Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

16 November 2016

Hasta La Vista, Esquire!

Yesterday, I mentioned Vista bicycles.  If you became a cyclist around the time I did--or were in junior high or high school when I was--in the US, you probably saw a lot of them, if you didn't have one yourself.


Vista Esquire, circa 1972




I got my Schwinn Continental just as the '70's Bike Boom was building up steam.  At that time, shops routinely ran out of Schwinns, Peugeots and Raleighs, which were the most popular brands in bike shops.  I had to wait three months for my Continental, which was not unusual.  But not everybody was willing to wait for one of those brands, and dealers knew that such customers would buy pretty much any ten-speed that resembled, even in the most superficial ways, bikes from those companies.  



Head badge from early Vista bicycle.


Some accused Schwinn of suppressing production in order to create such a demand and, consequently, drive up prices.  Truth was, they, like most other bike manufacturers, simply couldn't keep up with the demand: US Bicycle sales doubled from 1970 to 1972.  Even the boatloads of bikes that arrived daily from Europe and Asia weren't enough to satisfy consumers.



Schwinn Collegiate, circa 1972


Schwinn, however, did something else that made their bikes--and, by extension, other ten-speeds--more difficult to find, especially in rural areas.  On the eve of the Bike Boom, in the 1960s, Schwinn tried to eliminate from its dealer networks the small-town stores that sold tractors, feed and fertilizer, hardware, guns, cars or whatever else alongside Schwinn bicycles. (Some kept only a couple of bikes in the store and if the customer wanted another model or color, or needed a different size, the shop ordered it.)  The company wanted their bikes sold in showrooms devoted to their bikes and that stocked a sizeable number of Schwinn bikes and accessories.  Jake's Feed and Seed or Rick's Rifles couldn't or wouldn't make the investment in showrooms and inventory and were thus shut out of what would become a lucrative enterprise.



Vista Esquire, circa 1971


In response, a group of manufacturers and suppliers formed the National Independent Dealers Association and put together a line of bikes.  It's long been rumored that one of those manufacturers was Columbia bicycles of Westfield, Massachusetts:  Early Vista bicycles, for all of their attempts to look like Schwinns, had the style of everything from welding to graphics seen on the Columbia bicycles found in department stores.  


I knew more than a few kids--and a few adults--who rode them when they couldn't get Schwinns.  Vistas sold for about 20 percent less and were lighter than the Schwinn models they were designed to compete with.  From my limited experience with them, clattered in that same clunky way as department store bikes like Columbia and Murray.  


The early Vistas had the same components as Columbias of the time:  Huret Allvit  derailleurs and steel one-piece cranks-- which were also found on Schwinns-- and cheap sidepull brakes.  Around 1972 or 1973, however, Vista began to equip their "Cavalier" and "Esquire" with their own brand of derailleur.  At least, that's what a lot of people thought.



Made-in-Japan Vista 15 speed bike with 64 cm(!) frame, circa 1975


In-the-know cyclists, however, soon realized that Vista had simply rebadged the SunTour GT rear and Spirt front derailleurs, and the ratcheted "power" shift levers bolted onto the handlebar stem.  Folks like me who had the chance to ride those Esquires and Cavaliers simply couldn't believe how much easier, and more accurately, their gears shifted than the ones on our Continentals and Varsities--or even on some of the more expensive European racing bikes.



Made-in-Japan Vista Elite with Shimano 600 components, circa 1978


That move probably did as much as anything to popularize the Vista brand and to keep sales even after the Bike Boom died down.  Some time around 1975 or so, Vista began to offer a line of "professional" bikes made for them in Japan.  Those bikes resembled the mid-level ten (and later twelve) speed bikes from Takara, Azuki and other Japanese marques, with their lugged frames made out of high-tensile (and, in a few cases, straight-gauge chrome-moly) steel tubing outfitted with components from SunTour, Shimano, Sakae Ringyo,Takagi and other well-known manufacturers from the Land of the Rising Sun. By the early '80's, Vista was even offering an "aero" model with flattened chrome-moly frame tubes, early "deep V" rims from Araya and Shimano's 600 EX "aero" components.



Head badge from Japanese-made Vista


Those Japanese-made Vistas were good, but mostly indistinguishable from other bikes from the by-then-more-familiar Japanese brands.  Thus, thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who bought American-made Vistas weren't, if they were still riding, buying Japanese-made Vistas when they went to college and beyond.  Instead, they purchased ten- (or, by that time, twelve-) speeds from such iconic brands of the 1970s and '80s as Fuji, Miyata, Motobecane and Raleigh.


The Vista brand seems to have disappeared some time around 1984 or 1985--a couple of years after those "aero" bikes came out.  By that time, Schwinn was making a series of missteps that would cost much of the market share it once enjoyed.  (As an example, the company's management acted as if mountain bikes were just a passing fad at a time when other manufacturers were making their mark in that discipline.)  And the quality of other American mass-produced bikes (with a few exceptions like Trek), which wasn't very good to begin with, fell off precipitously and, within a few years, nearly all production shifted offshore.



6 comments:

  1. My old shop brought in Vistas the second year they were open-summer of '73. They were worse than terrible, and i had a very hard time selling them- let alone assembling them and getting them rideable. i never saw a made-in-Japan Vista, but i do remember Japanese Murray and Huffy bikes, big improvements over their regular offerings, but too little, too late. i've often wondered why these U.S. companies never bothered to make decent machines.
    i felt like i had a front row seat to Schwinn's demise. A cousin managed a Schwinn shop, later buying the shop from his old boss upon his retirement. My cousin wound up eating a lot of stock, and after a few years had to bail out. We had many long discussions about how Schwinn was missing the boat when it came to innovation, market research, and how it treated its dealers (all of this recently well covered in Retrogrouch's blog.)

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    1. Mike--I agree that Vistas (the American-made ones, anyway) weren't good bikes. They were no better than department-store bikes like Murray, Columbia and Huffy. It always seemed that Vista was one of those bikes you bought when you couldn't get a Schwinn.

      Speaking of which: Sometimes I wonder if Schwinn could have done more to "miss the boat" if they tried. It seemed that after the Bike Boom, they missed every trend and innovation that came along. And their manufacturing venture in Mississippi and partnership in Hungary resulted in some of the worst bikes they sold under their name.

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    2. Schwinn was a textbook case of accidental suicide.

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    3. Mike--At least, that's what we assume. It's hard to imagine how any company could have deliberately gone so wrong.

      And, yes, "Retrogrouch" did a fine job of writing about Schwinn's demise. I love his blog.

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  2. I've got a couple of those Spirt front deraileurs in the parts bin. The first time I ever saw one I thought the name was another example of some bad Japanese "Engrish". I figured they had misspelled the word "spirit". Actually the quality isn't too bad considering the bikes they came off of.

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  3. Phillip--I, too, thought that "Spirt" was an example of "Engrish." As you say, the quality of the derailleur--and the rear SunTour GT rebranded as Vista--were good. The Compe-V front is the Spirt with holes drilled in its cage; the SL front replaces that cage, which was made of steel, with one of alloy.

    It still amazes me, to this day, that a bike of Vista's low quality offered shifting that was far superior to that of bikes costing several times more.

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