Looking for wheeling and dealing in the antiques world There's action in vintage bicycles as bike collecting shifts into high gear. "The one Victorian antique everyone recognizes on sight is the high-wheeler," says collector Lorne Shields of Toronto. Although good 19th century bikes are rare and expensive, the hot and accessible segment of the market is American balloon tire bikes dating from 1933 to 1959: Over 38 million were made.
It's possible -- but getting harder -- to pick up a top-notch balloon tire bike for $20 at a house sale and a couple of weeks later sell it for thousands after having it professionally restored with about $500 worth of chrome and $500 of paint, according to James L. Hurd, the nation's foremost cheerleader for recycled cycles and curator of the Schwinn History Center in Chicago.
A collector recently paid $11,500 for a restored 1934 Schwinn Aerocycle, the ultimate in streamlined elegance, the bike every boy wanted during the Depression. With its red-finished welded steel frame, 26-inch-by-2 1/8 -inch red balloon tires, glistening chrome handlebars, battery-operated headlight in a sleek winged bezel, and pancake-shaped electric horn, it originally cost $34.95 and was advertised as having "the grace and beauty of the newest air liner."
Celebrities are joining the pack. In a 1991 Christmas TV program about ideal gifts, Oprah Winfrey stood near a 1952 Western Flyer and announced she wanted one, according to Mr. Hurd, who delivered the Flyer for the show. He added that Ms. Winfrey's staff recently got her an even more deluxe bike, a mint condition 1950s Schwinn Black Phantom with lots of chrome and white-walled tires, worth about $2,500. Back in the days of James Dean, drive-in movies, pedal pushers and Eisenhower prosperity it cost $79 to $89.
Baseball-great Reggie Jackson also likes old bikes, according to collector Steve Castelli of Windsor, Calif., who sold him two 1950s boys Monarchs a few years ago. "He must have about 20 bikes and motorized Whizzers mixed-in with his car collection," Mr. Castelli said. Many car collectors have switched to bikes since they're cheaper and easier to store.
Once bike collectors get going, there's no stopping them. "Someone suggested we try old bikes, that if you see one you want to own 100. Consequently, I've owned about 1,000 since I started," said Mark Morgan of Rockford, Ill. He bought his first in Wisconsin for $10 five years ago and today pays an average of $300.
What's the attraction of old bikes? It's nostalgia incarnate, grown-up kids longing for what they once had or always wanted. Larry Helfand, a carpenter, has 45 balloon tire bikes hanging from a rod in his Brooklyn, N.Y., loft. "When I ride one along the boardwalk in Jones Beach people stop and big smiles comes over their faces," he said. "It's like seeing an old friend who had disappeared."
Part of the collecting allure is that bike riding is great exercise and an old-fashioned family pastime.
Mr. Castelli, 52, a drag car racer and retired auto-wrecking yard ,, owner, has close to 350 bikes, the earliest a classic 1892 "ordinary" with one enormous wheel and one little one. His
youngest is a 1972 Sting-Ray Krate with a banana seat and high-rise handlebars. The fun of vintage bikes is in the search, he says. "You can't actually go out for a ride without being bothered with questions like 'Where did you get it?' 'How old is it?' or 'I had one just like it!' You never get tired riding since you stop and talk all the time."
There's tremendous camaraderie among bike collectors, due in part to clubs, bike races, swap meets and a host of publications in which collectors advertise bikes to trade or sell, or share
information about spare parts and repairs.
Collectible bikes come in all price levels, making it easy to start cruising. Demand, condition and completeness make a bike valuable. But, Mr. Castelli warns, "You can have a super-rare bike that's still worth nothing." Girls' models are cheaper than boys' since there are fewer female collectors and more girls' bikes survive: They were cared for better. Prices vary around the country based on local availability and demand. The Midwest is a bicycle gold mine. One Southern California collector who buys mainly on the East Coast noted wistfully that there aren't cellars and attics where he lives, and so people just threw away their old bikes.
Sometimes it's hard for private sellers to part with their long-unused bikes. "But many are looking for a good surrogate owner for a piece of their childhood," according to Mr. Morgan, and realizing the value of the old Schwinns they saved from their paper routes, for which they paid $2 or $3 a month on the installment plan, ask strong prices. That doesn't deter further profit-taking. This summer Mr. Morgan was offered $1,500 for a 1953 Western Flyer in mint condition which he had just bought for $500.