May 2005 Issue
Bicycle collectors value the two-wheeled conveyances of their youth, as well as unique, historic two-wheelers.
Shelby resident Kim Heuberger likes to talk about local history. The 49-year-old retired factory worker is quick to point out that the Shelby Candy and Supply Co. invented bubble gum in 1924 and the Shelby Steel Tube Co. made the first bicycle tubing in the United States in 1890 - long before it was bought by Copperweld, his former employer.
Shelby Bicycle 'n' Bubblegum Museum, 3075 Myers Rd., Shelby, 419/347-3762. Tours by appointment only. Free, donations accepted.
Bicycle Museum of America, 7 West Monroe St. (St. Rte. 274), New Bremen, 419/629-9249. www.bicyclemuseum.com. Call for hours. Admission $3, seniors $2, students $1.
After getting this little history lesson, it is no surprise to learn that a chunk of Heuberger's five-acre property is devoted to a museum of bicycles produced by the Shelby Cycle Co., which turned out its first product in 1896 and closed its doors for good in 1954. The collection in the 3,500-square-foot-steel-structure behind his home is believed to be the largest of its kind in Ohio, perhaps in the entire country.
Among the approximately 150 bicycles on display to the public by appointment are a pair of much-desired 1939 Speedline Airflows, which Heuberger describes as "huge, honking Art Deco things with big, swooping curves on them"; a rare 26-inch Donald Duck bicycle made in 1949 with ducktail fenders, a quacking horn, and a painted cast-aluminum head of the beloved Disney character, with eyes that serve as headlights; and a half-dozen 1928 Whippet bicycles with cast-aluminum likenesses of the dogs mounted on the front fenders. Heuberger tells the story of how a Shelby sales representative went down to the local high school and offered officials a fleet of bicycles for the football team to train on if they changed their name to the Whippets. The team changed its name.
Another 450 or so bikes are stored in other buildings on the property. Approximately a hundred are waiting for the parts needed to fully restore them. The rest will be disassembled and the parts sold in the museum gift shop or at bike shows, swap meets and festivals.
"I was looking for something to get interested in," says Heuberger, who abandoned his passion for acquiring Indian relics when he picked up a '50s Shelby boy's bicycle at a Mansfield flea market approximately 15 years ago. "I thought it would be a unique piece of history to collect. Bicycles span all generations - young people like them, and old people like them. It's not a gender thing, either."
Heuberger is one of the legions of people who collect bicycles, those shiny, pedal-powered accoutrements of childhood that generations of youngsters have yearned for, whether their eyes were fixed on a storefront window, store catalog or computer screen. Even at the age of 58, Tom Hinkle, assistant curator at the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, still speaks of his first bicycle - a Schwinn Black Phantom that a college-bound neighbor kid gave him - with great affection.
"It had knee-action spring suspension on the front, a horn tank, a light built on the front fender, a carrier on the back that had a taillight in it, and this big tooled leather seat," he rhapsodizes. "I went off to college, and my parents gave it away."
Hinkle didn't make the same mistake - he saved his children's '70s bicycles and started a collection with them that now consists of 100 specimens, including a high wheel built by Chicago-based Gormully and Jeffery Manufacturing Co. in 1886. Many people, however, are like Heuberger and concentrate on collecting bicycles made by a single manufacturer or during a certain time period. For example, Mansfield residents Tom Frye, proprietor of Timeless Frames, a shop that specializes in restoring bicycles, and Jay Bookwalter, owner of Best Bike Shop, have a 160-
bicycle collection that is heavy on bikes from the '30s, '40s and '50s.
"That's when all the cool stuff was built," Frye, 46, says with pride. "They were real Gothic-looking, they were streamlined." He adds that the cycles have also appreciated handsomely on the collectors' market. "During the '30s and '40s, a lot of stuff got crushed and sold for the war effort. Some of these bikes that were $33.95 with easy payment terms back then are now $7,000, $8,000, $10,000." His most valuable are the 20-, 24- and 26-inch RollFast-brand Hopalong Cassidy models and tricycles manufactured by the D.P. Harris Hardware & Manufacturing Co. in New York City that feature two cap pistols in holsters attached to the tank, saddlebags and frays on the rear rack and a faux horsehair seat.
Those looking to collect Ohio-made bicycles will find the Buckeye state was once a hotbed of manufacturing, particularly before World War II. In addition to the now-defunct Shelby Bicycle Co., Hinkle mentions the Colson Bicycle Co. in Elyria, which made bicycles from the 1930s to the 1950s; Cleveland Welding, which built Western Flyers for Western Auto stores as well as its own Roadmasters; the Davis Sewing Machine Co. in Dayton, later known as the Huffman Bicycle Co. and the Huffy Bicycle Co.; and the Murray Manufacturing Co. in Cleveland. He says the most collectible of the aforementioned makers' models include the original '50s Roadmaster Luxury Liner - "It was the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me for its time" - and the Sears Elgin Bluebird, which Murray made for the retailer in the 1930s after a dispute between Sears and the Bluebird's former maker, the Columbia Bicycle Co. of Westfield, Connecticut.
"Everybody says that you're not a bicycle collector unless you have the Bluebird," Hinkle says. "They're hard to get, but they're out there."
Frye says other specimens collectors hope to find include the Schwinn Aerocycle, which was built by the Chicago-based manufacturer during the 1930s, and the aforementioned Shelby Airflow. He notes that women's bikes generally are not as valuable as men's bikes. "They buy them for parts," Heuberger confirms. When in doubt, Hinkle offers the following advice: "If it has a carrier, a horn tank and a headlight, buy it."
Novice bicycle collectors, of course, must do their research before heading out to bike shows, swap meets and festivals. Hinkle suggests visiting the Bicycle Museum of America, a facility owned and operated by forklift manufacturer Crown Equipment Co. that houses the bicycle and bicycle memorabilia collection of the Schwinn family. Since Crown Equipment Chairman James Dicke II bought the 270-bicycle collection at auction for approximately $1 million in 1997, more than 300 bicycles have been added. The big wheel of the collection is one of the first bicycles ever built, a patented, hobby-horse-like contraption (front-wheel pedals, Hinkle says, didn't appear until the 1860s) constructed in 1816 by Count von Drais in Germany.
Among the other treasures on display is the Schwinn family tandem, a three-seat bicycle that company founder Ignaz Schwinn built in 1896 for himself, his wife and son; a number of unicycles and "trick bicycles" that first showed up in turn-of-the-century circuses; and a number of high wheels, bicycles with a front wheel averaging 54 to 55 inches in diameter that were first built in the late 1870s.
"The bigger the front wheel was, the faster you could go," Hinkle explains. "But if you hit a hole or a curb, you could easily go over the handlebars. They called that â€˜taking a header.'" He adds that safety bikes - bikes with same-sized front and back wheels - were developed around 1880 as a result of the many serious accidents involving high wheels.
Heuberger and Frye suggest making a trip to the bookstore and picking up or ordering The Evolution of the Bicycle, Volumes 1 and 2 ($29.95, L-W Inc., Gas City, Indiana.). Frye and Hinkle also recommend seeking the advice of more experienced collectors. But Hinkle also tells novices to listen with a discerning ear, and only after they've done their own homework. The body of bicycle knowledge is vast, and exceptions abound to many rules. A 1953 Schwinn Black, Red or Green Phantom, for example, may have rolled off the assembly line without front disc brakes. But that doesn't mean they didn't come without front disc brakes - one of the company's independent dealers may have installed them. Heuberger adds that many bicycles were custom orders.
"Buying a bicycle back then was like buying a car now," he explains. When actually checking out a prospective purchase, Hinkle suggests carefully inspecting all parts the seller says are original to the bike - not only their appearance, but also the way they "fit" onto one another - to make sure he or she is telling the truth. The less scrupulous, he explains, install reproduction parts and try to pass them off as originals. According to Heuberger, original paint usually has a patina and at least a few chips in it.
"If you're starting out, try to find an antique bike or classic bike that's as original as possible - original paint, original tires, the whole nine yards," Heuberger advises. "You can restore a bike a hundred times, but it's only original once. Anything in original paint really holds its value."
Once collectors have determined whether or not a prospective purchase is the real McCoy, they face another question: whether or not to restore it after they take it home. "Some people like bicycles restored," Frye states. "Other people like them [in] original [condition]." Indeed, collectors vigorously debate the merits of restoration in all but the most dire circumstances.
The money invested in restoration, Hinkle adds, may not increase the bicycle's value. He well remembers the time he returned a rusty 1960 Sears women's bike to its former glory.
"I spent $400 in restoring it, and it's probably still only worth what I paid for it - $25," he laments. "That's when I learned right away that you can put a lot of money into some bikes that are never going to be worth what you put into them."