Sunday, March 20, 2011

Carry your kid on your old Schwinn, etc.

A 39 year old piece of Chicago bike history...

...reimagined as a child carrier

Are you a cute Schwinn girl who just had a baby? Why not adapt your bike to carry Junior when s/he gets big enough? Here's some info about Schwinn itself, then tips at the bottom for adjusting any old bike to carry your kid. Or kids. And stuff.

Schwinn made durable steel frame bikes for decades and probably had a lot to do with the
re-popularizing of bicycles in the Second Bike Boom of the 1970s. The First Boom was back in about 1890, I think, before cars came along. They were built on the corner of Cortland and Kostner on Chicago's west side until the 80's - look at Sheldon Brown's info for more. One of my friends remembers having to go there on a field trip as a little kid, walking right through the deafeningly loud factory as sparks rained down on the class. There was no special walkway for visitors, I guess. They went out of business in Chicago eventually and sold rebadged Giant and Panasonic bikes for awhile before the name went to a giant conglomerate that sells overweight mass market bikes in Target under the old Schwinn name. 

Schwinn was the maker of the best
unicycles ever, including the 6 foot Giraffe.

For this post, I'm referring to the Chicago made Schwinns that you can find all over the US in basements, flea markets, and classified ads. Look for a step through "girls bike" frame because it's easier to manage when it's loaded. They are easy to find in Chicago, they are really chic right now so maybe you already have one, and they can easily adapt to carrying your child and groceries! What are you waiting for?

Schwinn bikes were mostly pretty heavy by today's standards, but the frames and the rims are indestructible. A new bike might be lighter, but if you plan to carry the weight of kids and cargo it's good to have something as over-engineered as these. Steel frames like these don't get brittle like lighter metals, and most parts can still be upgraded or replaced. Buy a gossamer titanium plastic carbon fiber bike with secret electro-drive if you want to be cool and ride races, but for transportation, you could do a lot worse than an old Schwinn. Other similar seeming US made bikes like Huffy, Murray, and Sears Free Spirit were and are lower quality, though I guess you could use them to carry kids too if you already have one that you like.

There's a Schwinn serial number database or another one to find out the age of your old Schwinn. (Quick! Go write down all your bikes' serial numbers right now and take a picture of each one!) Mine is a 1972 model 872 Super Sport in Kool Lemon, all original but with new red fixie tires for that "27 inch tires are hard to find" look. I put some generator lights, Schwinn platform pedals and an old Blackburn rack on it. Here's the link to the 1972 catalog and here's the dated advertising copy about this one:


The girls demanded it, so Schwinn engineering designed it. A fully equipped sports bike for the girl who really wants to ride a top quality bike. Featuring the extra light chrome moly alloy steel frame. Wide range 10-speed derailleur gears with 5-cog cluster. Drop style handlebars, hooded caliper brake levers, rattrap pedals, toe clips and straps, and racing style saddle. Twin-Stik gearshift controls, quick release hub, center pull handbrakes. Schwinn 27” X 1 1/4” high performance sports touring tires. Fender optional at extra cost.
Choice of Colors: Kool Lemon, Opaque Green, and Opaque Blue.

Model 869 19” frame Super Sport . . $136.95

Model 872 22” frame Super Sport . . $136.95

fillet brazed. Lighter. 

The lightweight Schwinns like the Sports Tourer, Superior or Super Sport are especially good choices if you can find them, with hand fillet brazed cr-mo steel frames and 27 inch (ETRTO 630 mm) wheels that can take Schwalbe Marathon tires. Of these middle level bikes, only the Super Sport came with a step through frame, I think. The Paramount (which also did) was the handbuilt lugged racing bike, and I wouldn't want you to turn a classic road bike like that into a child transporter. Sell it to a collector if you don't want it. Some of the Superiors were lugged handmade bikes, too, and the same applies to them. To make them really light (they aren't really that light as they came from the factory) some people remove the kickstands and cranks, installing an adapter and new lightweight bottom bracket and cranks.

electroforged. Serial
number at bottom right. Heavy. 
Any other lugged Schwinn (lugs are those extra layers of metal at the joints of the frame) was made in Japan or China and might be a good choice but I'm not concentrating on them here. Pretty much any other Schwinn from a long time ago was indestructibly "electro forged," with a smooth curve where the head tube (the part with the front wheel and handlebars attached to it) blends into the two main frame tubes, the top tube and down tube. This article explains the process. 

The fillet brazed ones have seat and down tubes thicker than the top tube, "bullet" shaped seat stay tips, and the chrome molybdenum sticker above; the electroforged often have a hint of a welded joint a couple of centimeters away from the curved "joint". 

lugged. (an old Pinarello city bike) 
The electroforged models included the Varsity and Continental drop bar ten speeds, the Suburban (a Varsity with fenders and upright handlebars - perfect for what we have in mind!), the Speedster, the Breeze, and a long list of others (Co-Ed, Hollywood... Look at the old catalogs). 

Ashtabula cranks and 
integrated steel kickstand
The electroforged ones all have pretty much the same frame, one piece heavy chromed steel Ashtabula cranks with small threaded holes for pedals, and odd sized unbreakable steel wheels (26 x 1 3/8 (S-6) or 26 x 1 3/4 (S-7), which is 571 mm but wider than 650C). You can still get a few kinds of tires to fit these old wheels but you will likely have to order them special. Sheldon Brown notes that "The most common difficulty is that the Schwinn 26 x 1 3/8 (I. S.O. 597 mm) interchanges with the British 26 x 1 1/4, not the British 26 x 1 3/8 (I. S.O. 590 mm)." Get new tubes and rim tape while you're at it. Try to get a bike with at least a few functioning speeds depending on where you live.

Another excellent choice would be an old Raleigh, especially if you are on the East Coast, where the Nottingham built ones outsold Schwinn through the 70s and 80s. At the same time Schwinn went under in Chicago something similar happened to Raleigh and now they, too, sell mass market Asian bikes under the old name. Their lugged steel bikes are just as durable as Schwinns, but they use unusual screw threadings, tire sizes and other things that make them hard to modernize and which don't interchange even with British standard sizing. Sheldon, as usual, knows what to do about it. The Sport, Sprite, Superbe and so on are all similar upright models. The Grand Prix is a classic low end Bike Boom 10-speed with a good but heavy frame, the Record a lesser version. If you find a Competition, International or Professional wax and lube it and sell it to a collector or bring it inside and care for it well. If you can find an old Raleigh upright with a Dynohub and you don't mind the gearing (3 speeds are fine for Chicago and similarly flat places) it can be much better than anything new for the price. They also made Rudge, Humber, and several other brands. 
Other good Bike Boom 10-speeds like those from Fuji, Nishiki, Miyata, Motobecane or Peugeot can make good kid and cargo haulers, possibly with new upright handlebars and brake levers. Mountain bikes come in zillions of variations but they make good kid carriers, if you put on nicer road tires, fenders and lighting, and if you adjust the handlebars to be more comfortable and upright. Some lightweight components like stems, though they're steel, might not be strong enough to hold your child seat safely. Use your best judgement.

Here are some steps to bring the bike back to its original functionality. They're pretty quick. And your bike shop can do it all for you in a day or two. The first things to think about once you have a frame with good wheels, functioning gears and good potential are adjusting the brakes and perhaps replacing the pads and cables if they need it, putting on a new chain (a 7 speed chain should work fine, maybe a rustless one would be a good choice) and adjusting the seat and handlebars to fit you well. The old 10-speed Weinmann or DiaCompe or Schwinn Approved brakes are OK but need adjusting to work well, and if you don't have the lever extenders think about cyclocross type secondary levers instead, or change to upright handlebars. This is a really good idea if your bike has drop bars. You don't want to be looking for the brake lever while carrying your kid and 50 pounds of junk in traffic. Anything with steel wheels might work much better with new brake pads - the Kool Stop "Continental" salmon-colored ones will fit most of these bikes and they work pretty well even in the wet. The gears might need a little cleaning and adjustment, and if you feel like it you should probably grease the hubs and bottom bracket or ask your favorite bike store to go over the bike and do that. The old grease might be really old. Most bikes won't need any major parts replaced. 

To spiff it up a bit, you could (but don't have to) change the back derailer to a SunTour V series (V-GT, all-aluminum V-GT Luxe, VX, or even Cyclone or Superbe) or a new model if your old one is frozen or just nonfunctional - the V-GT is easy to find, it was better than most and certainly better than the Schwinn Approved Huret Allvit or Shimano (Sky) lark most of these bikes came with. (a site about derailers here). Recently I've been finding nice old late 70s/early 80s SunTour Cyclones in bins of discarded fixie parts. The Shimano Crane or Campagnolo derailers on better Schwinn models are OK to keep but not really as good as the Cyclone or Superbe, I think.

This one might fit...
Recent index derailer models will work just fine with old friction shifters. I'd certainly get some fenders on the bike if it doesn't have any. The old metal ones clean up beautifully with chrome cleaner from the auto parts store, or you can get new plastic fenders for $30 or $40 that will fit fine. Wax or silicone spray the inside to cut down on snow sticking between the fender and the wheel. 

I always put a mirror on, preferably a Mirrycle. A bell is nice and required in some places. The paint might want car wax. Naval jelly and plastic model or auto touch up paint can eliminate rust spots. You should have lights and reflectors. Most of this applies to any bike you're setting up to carry kids.
your friend, chrome cleaner
Some people soup up the old bike at this point, and if you want to do this you're on your own.  You can go nuts and change the derailers, shifters, cables and rear gear cluster or wheel out if you want click shifting. You could get a crank adapter for $25 that lets you put modern cranks on the old frame, a pair of much cooler 700C (ETRTO 622 mm) aluminum clincher rims with a dynamo front hub and a multispeed internal rear hub, even fancy disc or drum brakes. What about getting the frame sanded and powder coated in your favorite custom color? A new leather saddle? Everything is possible, and even if you do all this it might be cheaper and better than a new bike, but if you can stand using the retro gearing you'll be fine with the original equipment. 

A back rack or a child carrier is the next part. Blackburn racks or similar copies come with the Co-Pilot and Topeak and Rhode Gear seats that you can get in most bike or department stores. You can use the racks for panniers when the child seat isn't attached. Of course, that's when you need the carrying capacity the most... (The old bikes often used odd screw threads - Schwinn used #8, whatever that is - I ended up using 8x32 bolts with Nylock nuts since the original "#8" I got in a vintage tan paper envelope fit perfectly but were too short. The 8x32 fit through the holes OK. They, and the 10x24 you can find easily, don't fit the frame threading.) The front of the rack might need to attach using c-shaped vinyl coated stainless clips that wrap around the seat stays (any bike store has them) since most of these bikes had no braze ons for racks. You can see them on my yellow bike in the big pictures.

Other back seat options are listed in our folding bikes post. I'd definitely look at the Bobike and maybe Yepp options, like the Bobike Junior (though it doesn't let you carry a pannier as well as it promises). If you choose a nice seat like these that fits over the back rack, and your rack is long enough, you'll still have room for bags hooked underneath. 

You can get pretty much any kind of baby or toddler seat on the back of old bikes like these, but you need a steel stem if you want to use a seat that mounts in front like the Bobike Mini or I-Bert. Lots of Schwinns have steel stems, but not mine. If the stem is heavy chrome with a rough seam on the front it's steel, or ask at a bike shop. Lots of old Schwinns use a strange stem size, 21.15 mm, which is hard to find, so you may need to leave it as it is. You can get a slightly larger standard sized 22.2 mm stem and spin it in a roll of fine sandpaper to make it fit if there's no better option. Harris Cyclery near Boston often has a few options in this size. Bring the old one if you are buying a replacement and get it measured or look for the stamped size once it's out.

steel stem 
some aluminum stems and
a disembodied hand
steel stem

Make sure the stem is inserted far enough because some were quite short to save weight. Schwinn and Raleigh bikes are made stronger than most -- I'd check with a bike shop before putting a stem mounted child seat on other old bikes. If you have stem shifters like mine it won't work well, and you will have to move them to the handlebars or the frame. See if you can find old SunTour "barcon" bar end shift levers.

nice seat, but won't fit on this frame because of the aluminum
stem and the stem shifters. These are easier if you have upright
handlebars, too, so there's room under you for the child.

Mountain bike stems may fit and they're often steel, but the really lightweight high quality ones might not be strong enough to hold a kid seat either. You can change handlebars and stems easily at any bike store, or find parts at used parts stores. Get good advice and use your head when you rig up your bike, and your kid will stay safe.

If you can put both front and back seats on and you have some luck, you can carry 2 kids and 2 panniers, your 30 year old steel frame will last another 30 without giving you any trouble, and you can save the cost of a cargo bike!

last edit 11/29/11


  1. Great post. On a wholly un-child carrying note, I've been on the hunt for a Schwinn Breeze with the old Bendix 2-speed kick back hub for a while. I'm sure it would be great to throw either a front or rear kid seat on since the shifting and braking is so intuitive. It would make for a placid kid hauler.

  2. Glad you liked the post. I think the kickback hubs must be the equivalent of meatloaf or tuna noodle casserole - comfy and familiar. Schwinn made so many terrific (heavy) bikes. You might be able to achieve your dream with a 3-speed Breeze and a separate Bendix wheel...? In addition to the coaster brake, I'd make sure the front brake worked, too, since your stopping distance is much, much longer when you don't use the front brake. See the screeds on Sheldon Brown and John Allen's site, Raleigh also made 2-speed kickback bikes.

  3. great post! I've been seeing so many Chicago-made Schwinns around town lately. I have an 80's Schwinn prelude, and recently an elderly gentleman came up to me and said "Not to show my age but I remember when Schwinns had a lifetime guarantee." They should have stuck with that motto cause clearly its true.

  4. Hi Martha!
    Hope you are having a great spring break! I'm glad you liked the post. I love the gentleman stopping you on your Schwinn! We're hoping to see you out on the road again soon- J.
    p.s. check out Bike Fancy if you aren't already addicted. It's a huge fave of ours here.

  5. Hi, I hope you could help me.
    I'm looking for a front mounting seat for my '71 Schwinn Collegiate. My hubby tried to install a weeride with no luck. I love the design of the bobike but was leaning more toward the ibert because it seems to be more universal. Do you happen to know which, if either would fit my bike?

  6. I haven't tried the Ibert on a Collegiate specifically, just a bunch of things including the Bobike on my '72 Super Sport, but I think the bikes' geometries are similar. And the Collegiate has, I recall, a steel stem, which is a plus. But even with my step through frame, the Super Sport just doesn't have enough room for my knees under a front seat. It might work better with a very high stem, but they are a weird size on many old Schwinns (21.1) and basically unavailable. If this is what you want to try, Harris Cyclery near Boston (Sheldon Brown's old shop) did have some that were steel and available when I was looking a while ago. This was kind of disappointing since I really wanted to put two kids on the Schwinn.

    I wound up putting the Bobike front seat on my rebuilt mountain bike and a Bobike Junior on the back - it works fine, but I'm not as thrilled with the Junior as I thought, and maybe a Yepp on the back would allow you to use a pannier rack underneath. The junior really doesn't, despite its little rack bars. Also, the very tapered butted tubing of the mountain bike lets the Junior clamps slide if my kid jumps around too much; the Yepp mount wouldn't, though it is a seat for a smaller kid. The Bobike Mini in front is fine but only since I used a huge long stem. It needs about 2 inches of stem space near the handlebars.

    The iBert seems to leave more room for knees than the other front seats I've seen. Maybe you can ask the dealer to help mount it and try it out before you have to pay for it.

  7. This was so helpful! Thank you!

  8. Did you know that more children ages 5 - 14 go to hospital emergency rooms for injuries associated with bicycles than with any other sport? A majority of these injuries involve the head! Wearing a properly fitted bicycle helmet reduces the risk of head injury by as much as 85% and the risk of brain injury by as much as 88%. There isn't a federal law requiring bike riders to wear a helmet, but some States and cities have passed mandatory helmet requirements. By our house here in Michigan one of the local Metro Parks requires ANYONE riding a bike on the park grounds to wear a helmet and one of the cities by us, Farmington Hills requires anyone under 16 riding a bicycle to wear a helmet. Other than those two examples Michigan is pretty lax when it comes to laws requiring bike helmets and leaves it to parent discretion. On the other hand, California has a statewide law requiring helmets on anyone riding a bicycle under the age of 18.


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