On Sunday November 5, Richard Schwinn of the famous American bicycle brand family gave a talk on the history of the Schwinn Paramount model, the flagship line of the brand. The fortunes of the Paramount have risen and fallen with the peaks and valleys of the bicycle industry throughout the 20th century and beyond.
To understand the story of the Paramount, some background on the Schwinn brand's history is necessary. Schwinn's great great grandfather, Ignaz Schwinn, emigrated to the United States with a background in engineering and manufacturing in his native Germany. When Schwinn settled in Chicago with $150 in his pocket (actually a substantial sum in those days), he met fellow German immigrant Adolph Arnold, a meat packer, who provided financial backing for a joint venture in the latest and greatest industry of the day, bicycle manufacturing. The two men named the venture Arnold, Schwinn & Company, and began producing and selling bicycles made in a Chicago factory with the name World Bicycles in 1895.
In that time just before the turn of the century, Chicago was the epicenter of a healthy and booming bicycle industry that produced over one million units in 1900. The boom was short-lived, however, as the new automobile cut into the bicycle's role as basic transportation. By 1905, sales were just 25% of their previous zenith. Throughout the next 20 years, Ignaz Schwinn acquired several smaller bicycle brands and entered the motorcycle industry to diversify production and revenue streams. By 1928, Schwinn's motorcycle brand Excelsior-Henderson was in third place behind Indian and Harley-Davidson in total motorcycle sales.
The Great Depression began with the stock market crash of 1929, and the motorcycle industry was nearly wiped out, so Schwinn dropped Excelsior-Henderson to focus on bicycles and try to stay afloat. Among the bright lights during those dark days of American industry was Schwinn's bicycle racing program, which sponsored six-day racing and teams throughout the 1920s and 30s. Richard Schwinn likened the popularity of six-day racing in the pre-WWII days to modern-day NBA basketball, and the top riders, in relative terms, made nearly as much as top sports stars today. Among those six-day racers Schwinn sponsored was Belgium-born Emil Watsyn, who advised the creation of a European-influenced racing line of bikes. In 1938, Schwinn, now under the direction of Ignaz's son Frank W. Schwinn, introduced the Paramount.
With American involvement in WWII, Schwinn entered wartime munitions production (Schwinn was a fierce opponent of his distant Nazi German brethren), and the popularity of six-day racing had sunk as soon as 1942. Watsyn and a small team of builders produced the Paramounts in a separate frame shop in Chicago, in small numbers and using advanced chrome-molybdenum tubing, lugged construction and silver brazing. With competition from foreign brands increasing after WWII, the Paramount line suffered from a lack of updated technology (such as derailleurs), despite a continued presence in American races.
Involvement as the bicycle supplier for the U.S. Olympic teams during the 1950s and 60s exposed the Schwinn Paramount to its shortcomings as compared to foreign competitors, and the model saw an upgrade to British Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing, French Nervex lugs and Italian Campagnolo rear dropouts. At the start of the bike boom of the early 1970s, the Paramount was well-poised to surf the wave of popularity that swept the nation, and which extended to racing and high-performance bike sales.
Into the 1980s, the Schwinn Paramount continued its involvement in racing as the first bicycle provider to the 7-Eleven team that featured U.S. speedskating star Eric Heiden. Continuing its role as a premium and separate cousin of the Schwinn brand, in 1983 the Paramount frame shop moved to Waterford, Wisconsin. Schwinn Paramounts were ridden by the Schwinn/IcyHot and later Wheaties/Schwinn pro teams throughout the 1980s.
If the Paramount's fortunes were rising or at least staying stable, the rest of the Schwinn brand was suffering as the 1990s began. Production had closed at the Chicago plant and later at a newer Mississippi factory for the cheaper labor of Asian production. In 1992, Schwinn declared bankruptcy, and its assets and name were purchased by an investment firm. Richard Schwinn and his business partner in the Paramount unit, Marc Muller, purchased the Paramount frame facility in Waterford, Wisconsin, and the legacy, if not the outright name, is continued in Waterford Precision Cycles.