Black Phantom headlight is identical to the parking light on a '39 Dodge). Girls' bikes had romantic names like the Debutante, the Starlette and the Hollywood, and were painted in "luscious lavender," "windswept green" and "summer cloud white." Shelby even made a Donald Duck bike with Donald's head mounted on the front. Donald's eyes were the headlights, and the horn quacked. Roll-fast marketed a Hopalong Cassidy model with two "Hoppy" pistols, while Mon-ark's Gene Autry entry had a horse's head on the front fork.
Despite the whimsy associated with balloon-tire bikes, restoring them is serious business. A fully restored 1951 Schwinn Black Phantom, the Rolls-Royce of balloon-tire bikes with its chrome fenders, speedometer, built-in keylock, front spring shock absorber and weight of almost 60 pounds, goes for nearly $1,200. It originally cost under $100. Other models in mint condition regularly change hands for $500 arid $600. The reasons are simple: restoration is time-consuming and parts are scarce. In order to convert their bikes into fast, lightweight hot rods, kids discarded the heavy chrome fenders, cumbersome horn tanks and chain guards. Because a restored bike's value depends on authenticity, collectors have become the ultimate scroungers. Dixon, for instance, searched three years before coming up with the right chrome bumperettes for the seat of his Black Phantom. Koehler scoured the country to find an original Schwinn key for the lock on his Phantom. But Mc Neely really hit the jackpot. Last August he got an inside tip that a bike retailer just eight blocks from the Schwinn plant in Chicago had died leaving a collection of bikes and parts dating from 1920. "It was like an elephants' graveyard," Mc Neely says. "There were 20 brand-new bikes from the '30s. There were unused front fenders for Autocycles , crates of pedals, frames, handlebars, enough for hundreds of bikes. I hired a 40-foot moving van, filled it till it almost burst, and drove all the stuff back to California."
With parts so hard to come by, extras command impressive prices, if in good shape. A 1934 Schwinn horn-and-tank unit sells for $70. Some original Schwinn seats are worth upward of $100. Vorgang has a glass fender ornament from a 1938 Schwinn Autocycle that is so rare she refuses to price it. Recently Dixon was so elated to come upon the faded burgundy rear rack and matching fender of a 1948 Roadmaster Deluxe that he was moved to say, "It's too much to dream that I would find it. Now I just need the fork."
The increased interest in balloon-tire bikes has not been lost on bicycle manufacturers. Since 1975, LRV Industries of South El Monte, Calif. has been marketing a throwback known as the Regular Old Bike and expects to sell 10,000 in 1979. The ROB, which sells for $125, is a stripped down "cruiser" (no fenders, horn tank or rear rack) based on a '30s model. Even Schwinn is getting into the act. Two years ago it introduced an updated version of its discontinued Spitfire, which sells for $134.95 in a one-speed, pedal-brake model. Schwinn expects to sell 25,000 in 1979.
There is little danger that balloon-tire bikes will replace 10-speeds. But according to Mc Neely, "They will find a niche as a five-mile-radius bike on flat terrain for riders who prefer comfort to speed." With its large, low-pressure tires, which act as shock absorbers, and its more substantial frame, the balloon-tire bike is to a 10-speed what an old Chevy is to a Lotus Esprit. Cyclists disenchanted with balancing on a 10-speed's narrow racing saddle while hunched over the handlebars will appreciate the balloon-tire bike's wide seat and upright riding position. As one recent convert explained, "If I wanted to stare at concrete, I could stay home and look at the driveway."