19 January 2019

For The Woman Who Had (Almost) Everything In 1951

What I am about to say is not a boast; it's a fact.

I don't know anyone who owns or rides a mixte frame as nice as Vera, my Mercian.  And the only person I know who rides a full-on women's frame (in which the top tube is dropped even further than the twin parallel tubes on the mixte) is Coline, who sometimes comments on this blog.  And I know her women's bike is as good as Vera because a.) it's a Mercian and b.) I used to own it.  I sold it to Coline only because I prefer the style of the mixte. 

Truly high-quality mixte or women's bikes have long been relatively rare.  In France and other countries, stylish and utilitarian bikes that don't have the "diamond" ("men's") configuration are relatively common.  Some are very good, but rarely does one see such a bike with a frame constructed of Reynolds, Columbus or Vitus tubing, or with components that rise above mid-level (though they are, for the most part, at least serviceable).  Certainly, one almost never see mixte or women's bikes that rise to the level of the best diamond-frame racing or touring bikes.

Such bikes have always been even rarer in the US--and they were probably rarer yet in 1951, during what Sheldon Brown has called "the dark ages" of cycling in America.  Who would have made such a machine?

One answer:  Emil Wastyn--or his son, Oscar.  If that name rings a bell, you are: a.) my age or older; b.) know more about the history of cycling in the US than 99.99 percent of the population;  c.) are a Schwinn geek or, d.) are from Chicago.

The bike in the photos isn't a Schwinn, but it could have been.  Oscar Wastyn built it.  His father is the one who convinced Frank Schwinn that his company should build top-of-the-line racing and touring bikes at a time when enthusiasm for six-day races  (which basically kept racing alive in the US during the Great Depression) was waning and the world was on the brink of war.  Those high-end Schwinns, known as the Paramount line, were built by the Wastyns from the marque's inception in 1938 until 1955.

Until the 1960s or thereabouts, the Paramount was the only true high-performance racing or touring bike built in the US, save for the few that were made by a handful of regional builders (mainly for the small-but-active cycling scenes in places like New York, Chicago, Boston and, ironically, Detroit).  Certainly, the Paramount was the only high-quality US-built bike one could buy or order from a local dealer anywhere in the US.  

From what I can see in the photos, the workmanship on the frame is meticulous and in keeping with the style of the times.  I don't know which tubing was used to make it, but I suspect that it was either Accles and Pollock (used on the original Paramounts) or Reynolds, which Wastyn would use when Accles and Pollock stopped making bicycle tubing. 

Also in keeping with the period is the Sturmey Archer three-speed hub.  American cycling at the time was, not surprisingly, influenced by the British, who had yet to embrace the derailleur for their high-speed and long-distance machines.  And, of course, the fenders and chainguard would have been found on any bike, no matter how high its quality, that wasn't a dedicated racer.

As for other parts on the bike, they are typical of the period--save, perhaps, for the front hub and cranks, both of which are "Paramount", the same ones used on Wastyn's bikes bearing that name.  To my knowledge, Paramounts from that period are the only American bikes besides those made by the aforementioned small builders (such as Dick Power and George Omelenchuk) to use three-piece cottered cranks.  Cotterless cranks were still relatively new and expensive, and were still not seen as durable or reliable as their cottered counterparts.  The front hub looks much like Campagnolo and other racing hubs of its time.

I don't know who bought that bike for whom:  Few American adults, and even fewer American adult women, were riding bikes--let alone top-quality ones--in 1951.  Whoever bought it, though, had taste and whoever rode it did so in style.  


  1. Yep, the Wastyn name rang a bell. Does this mean I'm officially old? The Wastyn shop is still in business in downtown Chicago. I've heard that going there is sort of a pilgrimage akin to visitng the Alex Singer shop when in Paris.

    Mentioning ladies models, Bicycle Quarterly in this winters issue features a late 40's Nicola Barra. It's very unusual in that it's all aluminum with some very advanced features for the day. I gather that welding aluminum back then was something of a black art because modern TIG welding hadn't come along yet. It's worth a look.

  2. e)All of the above.

    i remember the Schwinn Paramount "women's" model: 531, Campagnolo Record (Campag brakes optional, rear derailleur Gran Turismo or Shimano Crane.) At the time, i rather snobbishly considered it a waste of good 531 & Campy...(at that age, i believed i knew everything... ah, youth!)

    To the best of my knowledge, the woman's Paramount was the only production bike of such calibre available in the US.

    Any Wastyn bike i've ever seen was fully chromed. For the Paramount full chrome was a $100 option in the early 70's.

    Fun fact: At the Northbrook & Kenosha velodromes in the early seventies, the overwhelming majority of bikes was either Paramount or Frejus- and most of those were sold by Wastyn's shop on North avenue.

  3. Phillip and Mike--I won't call either of you old, as I suspect you are close to my age!

    I'm going to check out that aluminum bike. Interestingly, a number of aluminum bikes--from the high-end builders all the way down to a model sold by Western Auto Parts--were made during the 40s. I suspect that their rarity these days is because they didn't hold up: As you say, Phillip, construction techniques weren't up to snuff.

    Mike, I saw a couple of those women's Paramounts. In fact, the proprietor of a shop I sometimes frequented in my youth bought one for his wife. (He, of course, had a men's Paramount for himself.) And I remember the full-chrome option: That $100 was just about the price of a Schwinn Continental, at a time when Paramounts were about $400.

    Interesting fact about the velodrome bikes. Tom Avenia here in New York imported Frejus (and Campagnolo parts); one could riders circling Central Park on them. Frejus was one of the first well-known Italian racing bikes, at least east of the Missisippi: Old-time riders from the left side (geographically, not politically) of the country tell me they hadn't heard of it when they got into cycling.

  4. Hi Justine. How could you have forgotten poor Helene so quickly... The tubes on this Paramount are nice and low but Helene's dropped tube is much in line with the, I have to admit more beautiful, twin tubes on a classic mixte. Helene is resting up whilst there is salt on the roads but just longing for the spring...

  5. Voyage--I haven't forgotten Helene. I am just happy that she's happy with you. I just hope she doesn't harbor any resentment toward Vera, my Mercian mixte.