Cruiser bicycles are balloon-tired bikes with heavy duty frames and were America’s standard bike from the early 1930s right through the 1950s. Their wide tires and simple mechanicals (usually single speed with coaster brake) are ideally suited to riding on flat sandy beaches, which means that they remained popular through the 1960s and 1970s as “Beach Cruisers.” In the late 70s/early 80s, durable old cruiser frames formed the basis of the newly-developing mountain bike. Cruisers’ comfort, style, and affordability (compared to mountain and racing bikes) have led to renewed popularity in recent years.
The original cruiser bicycle was the B-10E Motorbike (which, despite its name, had no motor at all—but did look like a motorcycle), introduced by Schwinn
in 1933. The bicycle business was in a terrible slump, due to the Depression, widespread price discounting, and the generally delicate, cheap construction of bikes at the time. Frank W. Schwinn wanted to build a sturdier bike and adapted several features from the Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles his company had built during the 1920s. He gave his new bike design a heavy “cantilevered” frame with two top tubes and added 2.125 inch wide “balloon” tires from Germany. The resulting bicycle was tough enough for kids to ride anywhere, banging over curbs, bumps, and potholes without suffering the flat tires and taco wheels of earlier bike designs. Within two years, every major bike manufacturer in the USA had brought out their own balloon tire bikes.
In 1934, Schwinn upped the ante by introducing the Aero Cycle. This bike didn’t feature any technical improvements over the original cruiser design, but it had much more style and appeal to young riders. Its streamlined look, decorative “tank,” and battery-powered headlight would help define the cruiser look. Cruisers still offer these features today.
Although cruisers were popular throughout the 1930s and 40s, their greatest success definitely came during the postwar Baby Boom. Schwinn sold one out of four bikes bought in 1950.
Schwinn, however, had plenty of competition from firms like Roadmaster, Columbia, Shelby, Monark, and Huffy. Manufacturers vied to come up with new gimmicks and styling features to attract buyers to their balloon tired cruisers. Young riders were wooed with a Donald Duck bike that had a quacking horn or “cowboy” bikes featuring the names of Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy, along with fringed saddlebags and capgun holsters. Slightly older riders were tempted by springer fork suspension, motorcycle-style horn tanks, chrome plating everywhere, and such exotic offerings as the Huffy Radiobike, which featured a giant AM radio in its tank.
During the 1960s, consumer interest shifted to "lightweight" ten speeds and "muscle bikes" featuring banana seats. The muscle bikes eventually gave birth to the modern BMX bike. Cruisers went into a downphase as transportation for broke beach bums and cheap buys at garage sales and flea markets. .
During the mid Seventies, a group of enthusiasts in Marin county, California began racing bikes down the fireroads of local Mount Tamalpais, in a race they called “Repack” because the ride was so grueling that riders had to repack their coaster brakes with grease after each run. The offroad terrain was rocky and the steep mountainside helped riders attain high speeds as they bounced and slammed over rocks and mud. Such harsh treatment caused regular road bikes to crumble, so the racers searched for a more durable and affordable alternative. They soon discovered that old balloon-tired “clunkers” (as they called them) could be had for $5.00 at a garage sale and would endure tremendous punishment. Soon, riders were snapping up these old cruisers, stripping off the heavy fenders and trim, and souping them up with motorcycle brakes and other gadgets to improve downhill performance. One rider, Gary Fisher
, added gears to his old Schwinn Excelsior bike, enabling him to ride up the mountain, as well as down . About the same time, another rider named Joe Breeze
began tinkering with his own Schwinn Excelsior, making it more suited to the “Repack” course. Soon, both of them began to build and sell custom mountain bikes to fellow enthusiasts, launching a worldwide cycling phenomenon.
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the emergence of interest in collecting old bicycles. Over the course of a few years, prices for old balloon tired classics climbed from the $5.00 garage sale find to thousands for a mint prewar original at collector’s swap meets. Over time, a large bicycle collecting community has developed, with newsletters and specialty shops catering to folks who want to restore a Schwinn Black Phantom to its original glory.
Another important 1980s step for cruiser awareness was the release of the film Pee-wee's Big Adventure. This highly popular film concerns Pee Wee Herman’s cross-country adventure to rescue his beloved cruiser bike. Many non-riders still refer to cruisers as “Pee Wee Herman bikes.”
In the mid-1990s, a series of reproductions of classic cruiser bikes hit the market. Schwinn started it off in 1995, when it reissued the Black Phantom to celebrate the company’s 100th birthday. Soon, similar offerings appeared from Columbia and Roadmaster. Harley-Davidson even licensed a cruiser bike with their logo and trademark styling.These helped stir up interest in cruisers, which brought them to the attention of aging Baby Boomers, who remembered the originals from their youth and now were reaching an age where a comfortable bike was more exciting than a fast bike, and who also had the money to buy whatever they wanted. The classic “retro” looks, reliable mechanical performance, comfortable ride, and relatively low price of cruisers (compared to mountain bikes or road racers) also appealed to young Gen Xers. Soon, new manufacturers appeared, specializing in cruisers, such as Electra Bicycle Company
, Nirve, Kustom Kruiser, and Aero-Fast. Nearly every major bike manufacturer now offers at least one cruiser model, if not an entire line. Cruiser sales have continued to rise over the past decade and today many towns have clubs sponsoring regular cruiser rides as a way to promote the low-tech, high fun aspect of cycling
Three other contemporary bike trends are related to cruisers. For decades, Latino car enthusiasts have been lowering the suspension on older American cars to build “lowriders.” Their younger siblings have begun building their own custom “lowrider bikes.” Lowrider bicycles are usually built on old Schwinn Stingray or other “muscle bike” frames, but the entire lowrider look of “old school” accessories such as springer forks and bullet headlights is in the cruiser tradition. Lowrider bike magazines and catalogs also feature cruisers and are a great source of accessories for cruiser owners. A similar trend is the sudden appearance of “chopper” bicycles over the past couple of years, in response to the surge of interest in custom motorcycles. Several manufacturers, such as Schwinn and Electra, offer “chopper” style bikes in their cruiser range. These bikes usually feature a lower center of gravity, suspension forks, hot rod paint jobs, and large rear tires. Finally, manufacturers have also introduced the “comfort bike” category, to combine the soft ride and upright posture of cruisers with a more conventionally styled bike. Comfort bikes have such features as fenders, suspension seatposts and forks, and large padded saddles with giant springs. All of these features are copied from cruisers, but redesigned to look more like regular road or hybrid bikes.