A cruiser bicycle, also known as a beach cruiser, is a bicycle which combines balloon tires, an upright seating posture, a single-speed drivetrain, and straightforward steel construction with expressive styling. Cruisers are popular amongst casual bicyclists and vacationers because they are very stable and easy to ride, but their heavy weight and balloon tires tend to make them rather slow. They are associated with the larger category of hybrid bicycles.
The bikes, noted for their durability and heavy weight, were the most popular bicycle in the United States from the early 1930s through the 1950s, and have enjoyed renewed popularity since the late 1990s.
Schwinn developed the cruiser at a time when U.S. bicycle sales had declined sharply due to the Great Depression; adults purchased few bicycles, which were seen as luxury products intended largely for sport or recreation. In response, Schwinn conceived a sturdier, affordable bicycle designed for the more resilient youth market—originally marketing the Schwinn B-10E Motorbike—which resembled a motorcycle but carried no motor—in 1933. Schwinn adapted features from the Henderson and Excelsior motorcycles his company had built during the 1920s, including a heavy "cantilevered" frame with two top tubes and 2.125-inch-wide (54.0 mm) "balloon" tires from Germany. The resulting bicycle could endure abuse that could damage other bicycles. Within two years, other bicycle manufacturers in the USA introduced competing balloon-tire bikes.
In 1934, Schwinn successfully re-styled the B-10E, renaming it the Aero Cycle. While the Aero Cycle featured no technical improvements over the original B-10E, its streamlined frame, faux gas tank, and battery-powered headlight came to define the cruiser 'look'. Modern cruiser bicycles retain these design elements.
Cruisers were popular throughout the 1930s and 40s and gained greater postwar success. Their combination of substantial weight (some models weighing over 50 pounds), single speed mechanicals, and wide tires made the bicycles primarily suited to flat terrain. They were popular with paperboys and bicycle couriers.
Competing firms including Roadmaster, Columbia, Shelby, Monark, and Huffy used styling features and distinctive models to attract buyers—including a Donald Duck bike with quacking horn, "cowboy" models named after Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy, and details such as fringed saddlebags, capgun holsters, springer fork suspensions, motorcycle-style horn tanks, and extensive chrome plating. The Huffy Radio Bicycle featured an AM radio built into the oversized top tube.
Decline of the cruiser
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, bicycles imported from Great Britain and Continental Europe became popular, especially lighter and more nimble sports roadster models or "English racer". These models featured three-speed gearing, taller wheels, narrower tires and lighter weight (35–40 pounds) and greater hill-climbing ability. By the late 1950s, U.S. manufacturers such as Schwinn began producing their own version of the English racer.
The cruiser also ceded market share to muscle and lowrider bikes featuring banana seats, oversized shift levers, and ape-hanger bars inspired by West coast motorcycle customizers—which in turn gave birth to the modern BMX bike, while the cruiser went into a steep sales decline.
By 1972, a new wave of lightweight derailleur-equipped bicycles led a wave of new consumer interest in recreational bicycling, resulting in the bike boom. Derailleur-equipped sport bikes or ten speeds inspired by European racing bicycles soon dominated the adult market.
While largely obsolete by the late 1960s, the cruiser remained popular for utility and recreational use at the beach, where they soon earned the title of "beach cruisers". The term "beach cruiser" started in 1976 at Recycled Cycles in Newport Beach when Larry McNeely coined the phrase and used it as their Trade Mark for the production of the modern Beach Cruiser. Secondhand cruisers found new life on America's coastlines as practical transportation for beach bums and surfers.
As inspiration for the mountain bike
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cruiser frames formed the basis of the newly developed mountain bike. Cruisers' comfort, style, and affordability (compared to mountain and racing bikes) have led to renewed popularity in recent years.
In the early Seventies, two groups of enthusiasts: the Larkspur Canyon Gang, from Larkspur (long-time speed-riders down Mount Tamalpais), and later members of Velo-Club Tamalpais from Fairfax and San Anselmo in Marin County, California began group rides in the canyons and over ridges, up and down the fireroads around Mount Tamalpais, later racing bikes downhill 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 off-road 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 souped them up to improve downhill performance. Derailleur gears were added by Russ Mahon of The Morrow Dirt Club in Cupertino at the 1974 Marin County cyclo-cross and Gary Fisher's 1975 used a tandem rear hub (from a flea market) with internal steel drum brake and threaded for a freewheel derailleur cluster 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, and prices for balloon-tired classics climbed. A bicycle collecting community has developed, with newsletters and specialty shops focused on bicycle collectors.
Cruiser bikes today
Cruisers' comfort, style, and affordability (compared to mountain and racing bikes) have led to renewed popularity in recent years In the early to mid-1990s, Schwinn produced a series of cruiser models, including the "Cruiser Deluxe" (which featured a Phantom-style tank with horn, chrome fenders, white-wall balloon tires, rear rack, a springer fork, and two-tone blue or green frames). The cruiser resurgence continued in 1995, when Schwinn reissued the Black Phantom to celebrate the company's 100th birthday. During that same time frame, similar offerings appeared from Columbia (a limited reissue of the classic 1950's 5-Star was produced in the early 1990s), 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. Nearly every major bike manufacturer now offers at least one cruiser model, if not an entire line. Some notable contemporary manufactures include Electra Bicycle Company and Felt Bicycles. 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 Sting-Ray 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 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.
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