This post is sort of an epilogue to The Jaguar Project. As I mentioned early on in that narrative, my three classic Schwinns were doing time as living room decor, and hadn't been ridden since sometime in the mid 80's. In '97 I crated them up, and they were buried deep in the rat's nest of my garage. Right now, I'm having the wheels to the B-6 re-spoked, and while I was at it I pulled the wheels from the Jag, and took them in as well. They needed to be trued up. With a little luck I'll have both bikes done by the end of next week, and then I can start work on the Starlet.
So how did I catch the fever again? What made me go to all the trouble of cleaning out the garage (no small task!) unpacking the oldies, and finishing the overhaul that I never quite completed thirty years ago?
It has to with this post, here.
I had been thinking about motorcycles. More specifically, I had been amusing myself by pipe dreaming about getting hold of an old Harley Davidson Panhead, and building a chopper. I was killing some time checking e-bay motors, and going through Google images when I stumbled across a picture of one of these:
It's the Schwinn Stingray Spoiler adult sized chopper bicycle. The Schwinn company filed bankruptcy on 9/11/01. They were bought out by an outfit called Pacific Cycles, and the bikes were being made in China. Pacific introduced the Stingray Chopper, and decided to take a gamble on an adult size version. They went out on a limb with the high end Spoiler, and promptly went belly up. It was introduced for one model year, in'04, or '05. They didn't make very many. Pacific was sold. Schwinn bikes still exist, but they're little more than a badge on inexpensive discount store bikes. Sad.
I found this one on e-bay. It was owned by a former Schwinn dealer, and never uncrated. I had it shipped down from Washington state this last December.
Anyone who gets into cool machinery, new, vintage, or custom, does so, in part, for the attention it draws. Part of the fun of riding the Jaguar, or the B-6 around is that people notice the bike, comment, and strike up conversations. I'm used to that, and I enjoy it immensely.
The Spoiler is in another class entirely. Even I was unprepared for it. I've had several people actually pull their cars off to the side of the road, and flag me down to get a better look. Harley riders (notoriously impossible to impress) stop and stare. I've secured a reputation around here for being that crazy-ass old fart with the wild bike. This is not a toy for shy people. But dammit is it fun!
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
It rained today, and I didn't get any work done on the B-6. I had planned on having all three bikes overhauled in the time it took to write the narrative of how I came to own them, but that didn't quite work out. The Jaguar Project turned out to be more involved than I had anticipated. But then again, make me a list of all the things that work out just the way they were planned. It occurred to me last night that I've made several references to the Schwinn Black Phantom, but most people outside of the antique and classic bike scene have never seen one. This picture came from Memory Lane Classics in Grand Rapids Ohio. Another great source for pictures and information about old bikes is Dave's Vintage Bicycles. They have an incredible gallery of old bike pic's, and it's worth some time to just go browsing through the folders. Beware, though. You don't have to come in contact with one of these things to get Old Bike Fever. You can catch a wallet draining case of it from pictures alone. The photo of the B-6 was taken in '93 when it was serving time as a living room decoration, and if you look closely at the shot of the Starlet, you'll notice that it's looking pretty dingy, the pedals are off the bike, and the tires are flat. I'll get to it soon enough, and then the whole fleet will be overhauled, and ready to ride.
It's a peculiar sort task- composing a narrative wherein the main character behaves in a -shall we say- less than admirable manner. Particularly when the main character is me. I could, at this point, sling some pious crap about 'turning my life around' back then, but that isn't part of this story. Just for the record, though, that was the end of my affair with the gal from the market. Yeah, she had her problems, but I behaved like a world class asshole, and she really didn't deserve to be treated like that. Some years later I looked her up and made a formal apology for my behavior. I did give cocaine the boot later in 1980, and to this day the very thought of it makes me sick. It's the uncontested heavyweight champion of dogshit drugs.
But back to the final notes on The Great Bike Hunt.
I patched up the damaged headlight shell with fiberglass, and fabricated a light to go inside. Not original equipment, but it would do. Now, with e-bay, Craig's list, and on-line collectors' forums at my fingertips it's only a matter of time before I find the original light tray that came with the machine. I mentioned that the B-6 was sporting chrome plated fenders when I bought it. The picture shows it as it is today, with correct fenders matching the rest of the bike. The fenders came to me in the last, and most improbable coincidence of all.
It was 1983. I had quit the utility company, and started the long, tedious march through my college education. The Starlet, and the B-6 were under wraps in a storage shed in my Dad's back yard. I kept the Jaguar out for occasional rides. It was Spring Break, and I was on Main Street in Huntington Beach just a block away from the intersection where I first spotted the Autocycle that lit the fuse on this whole obsession to begin with. Old Schwinns were a fad with the surfing scene, and one of the small shops had a dusty Black Phantom sitting in the window. I stopped to look, and a moment later another guy stood beside me checking out the Phantom. I always talk to strangers.
"Awesome old bike, huh?" I said.
"It sure is," he answered. "I have one like it at home. Only problem with mine is that it has painted fenders that belong on a maroon and cream B-6. I sure wish I could find the chrome ones that went with the bike."
(epilogue: The coolest bike ever built)
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
I got to work on the B-6 today. The bike is disassembled, and I got the spring fork taken apart, cleaned, greased, and put back together. The wheels are going to be a project in themselves. I didn't realize it when I bought the thing, but whoever owned the bike before me had plundered it for parts. The painted rims were surely taken from some other Schwinn, but luckily the Bendix rear hub is still correct for the bike. It looks like I'm going to do a little plundering myself. The Starlet has chrome rims, and the B-6 needs them. So I'll get an opportunity to try my hand at lacing up a couple of wheels. Never done that before. Should be fun. I'm a little reluctant to plunder the Starlet, but I gave it a rattle can paint job way back when, so swapping out the rims won't affect either its value, or its originality too much. For all their rarity, these machines seldom command great prices. Come to think of it, the prices that these things were fetching thirty years ago are not much different than the price you'd pay for one today. I guess you could make the case that the monetary value has actually declined. So what. If you're looking for an investment, you can do way better than a rusty old bike. Anyway- where was I? Oh, yeah- back to 1980...
I didn't cash the tax check right away, and I remember carrying a queasy sort of knot in my gut all that week. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in trouble. The gal from the market worked nights until Friday, but I had promised her that we'd get all kinds of crazy that weekend. That was one promise I did keep, but not in the way I intended. I'd talked to The Cowboy several times, but I kept balking before coming to the topic. Thursday afternoon I cashed the check. Friday morning I told The Cowboy I'd maybe be in touch tomorrow. I stopped for beer and groceries Friday night, and told the gal from the market that we were on for Saturday evening.
It is only in hindsight that we can see the patterns of events that shape our lives. Part of the web of coincidence that surrounded the Great Bike Hunt had this recurring theme- Bikes I didn't want would come my way. And they would provide essential components that would be missing from the machines that I would buy later- machines that I would not have bought otherwise. I'd scavenged some small pieces of hardware for the Starlet, and I wouldn't have bought the Jaguar except that I already had the racks that it was missing. And now I had rotten headlight shell, half of a rusty horn tank, and the remnant of a Black Phantom sitting out in the garage. The newly repainted Starlet, and completed Jaguar occupied center stage in my living room. Remember I said that those bikes kept me out of jail? We're going to get to that part in just a bit, here.
I wasn't exactly hung over that Saturday morning, but I wasn't hitting on all eight either. I had told The Cowboy I was going to come by sometime early that afternoon. But I didn't want to do it. Six hundred bucks meant a quarter ounce of toot, and a marathon "session" that could run twenty four hours or more. I wasn't up to a long bike ride that morning, so I took the truck down to Woodlake.
I pulled onto the freeway with the bottom falling out of my stomach. I felt like I was going to trial. Four off ramps to The Cowboy's house. I lagged along in the right lane. Three off ramps. Then two. Then Dorado Boulevard Next Right.
And all in a flash, something wild just took hold of me. I got hit with an adrenaline charge that felt like I'd grabbed hold of a power line. I let fly with an AHHHWOOO from the beach bum days, punched the accelerator, and passed the Dorado Boulevard off ramp like I was ditching school for a surf run. I pulled off on the Southbound 405, and headed for Newport Beach. I was going to see the pusher. The Pedal Pusher, that is. They sold old bikes.
Parking in Newport beach on a Saturday is usually close to impossible. There was an open spot with time on the meter right in front of the bike shop. I pulled up, got out of the truck, walked in to the shop, and spotted my next bike. It was a maroon and cream B-6. But it had chrome fenders that should have gone to a Phantom. And, of course it was missing parts: the headlight shell, the gooseneck, the signature seat post. I had all that stuff at home. And the rest of the bike was immaculate. Asking price: five hundred seventy five dollars. I put cash on the counter, and rolled it out the door. Bike in the truck. Truck on the road. Straight home. Well, a stop for beer, and then straight home. I was manic- jumping up and down giddy. I couldn't believe what I had just done. But dammitall- I had my tanker! I took it out of the truck, and spent the next few hours just cruising the neighborhood, and then made I a stop for more beer.
Soon enough, though, I remembered I had a date that night. What to do? Screw it. If the chick didn't like it she could take a hike. I cracked another brew, and cranked up the stereo. I had parked the B-6 in the living room right next to the Jag and the Starlet. My fleet. I sat there watching them like a television show. And then the doorbell.
She was dressed to kill- perfume-short skirt- heels- hose- the works. And ready for some serious party, too. I was dirty, sweaty, drunk as a boiled owl, and ready to declare my independence.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Hey, check it out I got a new bike."
"I see. Did you see your friend down in Woodlake?"
"No," I said. "I bought this instead."
"What about tonight?" she said.
I shrugged. "Wanna brew?" The gal from the market did have a temper, and it was heating up fast.
"What about tonight?" she repeated.
"Who fuckin' cares?" That was it. She went off like the Disneyland fireworks. Only this wasn't Disneyland.
What happened next was sort of a blur. I remember a lot of yelling, and before I could get up off the couch, she went for the bikes. She tried to knock them over in the living room, but she slipped (thank God for high heels). Drunk as I was, I was on my feet before she could take another swipe at the fleet. I grabbed her around the waist, and tried to wrestle her out the front door. Things got very very loud, and the next thing I knew there were police cars in my front yard, and I was spread eagled on the lawn. I heard a voice over my head.
"So what was happening here? Did you hit her?"
"NO!" I said, She was trying to trash my bikes, and I was trying to get her out of the house."
"Your bikes?" said the cop.
"Go see." I said. "She was trying to wreck them."
Just then another cop came out of the house. "Hey", he said to his partner. "Check out the old bikes this guy's got." The first cop went into the living room leaving his partner with me. "Where'd you get those things?" he asked.
So there I was with my face in my own front lawn chatting about antique Schwinns with a cop I couldn't see. It was kind of surreal. The other officer came out of the house. The two of them talked for a bit. They said I could get up off my face, but I still had to sit on the grass.
The first cop came back to me. "You're lucky," he said. "She said you didn't hit her, and she doesn't want to press charges. She's going home. I'd suggest you go in and sleep it off. We don't want to hear from you again, understand?"
Jaguar Project Part Eight (conclusion)
Monday, January 11, 2010
No seat. No fenders. Broken spokes. Rotten tires. Spray-can black paint job. But I knew a Schwinn frame when I saw one, and the locking spring fork, and razorback gooseneck marked it for a high end bike.
"Well", said the old guy. "How much'll ya give me for it?"
"It's missing a lot of stuff," I said. "Do you have any of the parts around here?"
"Well- I don' know... here wait, there's this."
He went over to a workbench, rummaged around in the junk, and came back with a rusty tank half, and the headlight shell, The pot metal shell had been rotted out from battery corrosion. There was a big hole in the top of it, and a large section had pretty much turned to dust. The tank still had the black paint, and yellowed decal. No doubt about it. This rusted old beater had once been the top of the line of the top of the line. It was beyond restoration.
I could pretty much figure was coming next. He'd be sure that this old junker was worth a thousand bucks, or something. As it was, it was good for spare parts, and not much else. Nonetheless, if I bought it, even for more than it was worth, then maybe I'd get a shot at the rest of the stuff he had in the yard. Who knew what could be out there in that pile?
"I'll tell you what," I said. "There's not too much to work with here- best I could offer you for it would be fifty bucks."
"Fifty bucks," he grumbled. "You said these things were worth money. Alright. You can have her for fifty."
I loaded the sorry old wreck into the back of my truck, and headed home. It was Tuesday night, and the gal from the market was waiting at the house when I got back. She wasn't exactly living with me, but she never really went home much these days. Home meant dealing with her daughter, and her mother, and, well- it was more fun over at my place. The kid hated my guts. But that's not part of this story.
"You got this in the mail", she said. Yellow envelope. Green cardboard check. Tax return, and six hundred bucks. "Woo hooo," she exclaimed."We can do some real party there!"
"Uh, yeah- we can at that," I said. Six hundred bucks would buy a load of buzz. And I'd be a liar if I said it didn't sound like fun. But this relationship was nowhere. It was sex and dope. It was an easy getaway for her, and easy sex for me. And I had promised myself no more of this shit one too many times.
Jaguar Project Part Seven
Friday, January 8, 2010
"It snowed last night in Woodlake, brah..."
"What do you mean?" I asked Eddie. Eddie was from Maui; he was another one of the crew at the utility company. He lived a couple of blocks away from me, so we sometimes shared the ride to work.
"You ain' talk to da Cowboy?" Eddie said. "He gots da soda, man. Da kine shit."
"Oh, yeah? Well maybe I'll check it out. I've never done it before. What's it like?"
The Cowboy lived in Woodlake, which was about seven miles down the river trail from my place. I used to ride the bike down there Saturday mornings, pick up some weed, and then take a buzzed and leisurely cruise back home, or maybe down to the beach. This Saturday I took the Jaguar, and came back with my usual stash, plus a tiny white envelope full of grief. I had just made one of the two worst decisions of my life, up to that point. I'd follow it up soon after, by asking out one of the checkers at the nearby supermarket.
The gal from the supermarket was not interested in bicycles of any manner, shape, or form. She liked blow. And she liked to party.
Every time I'd invite the Gal from the market over for "a little session" as we called it, I'd be well supplied. I found reasons to stop by The Cowboy's place more and more often. I'd see him at the yard before the shift started, and we'd BS about this and that, and somehow the topic always rolled around, and I'd order another G. That was a hundred bucks in 1980 bucks.
And I couldn't quite figure it out. I don't know how many times I'd plow a line, and realize once again, "you know, this stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be- in fact, it's a shitty excuse for a buzz at all- I don't really even like this feeling, and besides it's fading already after barely only ten minutes, and yeah this stuff is bullshit, and right now I need a hit, but once this shit's gone that's it. No more...
And the next day I'd feel like total crap. And a couple or three days later, I'd be talking to the Cowboy, and...
Even though I was making pretty good money, it didn't take very long before I found myself running short of cash.
But, wait- we were talking about classic bikes here, not sex, n' drugs. Wasn't there something about an old Schwinn in this story?
Despite the new relationship, and the financial drain I was still on the hunt for old bikes. The Starlet was the right vintage, but it was a girl's bike. The Jaguar was cool enough, but it was a middleweight sixties bike, and barely twenty years old. I wanted a forties, or fifties machine. And work still kept me going in and out of old neighborhoods, and old houses, and one day I got a call to change out a meter at an ancient two-story wood frame house, set way back on a big lot. The place even had a barn. I knocked. A scruffy, skinny old guy came to the door. I identified myself, and told him why I was there. I walked around to the side of the house to check the meter, and my eyes were pulled like a magnet to a giant rusty tangle of old bikes sitting in the yard like a mountain of iron spaghetti. I walked back to the fence for a closer look.
"What're you lookin' at, there?" I hadn't heard the old guy following me, and it startled the hell out of me when he spoke up.
"Oh," I said. "I like to fix up old bikes- hobby of mine, you know?"
The old guy said nothing.
"I was just wondering if maybe you had any of this stuff for sale. I pay pretty decent money for the right bike in the right condition."
"Nothin's for sale here."
It wasn't supposed to go this way. He was supposed to say, "Well I got one I could show ya' here. Bought it for the boy way back when, but he ain't interested no more so you can have it for twenty bucks if you want it". And then, of course he'd pull a tarp off a 1949 Black Phantom...
"Nothin here's for sale", he repeated.
Time for diplomacy.
"I understand, sir- know just how it is. I have my own big old pile of parts, and stuff at home, and well- I'll tell you what. Here's my home phone." I wrote it down on a blank repair order. "If you ever want get rid of any of this stuff give me a call. Like I said, I do pay good money for the right old bike." He didn't say anything, but he took the phone number. Weeks later I got a call. He had one old bike he'd sell me if I wanted to see it. I drove over there, and he took me into the barn to have a look. And damned if it wasn't a genuine Schwinn Black Phantom, practically the Holy Grail of collectible bikes.
Or what was left of one.
Jaguar Project Part Six
Monday, January 4, 2010
I went out yesterday, and put ten or twelve miles on the Jaguar. This was the first real ride I'd taken on the bike in years. I mentioned earlier that the old brake shoes were hard, and the shifter is a little touchy. Nothing I can't live with. And the other little repair jobs held OK, too. The headlight lights, the beeper beeps, and the handlebars are firmly clinched in the gooseneck.
And actually riding the bike? Like I said, I put maybe a dozen miles on it yesterday- not exactly a marathon, but it was enough. The Jaguar was supposed to be a 'sportier' model full dresser- thinner tires, a little less sheet metal, three-speed hub. By contemporary standards the Jag is "sporty" in the same way a 1961 Ford Falcon is a "sporty compact car". A dozen miles on my two year old, 21 speed comfort bike is no effort at all. A dozen miles on the Jag is a lot like work.
When you take an old Schwinn apart, you realize that you're dealing with an antiquated technology. There was no planned obsolescence in the design. You didn't buy a Schwinn, wear it out in a year, and just get a new one. Everything on the bike is solid, over-engineered, infinitely adjustable, and durable as a hammer. But all that durability and style has a price. It is steel on steel, and unapollogetically heavy. It's a bike built to take years of hard use at the hands of the Great American Boy.
I'm sure that this was the first time in its fifty year history that this bike had been taken down to nuts and bolts. And I have no doubt that the Jaguar will be good for another fifty years of service. No part of the bike was worn out or unserviceable. Except for the gooseneck.
This was one of those slightly unnerving incidents where hard reality cuts into the soft edges of memory. But then again, this stuff happened in 1980. Thirty years ago. Anyway- The gooseneck on the bike is not the one that was on the bike when I bought it. I do remember that the old one didn't hold the bars tight, and that it cinched down with a nut and bolt rather than just a bolt, threaded into the gooseneck itself. But I don't remember swapping out the part. At any rate, the gooseneck that I have is correct for the bike (I checked), and that's what really matters. Nonetheless, it still didn't hold the bars tight so I had to shim it up with a piece of aluminum cut from an old license plate.
And, as I try to piece the rest of that year or so together I find a lot of stuff that seems pretty clear until I try to focus in on it, and then...
And why is it important? The part is important, because the object of the game is to get your 1961 bicycle back together with all the correct parts. Similarly, I want to get the story of those bikes correct, because it is my story as well. And now, with the Jaguar complete in both the present, and in this narrative of events passed, I'm moving on to the second of these three machines up for overhaul: the 1950 B-6.
The B-6 is the flagship of my little fleet of bikes. And as with all of these old bicycles of mine it took a near miracle of coincidence to complete the bike. But I didn't find the B-6 through any sort of amazing coincidence. I bought it from a shop, out of a desperation that had nothing to do with bicycles.
Jaguar Project Part Five
Friday, January 1, 2010
I finished the Jaguar, and put the bike on the street for the first time since the mid 1980's. Of course, there were a few minor glitches, but I got them worked out. The brake pads are hard, and they barely stop the bike. The shifter is a little touchy. I remember when I first got the bike that the shifter wouldn't stay in gear. The spring was weak, and the notch that holds the indicator lever in place was worn, and rounded. In my Dad's can of miscellaneous rubber pieces and parts I had found a large rubber washer that seemed like it was made to fit the inside of that shifter. It did the job, but, like I said, the indicator is still a little touchy. Nothing you can do about fifty year old brake pads. I did a damn nice job on that thing, if I do say so myself. It whirls along like a brand new bicycle.
Yesterday it rained all day, so I took the camera out into the garage, and tried to get a very cool, moody, low available light picture of the newly reassembled cruiser. Tried. Most of the pics were shitty, and I don't know why I was surprised and a little disappointed that the bike ended up looking just like it did when I started. The picture I posted is probably the best. Anyway...
I mentioned earlier that I found my three classic Schwinns during a brief period of good luck. Finding those bikes was the only thing that remotely resembled luck during that period of time. The rest of my life was on track for a major train wreck. That I pulled those bikes out of the fire is pretty remarkable in itself. I can count the good choices I made in that year or so on the fingers of one hand. And the bikes count for three out of five good choices, at that. Hell, those bikes kept me out of jail. Like I said, the bad decisions started with taking the job. I hated the job. But, as luck would have it then, I got introduced The Cowboy, and that only helped to set up the impending disaster.
The Cowboy was another one of the service crew at the base. He was a tall, raw boned man in his early sixties- gray, weatherbeaten, mustache, cowboy boots, and Stetson hat. Looked, and talked like The Marlboro man, pardner... Drove a new Corvette, and carried a sawed off, side by side 12 gauge in his coat pocket- right chamber, rock salt; left chamber, buckshot. He didn't drink, or get high, but he sold weed for a hobby. That, for me, was not a bad thing. But back then in the early eighties, cocaine was becoming a fad, and all the cool kids were doing it, so The Cowboy sold coke too. Which brings me to another less than wise decision that I made: hooking up with a gal who liked cocaine, and kinky sex. She had a budding sociopath of a daughter to boot...
I'll let you infer the rest. This narrative is about bikes.
I had walked out my front door and found the 1955 girl's bike. This was what I'd been hunting for. This was the real thing.
The first thing I did with the old beast was to soak every nut, bolt, and screw with Liquid Wrench. I let it sit a couple of days, re-soaking all the fittings, and then I began disassembling.
Despite the thick coat of barn paint, the bicycle was in very good shape. The fenders had dings, but the struts were straight. Of course, the horn, and light were ruined from corroded D-cells, but the tanks were undamaged. I actually got the old horn to work; the light was beyond repair.
I got a few cans of paint stripper and, piece by piece, started brushing it down. The thick coat of red paint peeled off easily revealing the bike's true colors- white, with rose pink trim, and the model: Starlet. I bought more stripper, and took the whole thing down to bare metal, and then fine sanded it all until the whole collection of pieces and parts was gleaming naked metal.
The painted frame looks like a single curving piece. Stripped of paint it reveals an assembly of beautifully bent segments of tubing, mated with elegantly brazed joints- shiny gold against the cold white steel, and ground so smoothly that a blind man's fingers would not detect a seam. As I disassembled the Bendix coaster brake, the brass shoes, friction polished like two pieces of gold jewelery, tumbled out into my hand. I think this is where I really began to fall in love with these old machines.
I hadn't painted anything with a spray can since I built model cars when I was in Jr. High. And I had never tried giving anything a two tone paint job. Original or not- white and pink was an unacceptable color combination for a bike I planned to ride around. I bought a bunch of rattle cans: forest green, and antique ivory. I'll have pictures up in a subsequent post, and I wouldn't have sidetracked into talking about the Starlet at all, except it was fixing up the Starlet that led to my finding the Jaguar. One coincidence set up another.
The house I was renting was a couple of blocks away from the San Gabriel River Trail. If you're not familiar with Southern California, that may conjure up an image of a serene path following the green banks of a flowing river. It is nothing of the sort. The riverbed, all but dry for most of the year, is a concrete culvert some hundreds of feet wide with smooth cement banks some fifteen or twenty feet high. The bike path runs along the edge of the trough, and if you're courageous enough you can dive off the path, and skate a bike up and down the steep walls like a wheeled surfboard on a concrete wave. Seal Beach was about two hours away, and that was my first destination once I got the Starlet finished.
I remember that I had just reached the end of the river trail. I was lifting the Starlet over the bike gate when another bicyclist noticed it, and stopped to talk. He knew someone who had some old bike like that- wasn't sure what it was. I gave him my phone number, (I used to carry pen and paper just in case.) and forgot about it.
Many weeks later I got a phone call from a stranger. Was I interested in buying an old Schwinn? When I saw the Jaguar I was too excited to do much bargaining over the price. I think he was asking $275. or $300. (remember- 1980 dollars) The only problem was that the bike was missing the front carrier, and the four-reflector rear rack. I had those parts sitting at home on the girl's bike that I had bought some months earlier.
Jaguar Project Part Four