Style and substance - A history of the beach cruiser.
The iconic beach cruiser bike is the embodiment of carefree cycling. For many, owning one is not just a necessity but a way of life. The beach cruiser has both an interesting and extensive history that can be credited as the inspiration behind modern BMX and mountain bikes. Always improving, the beach cruiser has evolved over time from simple to sleek.
The Classic Beach cruiser was born out of ingenuity in post Depression USA. During this period in The U.S. adult bicycle sales saw a sharp decline as they were seen as a luxury and fragile product intended for sports and recreation. Bicycle manufacturers began targeting the resilient youth market with simpler and more robust bikes with balloon tyres being adopted following trends in Germany and France. These new wave bicycles were heavily influenced by the period motorcycles and the popular Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco.
In 1933, Schwinn launched the B10E "Motorbike" which is credited as being the original American cruiser. The bicycle borrowed heavily from motorcycle designs from the period but carried no motor. In 1934 The B10E was restyled as the "Aero Cycle" with a faux gas tank and battery powered headlamp. As other manufacturers including Monark and Huffy began to follow similar design aspects the classic beach cruiser aesthetic was born. The classic beach cruiser is distinguished by balloon tyres, swept back handlebars, an upright riding position, large comfortable saddle, simple coaster brake and accentuated curves along the frame.
In the 1930's these bikes where generally referred to as "motobikes". The term "cruiser" was adopted in the 1940's from a popular range of bikes from the Mead Cycle Co. named after ships; Chaser, Clipper, Cutter and Cruiser. The Cruiser being the most popular.
Sales of cruiser style bicycles jumped in the post war period as their comfort and practicality became valued amongst casual cyclists. Larger adult-orientated versions became available and the 1950s saw the heyday of the cruiser bicycle. The bikes stability and ability to carry heavy loads made them popular with bicycle couriers, paperboys and book ladened students.
By the late 50's and early 60's sales began to decline due to the popularity of imported bikes from Germany, France and the UK. These lighter, nimbler bikes featured three-speed gearing, taller wheels, narrower tires and greater hill-climbing ability. Practicality and style gave way to demand and U.S. manufacturers began producing their own versions of the "Euro Racer". Spurred on by the popularity of The Tour de France, derailleur-equipped "sport bikes" inspired by the European racing bicycles soon dominated the adult market. A new wave of consumer interest in recreational cycling was forming and the classic cruiser, for all its merits, was being left behind.
The cruiser also ceded shares in the youth market to muscle and chopper bikes featuring banana seats, oversized 'suicide' shift levers, and ape-hanger bars inspired by the new trends in motorcycle choppers. In turn, these bikes would gave birth to the modern BMX bike.
While largely forgotten by the 1970s, the cruiser remained popular for utility and recreational use along coastal towns. It was during this time that the beach aspect became associated with cruisers they soon earned the title of "beach cruisers". The term "beach cruiser" started in 1976 at Recycled Cycles in Newport Beach, California when Larry McNeely coined the phrase and used it as their trademark for the production of the modern Beach Cruiser. Secondhand cruisers found new life on America's coastlines as a practical and economical form of transportation for beach bums and surfers. The beach cruisers ability to carry loads was not limited to newspapers and surf board racks soon appeared.
As recreational cycling became more and more popular, thrill seekers looked for more exciting ways to push themselves and their bikes. Enthusiasts took to the mountains. The off-road terrain and the steep declines helped riders attain high speeds as they bounced and slammed over rocks and mud. Such harsh treatment caused regular road bikes to crumble, so "mountain bikers" searched for a more durable and affordable alternative. They soon discovered that old robust beach cruisers could endure tremendous punishment and were available at relatively low costs. The balloon tires provided some comfort as they cushioned the impact of the challenging terrain. As the sport of mountain biking developed old beach cruisers were finding a new purpose. Their frames were stripped down and new components were added and the modern mountain bike was born.
Driven on by pop culture and tourism a new found popularity in beach cruisers began to emerge in the 1980's and 90's. The comfortable ride, cheap maintenance and lower prices compared to specialised road and mountain bikes appealed to those who needed a bike for casual purposes. As tourism became more accessible to the masses the laid back beach life appeal of the bike found a new audience and the beach cruiser began finding its way back into cities on a global scale with considerable popularity in Germany, France and The Netherlands. The beach cruisers ease of use, stability and robust design has made it the stalwart of coastal resort rentals and these design traits can be seen in the new wave of bike sharing systems in cities around the world.
I first encountered a beach cruiser in 2014 on the Indonesian Island of Gili Trawangan. Its style, comfort and the laid back lifestyle it embodied captivated me. Not long after ordering one for myself I began tinkering with it to improve its performance on Dublins challenging streets. In 2018, out of a passion for beach cruisers, I founded Rossa Cycles. Our company's design philosophy is to bring modern styling and components to the venerable beach cruiser.
You can check out our modern take on a classic HERE.