Cool Bicycles Spoke Volumes To AGELESS KIDS, Who Still Get A KICK From Wheelies, Burning Rubber
June 12, 2005
By JOHN JURGENSEN, Courant Staff Writer

 

MUSCLE BIKE STILL SPINS MAGIC SPELL

COOL BICYCLE SPOKE VOLUMES TO AGELESS KIDS, WHO STILL GET A KICK FROM WHEELIES, BURNING RUBBER

They were Harley Davidsons for outlaws in short pants and braces - bicycles with slick back tires, stick shifts on the crossbar, glittery saddles and handlebars high enough to drain the blood from a kid's arms.

By today's standards, they are heavy, clumsy and laden with odd and dangerous accessories. But at a time when the Rolling Stones ruled the airwaves and helmets were unheard of, muscle bikes were the coolest things on two wheels.

They still are, if you ask Jim Barnard.

He was 9 years old when he discovered his Raleigh Chopper under the Christmas tree in 1970. He shoveled a circle in the snow outside so he could ride the metallic-blue contraption in an endless loop. After the thaw, he sampled freedom in a world within pedaling distance.

"Three freakin' gears. It was all available," he says.

Thirty-five years on, Barnard has more than a dozen Choppers lined up in a garage in Bloomfield, not far from where he climbed astride his first. In the past decade, his quest to reclaim that long-lost bike blossomed into a curatorial calling as he acquired enough Stingrays, Screamers, Draggers and other rare bicycle varieties from the '60s and '70s to create what he's dubbed the New England Muscle Bike Museum.

Though he'd rather ride them, Barnard shows off his bikes by appointment when fellow collectors and nostalgic pilgrims of a certain age ask for a tour. More than 100 chrome-and-candy-colored specimens line the walls and dangle from the ceiling. Here and there, spotlights and laminated description cards illuminate these former playthings, elevating them to artifacts.

But the vintage Farah Fawcett poster, lime-green couches and record player arranged around a furry rug make the space as much a clubhouse as a shrine to the simple pleasures of youth.

"This harkens back to those days when you didn't have a mortgage, you didn't have kids. It wasn't adult life. Back then life was a wheelie," says Barnard.

That could be a mid-life statement from anyone trying to reunite with their younger selves, whether through flashy cars or skydiving. But Barnard seems like he's always been on speaking terms with the kid who, when he inevitably fell out of love with his Chopper, unloaded it on another kid for $25.

Quick with a dry joke at his own expense, Barnard wears his hair in a curly mop that spills over his forehead. He walks around in Converse high-tops of two different colors. Occasionally he schleps to Boston or elsewhere to play a gig with his instrumental surf-rock combo, The Clams, in which he plays bass and sometimes takes home enough money to cover gas.

For a living, Barnard runs a Bloomfield business that his father started, Northeast Lightning Protection. As he describes it, rigging homes to weather rogue lightning strikes is a niche, the commercial equivalent of collecting muscle bikes.

"It's not like opening up the book of stamps that go back in the drawer when you're done," he says of his hobby. "It's not a muscle car that you blow 80 grand on, and you're financially tapped and [ticked] off at it. We make this almost sane. I've been able to make the hobby pay for itself."

After tracking down a Chopper like his beloved, Barnard began hunting other styles, buying them one or two at a time. He scoured the yellow pages for old bicycle shops when he found himself in unfamiliar towns. Eventually he began buying out entire shops in Massachusetts and New Jersey, selling off the surplus and keeping the valuable muscle bike parts and models.

Like his lemon-yellow Swing Bike. A stunt bike once advertised on "Donny and Marie," it's endowed with a hinge under its banana seat that lets a rider pivot the frame and, theoretically, ride with a tire on the curb and one on the street.

"It has pitched me on the ground more often than not," he observes.

Or the green Dragger by Iverson, which he bought for $1,876, the most he's ever paid for a bike. Designed by George Barris, better known as the maker of the Batmobile, it's an outlandish pedal-powered beast with a 3-foot "sissy bar" extending above the white seat. It's in eerily pristine condition.

"Sometimes I pretend that the kid who owned it got hit by a truck right after he got it, and his parents put it in his room, thus preserving it for posterity," Barnard says.

As his collection swelled, Barnard sucked in a fellow scout and accomplice in Wanda Stone of Ellington, a family friend. Though she didn't have a bike of her own until she was 14, seeing Barnard's collection touched off something for her.

"It was almost like I had found the missing link," she says, adding, "I bought a toolbox."

As often as not, Stone brokers the deals with buyers from as far as England and Japan through the museum's website (nemusclebikes.com) or on eBay. But neither Barnard nor Stone enjoys that aspect of the hobby.

"I don't buy to sell, and I don't sell well," says Stone, who has accumulated about 20 muscle bikes of her own, including a Chopper repainted in a shade she calls "Barbie pink."

For one thing, they can be suckers for people drawn to the bikes by nostalgia. When he hears such wistful tales of childhood adventure, the reluctant businessman says, "One part of your mind goes `ka-ching!' The other part can identify with the wanting and the fulfillment that finding something like that can bring."


UNIQUE ACCESSORIES
were part of the allure
of muscle bikes, including banana seats, far right; a
center shifter, right (which
Ralph Nader later helped
eliminate.); and dice air-valve
caps, below.




















A Short-Lived Era

In bicycle history, muscle bikes were a stylish aberration that would never repeat itself within the modern standards of product safety. As the story goes, the trend started in California. Imitating the street rod and motorcycle culture they were too young to join, kids started tricking out their bicycles with "ape hanger" handlebars and elongated seats originally made for bike polo, a craze that never came to pass.

Inspired by these bastardized street bikes, a Schwinn engineer created the Sting-Ray, which went on the market in 1963 for $49.95. Within 10 years, however, safety regulations (pushed through, incidentally, by Ralph Nader) outlawed such defining elements as crossbar-mounted shifters. Before the bikes were neutered, Sears, Huffy, England's Raleigh and other manufacturers managed to make their mark on the trend.

But for most adults who remember their rides of that time, Schwinn dominates.

"Schwinn decided that nuttier sold better," says Barnard, pointing out the pristine red Apple Krate hanging above a couch in the museum. It's weighed down with every accessory imaginable, including wheelie bar, baseball hat holder, Batman parachute, tail lights, tool kit and a plastic windshield.

"If you had Fonzi's haircut, you didn't want to get that messed up," Barnard explains.

Schwinn has re-created the Sting-Ray, though it looks more like something you'd see on "American Chopper" than "Charlie's Angels." Like the gleaming low-rider bikes designed by Latino customizers in recent years, Barnard gently dismisses such imitators.

"Yeah, they're artsy. Yeah, there's some real cool stuff, but I just don't like 'em."

Authentic vintage style was on display when Barnard and a band of seven bikers took to the streets of downtown Hartford recently on one of their periodic rides. Wearing leather jackets and wobbling at corners as they waited for traffic to yield, they looked like Hell's Angels on training wheels.

With a mini iPod tucked into his belt loop, Dan Surkis, Barnard's boyhood chum and band mate, provided the gang's theme music (courtesy of The Clams), amplified through a speaker wedged under his seat. But the original plan to ride to West Hartford and back was abandoned after a couple of martinis.

"We've never actually made it there," Barnard remarked, relaxing at a table outside Trumbull Kitchen with a drink before him and his red Chopper, lined up with the other bikes, drawing bemused stares from passersby.

Later, after a barbecue dinner and fixing a flat tire on the Sears Screamer belonging to Steve Iacino (dubbed "Capt. Curb" after an incident in front of a crowded nightclub), the crew rode, reflectors flashing, to the walkway across the Founders Bridge for some competitive skidding and burnouts. They circled through a darkened, deserted Constitution Plaza, a group of fortysomethings doing graceful figure eights on bikes originally built for children.

Then, like outlaws worthy of the style of cycles they rode, the riders were politely kicked out of the plaza by a security guard.

For information about muscle bikes for sale and upcoming rides and events, such as a swap meet scheduled for Aug. 28, visit www.nemusclebikes.com.

Contact John Jurgensen at jjurgensen@courant.com.

 

 


READY TO RIDE Steve Iacino, left, of East Hampton and Dan Surkis of Farmington, right, compare bikes with Jim Barnard of Bloomfield, center, before they begin a pub crawl in downtown Hartford recently. The guys meet regularly to ride. Barnard so loved the bikes of his youth, his growing collection led him to dub his garage the New England Muscle Bike Museum, a shrine to the time. (MICHAEL MCANDREWS)