A Look Back: Who was Ignaz Schwinn?

I originally wrote this post with information sourced from books, but after a few second thoughts I decided to send that first draft to Richard Schwinn, the great-grandson of Ignaz Schwinn; after all, who would know more about the history of the Schwinn family then Richard? His response was both illuminating and showed the innate knowledge that comes from being born into such a rich legacy. The end result is this post which is partially written in Richard Schwinn’s own voice.

1981_02Ignaz M. Schwinn was born in Hardheim, Germany on April 1st, 1860. He was the second born of seven children. His father, Frank Schwinn, was a master carpenter; to earn your master’s rating you have to produce a “masterpiece”. Frank Schwinn masterpiece was a pump organ which is still playable today. (Both Richard Schwinn as well as his son have played that organ.) Frank died when Ignaz was only 11 years old. Like his father, Ignaz was also a craftsman and as a youth he spent time as an apprentice’s machinist, before traveling around Germany with a focused attention working on the latest technology craze that was then sweeping the world, the bicycle.

By the time Ignaz was beginning his apprenticeship the High-Wheeler, also known as the Ordinary, was the latest and greatest trend in bike design. Bikes at this time were still lacking in chain technology which meant that each pedal moved you exactly one rotation in distance forward, it seemed logical then that High Wheel Bicycle Club Group Photo - circa 1895a large wheel meant a larger rotation and a faster, more efficient, all be it dangerous ride. It is presumed that Ignaz himself spent a lot of time during his early twenties working with the Ordinary bike design, but he found himself draw to the new innovative designs of the Safety bicycle conceptualized by James Starley of England to be worth more of his attention. The Safety bicycle reduced the size of the front wheel and added the modern concept of a chain connected to gears. In his free time Ignaz tinkered with the Safety bicycle adding and improving upon the concept until one day he decided to show his own designs to a man named Henrick Kleyer. Kleyer hired Ignaz and together they produced some of the very first Safetys in Germany.

A year after he helped Kleyer build a new factory Ignaz and Kleyer had a falling out, reputedly over a coaster brake design. This was a key factor in why Ignaz and his wife, Helen, left for America. The population in Chicago in 1891, like the popularity of the bicycle, was booming; Ignaz had found his niche. He started off working at several bicycle companies, but quickly became restless and needed more space for his creativity; a meeting in 1894 would change the course of Ignaz Schwinn’s future.

1895_01The man Ignaz met was named Adolf Fredrick William Arnold. He was 11 years older than Ignaz and after cofounding the Arnold Brothers’ meat market, in 1864; he had become a very successful Chicago investor and a president of Haymarket Produce Bank. He knew opportunity when he saw it and with the sales and popularity                                                                                                                             continuing to rise in the bicycle                                                                                                                       industry he grabbed on.

In the late 1800’s the world had gone crazy for bicycles. With bicycles finally designed in a model that could be used by the general public, millions of Americans were buying and riding bicycles for the convenience, leisure, and also for the trend that had awakened in the heart of the people and publications of the day.  Bicycle races saw a growing increase in attendance and at one point the crowds following these races were larger than the audiences of baseball. Women found an increased freedom of expression that came with independent transportation and led to a fashion overhaul in women’s clothing. Roads began to be paved and whole clubs became devoted to cycling. People were enamored with the thrill and freedom that could be obtained with two wheels.

1899_01In 1895, Ignaz formed Arnold Schwinn & Company with Adoph Arnold as his financial backer – not an operating partner.  Ignaz ran the business right from the start, but had the good sense to give the money guy top billing.  With over 300 other manufactures vying for consumer attention and the overwhelming supply keeping prices on bicycles low Ignaz also had to stay business savvy. In 1899, he acquired March Davis Bicycle Company, built a new factory, and avoided joining the American Bicycle Company, a collaboration which although it controlled 75% of the bicycle trade, was bankrupt by 1903. All of these decisions ultimately helped Ignaz and Arnold survive the then impending ‘bicycle bust’.

1917_18Henry Ford released the Ford Model A in 1903; 2 years later it was apparent that adults had stopped cycling. Sales plummeted and only a dozen companies survived. With demand for bicycles stagnating, Ignaz remained aggressive about building market share, buying out small companies and, by 1908, buying Arnold out.

In 1911, Ignaz bought Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company, a timely purchase since the motorcycle business exploded over the next 20 years. Excelsior quickly gained renown after the Excelsior model X clocked in with a record 100 mph speed, in 1912.  Ignaz seemed to find new joy in this venture. In 1914 he built what was then the largest motorcycle factory in the world and also bought a then popular, but unprofitable Henderson Brothers Motorcycle Company.  Ignaz merged these two brands and created Excelsior-Henderson. This new combined motorcycle brand soon became known for its excellent engineering as well as its luxury looks that helped launch Excelsior-Henderson to a poll position as one of the top 3 motorcycle companies behind Harley-Davidson and Indian.

7152758407_6f48fab200_zFrank W, Ignaz’s son, started to work for the family business, primarily on the motorcycle side after serving during WWI and finishing his engineering degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Like the bicycle trend before it, the motorcycle boom soon began to decline in the 20s. Then with the stock market crash of 1929 Ignaz, made the decision to close down the motorcycle business. He and Frank refocused their efforts on the bicycle business.  Ignaz was 71 years old and although he maintained his title of president of Arnold, Schwinn & Company and was an important part in many decisions, he began to give Frank the reigns to the family business.

Ignaz Schwinn died in 1948 at the age of 88 years old, leaving behind a legacy and ‘a name that has become synonymous with bicycle’.

Get out and ride,


& A special thanks to Richard Schwinn for all his contributions.


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