Walking through Saigon outside of Ben Thanh Market, I saw a small, odd looking motorcycle among the masses of Honda Super Cubs, Dreams and Waves normally seen in Vietnam. It was some sort of hardtail cruiser-style bike, but on a scale smaller than I had ever seen, with a horizontal single cylinder engine. A closer look at the logo on its fuel tank revealed a familiar name: Schwinn. Yes, Schwinn, once the maker of the bicycles that were part of the childhoods of millions of Americans, now reduced to a foreign-owned trademark adorning a tiny parody of an American-style motorcycle. How the mighty have fallen.
1925 Excelsior Super X photo from http://s1.cdn.autoevolution.com/
Saying “Schwinn” and “mighty” in the context of motorcycles is more appropriate than most motorcycle enthusiasts know. Schwinn, founded in Chicago in 1895, once covered the entire breadth of the range of two-wheeled vehicles, from bicycles to large-displacement luxury motorcycles that were at the top of the U.S. market. It was one of the leading motorcycle manufacturers in the United States, one of “big three” along with Harley-Davidson and Indian. Schwinn entered the motorcycle business in 1912 by acquiring Excelsior, which began as a bicycle manufacturer in 1876 and entered the motorcycle business in 1907, only four years after the foundation of Harley-Davidson and six years after that of Indian.
Excelsior motorcycles established a number of milestones. In 1913, Soon after the Schwinn acquisition, a 1,000cc V-twin Excelsior became the first motorcycle to be officially timed at over 100 miles per hour (Glenn Curtiss set a land speed record of 136 miles per hour on his V-8 motorcycle in 1907, but it was an unofficially timed record on a highly specialized one-off machine that used a 4,400cc V-8 engine intended for airplanes and dirigibles). The 1925 Excelsior Super X became the first American motorcycle with a 45 cubic inch/750cc engine, establishing the middleweight size class that would last into the 1950s.
1917 Henderson Four photo from http://rpdoody.zenfolio.com/
In 1917, Schwinn made a significant step upmarket when it acquired the Henderson motorcycle company, a maker of luxury motorcycles with four cylinder engines, founded in 1912. The Henderson Four was the first production four cylinder motorcycle in the United States and one of the first in the world, preceded only by the FN Four of 1905 and several obscure earlier machines. It was arguably the top end of the American motorcycle industry, its four cylinder engines making its machines faster and smoother than any rivals until the 1919 introduction of the four cylinder ACE, designed by Henderson founder George Henderson after the sale of his earlier company to Schwinn, and which continued as the Indian Four after the second-largest U.S. motorcycle manufacturer acquired ACE in 1927.
Henderson streamliner photo from http://www.knucklebusterinc.com/
Although not a factory product, this spectacular one-off custom streamliner body from 1936 being built around a 1930 Henderson Four speaks volumes about the stature of Henderson in its era.
Schwinn produced Excelsior and Henderson motorcycles until 1931, when it exited a motorcycle market collapsing during the Great Depression. The decline of the motorcycle market is illustrated by annual sales of market leader Harley-Davidson, which fell from 20,946 in 1929 to 10,500 in 1931, then to only 3,703 in 1933–less than one percent of its production level in the 2000s.
There was a short-lived attempt to revive the Excelsior-Henderson name during the 1990s, but it produced fewer than 2,000 motorcycles and filed for bankruptcy in 1999.
The story of a succession of acquisitions and bankruptcies is an appropriate place to return to the present-day Schwinn. Schwinn became the giant of the U.S. bicycle industry during the 1950s. During the 1960s, it incorporated styling elements of chopper and bobber motorcycles into its bicycles with the wildly popular Sting-Ray. During the 1970s, though, the company fell into decline, for many reasons: an aging product line that failed to keep pace with new technology and manufacturing methods, or with the growing popularity of new market niches, including sports, BMX, and mountain bikes; and increasing competition from Japan, Europe, and domestic startups.
The 1980s saw a death spiral for Schwinn that brought the company to an end by the beginning of the 1990s. Labor problems and rising outsourcing to Japan and Taiwan led to the end of domestic production in 1991, making the company only a marketer of foreign-made bicycles. Bankruptcy in 1992 resulted in the company name and assets changing hands multiple times, until they ended up acquired in 2004 by a Canadian company, which affixes the Schwinn name to bicycles made in China. It apparently also makes motorbikes under the Schwinn name, unknown to me until seeing this one.
The exact identity of this motorbike is a mystery because Schwinn’s English-language website does not list it, and it also does not exist on any English-language motorcycle website that I could find. Its concept is easily determined from its mechanical bones, though. Powered by a copy of a Honda Super Cub engine, apparently a 110cc version from a Honda Dream or Wave based on the “110c” sticker, it has a faux hardtail frame with a suspension setup similar to that of a Vincent, with a shock absorber unit mounted to the top of the triangular rear wheel frame rather than to the bottom of it, as on a Harley-Davidson Softail. The result is a cruiser bike no larger or more powerful than a Honda Super Cub, with an exhaust rumble reminiscent of bubble gum cards whipping through bicycle wheel spokes.
As if the basic machine were not ridiculous enough, and if the devil is in the details, this motorcycle is damned. The small white cargo box would be unfashionable anywhere but looks especially silly in Vietnam, where no one uses cargo boxes except for UPS and pizza delivery men, and handling outlandish cargoes with one’s own arms and legs appears to be part of the national culture. The solo seat, another almost never seen feature in Vietnam, is appropriate since most likely no one would want to be seen on the back of this bike anyway.
“A Schwinn … a Schwinn …” Being in Vietnam, I had a hard time getting a slightly modified famous line from Apocalypse Now out of my head after seeing the Schwinn name on this motorcycle. The leading American bicycle company during my childhood, producer of every bike that I rode before I got my driver’ s license, and once the third-largest and arguably the highest-end American motorcycle manufacturer, its name survives on a strange low-end product in a country where its name means nothing. While not as painful as a spear through the heart, it did cause a twinge in the same place. It is a sad fate for a name that once was part of my childhood and those of millions of others.