Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #10, published in April 2011. Words and photos by Jeff Archer.
OK, raise your hand if you were born in the decade or so following 1962. Keep your hand up if you had a bike growing up. If your hand is still in the air, there is a good chance you rode a Schwinn Varsity at one time. Introduced in 1959, the model lasted through 1987, with the height of popularity being in the early to mid-1970s. If you had a couple extra dollars, you might have had the Varsity’s slightly upscale cousin, the Continental, basically a Varsity with a couple of upgrades such as alloy handlebars and quick-release wheels. OK, you can put your hands down now.
The Varsity was in the unique position to be inexpensive enough for the casual rider, or parents, to afford but well-built enough to be enjoyable. Thanks to their unique construction techniques, they were also very durable bikes. The “tubular” rims started out as actual tubes that were pressed into the rim shape, resulting in a strong, double-walled rim. From my early attempts at off-road riding on my Varsity, I can vouch for the strength of the rims. The “Schwinn Approved” components came from companies such as Huret and always erred on the side of durability as opposed to light weight. The Varsity is likely the heaviest “lightweight” bike ever produced. Much of the weight could be found in the electro-forged frame.
The frame started out as a roll of steel. Schwinn rolled their own tubes in-house and stamped their own lugs out of this sheet steel. The stamped lugs were completed by electro-forging and then joined to the tubes by the same method. Electro-forging takes the ends of the pieces and applies a high electric current, which melts the tubing. The two pieces of material are then pushed together with a hydraulic ram, sacrificing up to 3/16 inches of the material. The resulting joint has a ring of slag from this excess material, which is later removed from most of the joints. Several of the joints, such as the one under the bottom bracket shell, were left unfinished. This was a relatively quick way of making frames, which was important when Schwinn was cranking out (literally) millions of them.
The Varsity wasn’t an expensive bike when new, and it has very minimal value today, but it is still a very important bike. This was the first step that many of us took in our lifelong love of bicycles.
This bike can be seen at the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology in historic downtown Statesville, North Carolina. If you can’t visit in person, check out the collection at www.monbat.org.