Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Powered by the People: Schwinn Varsity

Ford had the Model T.  Volkswagen had the Beetle.  And the Schwinn Bicycle Company of Chicago, Illinois had the Varsity.  Like the other two, the Schwinn Varsity was not a very good bike itself, but Schwinn timed the market just right to when the boomers were transitioning from their banana seat bikes to "lightweight" European derailleur bikes.  If you are of that boomer age, you either owned a Varsity or knew someone who did.    Find this 1970's era Schwinn Varsity for sale in Lewiston, ID for $95 via craigslist.

In a 1973 Schwinn catalog I found on line, the Varsity Sport was available in Kool Lemon, Sunset Orange or Campus Green.  Funny, the boomers that got to pick from those Krazy Kolors now seem to prefer colors like Class Envy Grey, Trading Civil Liberties for Security Black and Influence Peddling White.  Anyway, our subject looks like an original survivor for sale in an Idaho Pawn Shop.  It still has the brake lever extensions that allow you to use the brakes while riding in a more upright position.  Most of those were removed back in the day as no Road Racer would ride like that.  Also, it still has the original "Twin-stik" gear levers where you actually have to feel the gears engage vs. pushing a button.

It's also got a period head and tail light.  No retina burning LED powered by a lithium battery here.  This bike has an honest to God incandescent bulb powered by a generator driven off the rear wheel.  Want more light?  Pedal faster!

Looks like it still has the original seat with the riveted Schwinn Chicago tag on the back and the attachment points for a patch kit (unfortunately not included).  Also it has a period rack with what looks like an instruction manual for your new bike.

See a better way to make the fixed gear hipsters jealous? Email us here: tips@dailyturismo.com

Gianni is Daily Turismo's Pacific Northwest correspondent.  He had a Kool Lemon Varsity when he was a kid.  It didn't do well on jumps.


  1. Sturdy, if heavy old things. I rode my father's Varsity for a couple of summers post-college and it wasn't fast, but was a good workout.

    On the topic of the cheater brake handles -

    From Sheldon Brown:
    Extension leversIn the early 1970s, many people bought bicycles with drop handlebars, for reasons of fashion, even though drop bars did not suit their casual riding style. Given the frame and stem designs commonly available at the time, it was generally impossible to get drop handlebars high enough up to allow a low-intensity rider to reach the drops comfortably.
    The problem was worse for many women, whose shorter torso made it hard to reach forward to the drops. Though a taller handlebar stem with less forward reach might be installed, this often did not occur. Also, small hands could not comfortably grasp typical drop-bar brake levers of that time.
    Dia Compe invented bolt-on extensions that allowed Weinmann-type brake levers to be operated from the tops and middle of the handlebars, making this type of bar bearable for casual cyclists, since they never had to use the drops. This was so popular that Weinmann traded licensing with Dia Compe, so that each could copy the other's products.
    (Stem shifters were also popularized around the same time, and for the same reason.)
    This system has several drawbacks:
    The extension lever partially applied the main brake lever, reducing the available lever travel. Not all brands/models suffered from this, but the most common ones did.The attachment hardware precluded the use of the top of the brake lever hood as a comfortable riding position.They encouraged the practice of riding with the hands on the top, middle section of the bar, which is a position that doesn't give very secure control, especially on bumpy surfaces, because the hands are too close together.The hardware that held the extension levers to the main levers was prone to fall off.
    Other manufacturers produced similar systems, some of which addressed some of these difficulties.
    Extension levers are sometimes known as "safety levers." Since many people believe they actually reduce safety, the slang terms "death grips", "suicide levers" and "turkey wings" are occasionally substituted.
    In the early 21st century, a greatly improved system of "interrupter brake levers " appeared, with all of the advantages and none of the drawbacks of the older extension levers. These also have the advantage of being compatible with modern "æro" brake levers which work a lot better than the older style levers that had the cables coming out of the tops.

    1. Sheldon Brown! A legend and wonderful resource for all things bicycle.

  2. We did not get a lot of Schwinns up here in Canada. Probably because we had our own home-grown maker, CCM (now defunct, along with virtually all other manufacturing up here).

    In the era of this Schwinn, I bought a store-branded bike, which turned out to be a rebadged Motobecane from France. Really nicely made for touring. I chose it because it had Flat handle bars, rather than the trendy but uncomfortable drop bars that Zach discusses above.

    Believe it or not, I still have and use that bike, 40 years later. Sadly, it does not look as good as the Schwinn in this ad. I love that the Schwinn even includes the owners manual. If I was in Idaho, I would be pretty tempted to buy this thing for $95.

    1. road trip - Greyhound bus out, bike ride back - totally doable

    2. I remember when Schwinn was the upscale bike to have. The other brand was Huffy. One day, a Haro Master BMX bike showed up in the bike rack at school with the front braking system that let the handle bars go all the way around and pegs for doing tricks.
      Nowadays I think starting your own bike brand using Kickstarter is required before graduating from most universities in the pacific northwest.

    3. Well Zach, in fact it WAS Canadian Tire was who sold me that rebranded Motobecane!

      And as for Kaibeezy's idea, I wonder which leg of that road trip would generate the most stories: Greyhound, or bike across the country?

  3. I had this exact Varsity except I didn't have fenders. One of the heaviest bikes ever!

  4. I had this exact Varsity except I didn't have fenders. One of the heaviest bikes ever!

  5. Heavy? Try a Columbia Newsboy Special. That was heavy. But it carried the newspapers on my route.

  6. These had a unique feature of having the freewheel in the crank which meant the chain would run when you coasted allowing you to shift while coasting. That would also mean that with a mid-drive electric you could get regenerative braking.

  7. I'm amazed at how much Craigslist sellers are asking for these(at least in SoCal) Is it any mystery why most for sale are Womens' versions?Probably cause most Men/Boys like to jump them and otherwise abuse them to death...

  8. I have one just like it in ohio with 653 miles. yes the only difference is I have a speedometer. Had it for close to 40 years.

  9. No coasting shifting on varsity

  10. No coasting shifting on varsity


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