02 January 2013

No Longer A Prologue To The Automobile

When you get to be my age, the beginning of a new year becomes as much a time for reflecting on how things have changed during your life as for thinking about the time ahead.

I was reminded of that upon seeing this photo:

During my childhood, bike-makers often tried to emulate motorcycles and automobiles.  The irony is that the less race-worthy the bicycle, the its maker tried to evoke racing motorcycles or cars in the paint, graphics and other details of the bike.

One classic example of what I mean is the Raleigh Chopper:

The "spoiler" on the rear, the racing stripe on the seat and the lines of the frame--as well as the front wheel that's smaller than the rear--were taken from customized racing motorcycles that were popular for about a quarter-century after World War II.

Raleigh's machine, though, was a kind of "mixed metaphor", if you will.  While it was supposed to appeal to teenage boys' yearnings for the kinds of motorcycles they saw in movies like Easy Rider, this detail comes straight from the "muscle cars" of that era:

Could the size and location of that lever have anything to do with the decline in birth rates among baby boomers?

A decade or two before Raleigh started making "Choppers", Schwinn, Columbia and other American bicycle manufacturers built lights and horns into fake gas tanks attached to the tube.  

1934 Schwinn AeroCycle in the Longmont (CO) Museum and Cultural Center

It seemed that the main purpose of those "tanks" was to hold the batteries (usually 4 "D" cells) required to power the light and horn.  I'll admit, though, that on some bikes--like the Schwinn "AeroCycle" in the photo--they looked stylish, and even beautiful.

The reason why bikes, particularly those intended for boys, were styled after cars and motorcycles is that, in those days, bicycles were seen as stepping-stones to motorized vehicles.  When teenagers got their drivers' licenses, they passed their bikes on to younger siblings or other kids--or else the bikes were discarded.  

That view of bicycles started to change around the time I was entering my teen years.  While many of my peers would abandon cycling for years, or even forever, after getting their licenses, others started to see the bicycle as something other than a pre-motorcycle or pre-automobile.  They continued to ride, if less regularly, after they began to drive.  And, of course, many would bring their bicycles with them to the colleges they attended, as cycling is often more convenient than driving on and around campuses.

Also, by that time, adults were starting to take up cycling.  A few went as far as to live car-free lives.  Such riders were, of course, not interested in bicycles that looked (and, in some cases, rode) like motorcycles or cars without engines.  Some were not interested in aesthetics at all, while others (including yours truly) would come to appreciate the cleaner and more elegant lines of lightweight bicycles.  

Now I see that those old cruisers and Choppers have become "hip" in certain circles, and that Schwinn, Raleigh and other companies are making modern replicas of them.  However, people--even pre-teen boys--don't view them in quite the same way as kids in my time saw the originals of those bikes.  Somehow I don't think kids today see themselves as "graduating" to an automobile from one of those bikes; if anything, I guess that they see it as a cool toy or accessory, or as their means of transportation.  And they know that they can choose to continue riding bicycles as adults.  Almost none of my peers thought that way when I was a child.  I don't think I did, either.

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