Commentary: Schwinn owned by Huffy? Say it isn't so.

Schwinn has been building bikes since 1895
The news was tantamount to Ford Motor Company being bought by Yugo the oldest and noblest company selling out to the cheapest. In July, Schwinn/GT Corp. announced that its Cycling Division was in the process of being sold to the Huffy Corporation.

Huffy? Say it isnt so.

Of all the bike companies, there is none so loathed as Huffy. The bane of all bike aficionados, mechanics, and unlucky owners who are lured by low price tags, Huffy epitomizes the lowest common denominator mass-produced, overseas-built plastic crap.

Yes plastic; yes crap. I know in my time as a bike mechanic, Ive spent more time than I wish to consider struggling to adjust flimsy derailleurs or brakes on some neon-painted duel-suspension imitation. Ive nearly thrown out my back lifting the thick-walled steel frames onto the repair stand. Straight-gauge steel affixed with plastic components do not, I can assure you, equal a quality bicycle, no matter how great the price seems.

Scarier still, Huffy announces recalls of its bikes and components on a seemingly regular basis. Three of the four What's New topics on the main Huffy Web site concern equipment recalls mandated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Huffy blithely offers free replacement bicycles that are comfortable, fun and easy to ride, and built to last. The built to last misnomer aside, would you feel safe riding a bicycle from a company whose products warrant numerous safety recalls?

Granted, Huffy does make bicycles that are affordable for nearly everyone. But if Huffy was truly in the business of building bikes so everybody could afford one, instead of building them as cheap as possible for the highest profit margin, then I might have a different opinion of their product. But it really comes down to a dollar game and Huffy has proven that selling millions of cheap bikes at big box retailers works in this country.

Money, or lack thereof for Schwinn, is of course how the sale came about. With dozens of other brand names competing for Kevlar tire thin profit margins in the business (hint: dont open a bike shop if youre looking to make much of a living), Schwinn ultimately couldnt compete.

Even with its long and storied history, the 100+ year-old Schwinn, founded in 1895 with a flagship "Roadster" single speed racing bike that weighed a mere 19lbs (and cost an astronomical $150, equal to $27,450 in today's dollars), ran out of cache among the bike buying public.

In 1998, it was clear Schwinn was in trouble when it merged with GT, hoping for a turnaround. But looking back, the writing was on the wall in 1985 when Schwinn management called the trend towards mountain bikes a "fad."

Big mistake.

Ironically, Schwinn first introduced the bicycle balloon tire (in 1933), the 26x2.125 size found on mountain bikes today. In 1995 Bike Magazine wrote: "Ignaz Schwinn's balloon tire is the single biggest innovation in mountain bike technology."

Schwinn, the company that had so smoothly rolled with the times in 1909 by making the first childrens bicycles, after Henry Fords Model T automobile erased the adult market, gagged on mountain bike dust in the 1980s. The company was left holding a historical footnote as the new off-road market took off, missing the majority of bike profits.

Slow to react, Schwinn would eventually crank out quality mountain bikes, but far too late to gain the all-important marketing toehold among young, new buyers. Schwinns image was stodgy, from dusty, garage relic Varsity 10-speeds, or for collectors, a faded brand responsible for 1950s Black Phantom cruisers or 1960s Sting-Ray Krates the father to the BMX bike. Even with its proud history, Schwinn had trouble redefining itself as a mountain bike company.

Huffy will pay over $60 million to acquire Schwinn/GTs Cycling Division assets. In todays hyper business market of Internet naming rights and billion dollar mergers, the selling price seems like pocket change for one of the greatest names in American business history.

Don Graber, Chairman, President and CEO of Huffy Corporation, said, An opportunity such as this comes along only rarely. The Schwinns brand is one of the most widely recognized brand names in the world and together with GTs and other brands would strengthen our existing brand portfolio.

No kidding. Hard not to strengthen the lowest brand name by adding one of the most revered.

Im sorry that Schwinn couldnt make it on its own. The Schwinn name will stick around. The question is, will the quality?

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