Design and job creation: bicycle edition

It’s Labor Day, and I want to write about something I actually know about, so here’s a bicycle. I promise this does relate to labor issues so please bear with me.

Bike in a dumpster

Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975
Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975 – click to embiggen

I found it in a dumpster with its wheels still on but otherwise as shown at right. It is a Schwinn Varsity, around 38 years old, and it was in pretty rough condition. The back wheel was dented and out-of-round from being ridden quite some distance on a flat tire. All the bearings were out of adjustment and the grease had dried up years ago. It had loose spokes but none were broken, and the tires were rotted. The derailleurs were rusted and could barely move. Someone had replaced the old steel drop-handlebars with a nice aluminum upright bar but otherwise it was all-original.


Still, it had potential so I towed it home* flat tires and all and set about putting it back in ridable condition. I cleaned all the dried-up grease out of the bearings with solvent, repacked them with fresh grease (I use boat-trailer bearing grease for its high stability and water resistance) and reassembled them. One characteristic of old Schwinn bikes is the massive bottom bracket crank bearings – even with no grease they seldom go bad. I replaced a couple pitted bearings** in the back wheel but the cones and cups were OK.

Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.
Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.

The rear wheel I bent back into shape using some bench-vise tricks and adjusted all the spokes. I removed the ancient Alvit derailleurs (more on those in a minute) and shortened the chain*** so the bike could be a 1-speed instead of a 10-speed. Scrounging my spare-parts buckets freely and adding a couple tires from Amazon I made it into a ridable bike again.

Bike industry

When this bike was made, the US bike industry was in rapid decline. And no wonder: lightweight, lively bikes were being imported from England, France, Italy, and Japan. Their frames were a super-strong (and therefore light and responsive) chrome-molybdenum steel alloy built with a complex technique of brazed lugs at the joints. For the most part they had Shimano, Suntour or Compagnolo gears and aluminum wheels and they were simply a joy to ride. US consumers had discovered that adults could enjoy bicycling.

This bike, on the other hand, was poorly designed. The frame was made of weak steel alloy, welded at the joints, which meant it had to be heavy and was unresponsive. The forks were made of a solid (!) piece of forged tempered steel, as was the crankset. Schwinn had never attempted to make a multi-speed gear system but their 3-speed bikes at least had a British Sturmey-archer hub. This model was accursed with a particularly heavy and primitive derailler system made for Schwinn by Alvit and stamped “Schwinn Approved”. The wheels were double-walled steel. The seat tube and even the gooseneck were steel. The gear shifters were attached to the gooseneck and forged out of spectacularly heavy… (you guessed it) steel. The thick vinyl seat was “Schwinn-approved” and labeled “Comfort Form” which should have been called “Ultimate Wedgie”.

Once properly adjusted (a considerable challenge where the Alvit deuraillers were concerned) it was ridable on level ground but hardly suitable for hills. Or corners, for the frame geometry needed improvement too. This was not something Schwinn’s factory workers could fix.

Workers and their limitation

The workers in the US factory where this bike was made did a superb job of realizing Schwinn’s design. You could not find better welds this side of aerospace. The paint was flawless and in this example has endured for almost 40 years. The bearings were precisely made in a US factory. The chrome plating was perfect. But despite the obvious pride the workers took in their product they could not build a better bike than Schwinn designed.

It wasn’t that Schwinn didn’t know a good bike when they saw one; the Schwinn Paramount line was equal to the finest of European bicycles (but other than the frame, used only European and Japanese components). But they applied exactly none of that knowledge to their consumer bikes. Schwinn executives couldn’t be arsed to give their excellent workers a better-designed bike to build. With the predictable result that eventually Schwinn closed the factory, and started sticking their name on Panasonic and Fuji bikes built in Japan. And those bikes weren’t bad at all, until Panasonic and Fuji realized they didn’t need Schwinn to sell their bikes in the US.

Other industries

This story coincides, coincidentally, with a similar decline of the US auto industry. And while there have been strides neither has fully recovered. (Before anyone says “Trek!” look at the stickers on some mid-range Trek frames. Only the expensive top-end ones are made in the US. The vast majority are made in Taiwan or China.)

Workers cannot build a better product than their companies design. Apple Computer advertises that their products are “Designed in California” – with the implication that it doesn’t matter where a thing is made if the design is good. And there’s some truth to that, as some Apple products are now beginning to be made in the US again. Car companies Honda, Toyota and others have had factories in the US for years, with the result that the “most American-made car” is actually the Toyota Camry. Start with a good design and a good worker can build a good product. Start with a lazy design and the best worker in the world can’t do much to improve it.

Design is a labor issue in the most fundamental way possible. In that, bad design results in closed factories. It is not the only cause of closed factories, but it’s definitely a cause.


  • Yes this story is a simplification – much has been written about the history of the Schwinn company, let alone bicycle design generally. I am focusing here on the fact that consumer products are built by workers, and what bad design means for that fact. I’ve linked the story on G+ if you feel like discussing or have corrections to offer.
  • * Towing one bicycle while riding another is one of those few activities that are actually easier than they look. Grasp the bicycle being towed by the gooseneck with one hand, and away you go.
  • ** Most of my spare parts are salvaged out of old bikes. It’s handy to have a micrometer around to be sure the bearing is the same size as the ones you’re replacing.
  • *** It rides fine, though I still need to add a chain tensioner. With the changes I’ve made it will be a reliable bike.

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Older technology guy with photography and history background