As gasoline prices and Body Mass Index numbers continue to climb dangerously, more Americans are using bicycles as their primary means of commuting. Those urban utility types of bikes are functional, sure, but they lack the character—the “Hey, look at me!” factor—of the balloon-tired Schwinns and Huffys that kids proudly pedaled back in the days when helmets were strictly for riding motorcycles or playing football. Do you remember decking out your ride with either store-bought or homemade accessories like these?
1. Cards in the Spokes
A baseball card (that’s what doubles were for) or a playing card clipped to the fork with a clothespin or wedged through the spokes made an impressive amount of noise the faster you rode. Add a couple more cards, and your bike sounded less like a roulette wheel and more like a motorcycle, and was usually loud enough to annoy a neighbor or two.
A more high-tech way to get that engine roar sound was to get your parents to buy Mattel’s V-rroom. This plastic “motor” attached to your tricycle or bike and was activated via a key ignition on the handlebars. It made a cool engine noise that sounded something like a riding lawnmower, but it also required four “D” batteries to operate—which made it a bit pricey, since they seemed to run down on a weekly basis.
3. Wheelie Bar
Truly cool kids could pop a wheelie anytime, anyplace, using no additional equipment other than some strong forearms. But there was help available for the less-than-cool clique—Wham-O’s Wheelie Bar. It attached to the rear fender of the bike and acted as a sort of training wheel that assisted novice riders in keeping that front tire skyward.
4. and 5. Banana Seat and High-Rise Handlebars
Huffy manufactured the first “chopper”-style bicycles in 1963, and a few years later, Sears and Schwinn joined the fray with their respective Spyder and StingRay models. But for kids who were handy with tools and whose parents didn’t have deep pockets, any old 24-inch bike could be upgraded to chopper status by purchasing the basics at a bike shop: a banana seat, a set of butterfly (or ape-hanger) handlebars, and a crescent wrench.
6. Schwinn Krates
In 1968, Schwinn took their StingRay to another realm with the introduction of the Krate drag racer line. The bikes were painted vibrant colors and given quirky names (the red one was the Apple Krate, the green the Pea Picker, etc.) and retailed for a hefty $89.99. Each model was a five-speed stick shift outfitted with a spring suppression front fork, spring suspension in the seat post, aluminum front drum brake and rear caliper brake, racing slick tires, and other luxury gizmos that every suburban 8-year-old needed to quietly pedal around his neighborhood sidewalks. Even though the gear shift lever was somewhat precariously placed (for young males, anyway), it is the item which collectors insist be intact when they search for restored models.
7. Sissy Bar
An extra-tall sissy bar not only made your ride look more hardcore, it also served a practical purpose. It provided a back rest to keep an additional passenger seated securely when “riding double.”
8. Rear Rack
Speaking of riding double, we used bikes with rear racks for just that purpose. Such models were officially designated “Newsboy Bicycles”—that ledge on the back fender was designed to carry the large canvas saddle bags that door-to-door delivery personnel used to bring us the evening edition. But similar bikes fell into the hands of non-newsies and that rack was used to (very precariously) carry a passenger. Persons of authority warned against riding on the back of a bike, due to the danger of a foot getting caught in the spokes leading to broken bones and other serious injuries. But, being typical kids, most of us ignored the warnings and even transported passengers atop the handlebars just as an extra in-your-face to the naysayers.
9. Generator Headlight
Certain models of bikes came with a headlight built into the front of the tube (the metal crossbar that runs horizontally from the front fork to the seat post). There was room in the tube for two D-cell batteries, which usually leaked acid and corroded the works when the owners stopped replacing them. The battery-free alternative was a generator light, which was powered by your own legs. The dynamo output was mounted on the rear frame and rolled against the tire, the light getting brighter as your speed increased.
10. License Plates
A popular cereal premium at various times was an “authentic” miniature license plate from one of the 50 states. It was good marketing strategy to push Honeycomb, since there were determined kids who’d convince mom to buy it week after week until they finally got their home state. There was also the option of buying a personalized license plate with your name emblazoned on it …unless your name was "Kara." (Thanks, Mom.)
Some bicycles had horns built right into the tube and emitted an electronic “beep” sound with the push of a small button. Much like the factory-issued headlight, though, such horns ate through the Duracells at an alarming rate, and eventually they became non-operational. More economical (and also louder and more effective) were the squeeze-bulb trumpets that could be affixed to the handlebars. In those days, pedestrians didn’t have earbuds jammed into their Eustachian tubes, so it was a source of good-natured fun to quietly approach a sidewalk slowpoke from behind and see how much cardiac arrhythmia you could cause with a blast of your horn.