Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Western Flyer Bicycles

I was looking at old Western Auto ads from The Vindicator and was reminded that my first bicycle was a Western Flyer, which was sold by Western Auto. It was actually older than the one in this ad from 1959. The bike had been my brother’s, which he probably acquired in the early 1950’s. It was painted Maroon with some cream colored detailing. It had huge fenders to accommodate the 26″ balloon tires. There was even a hole in the back fender I could use to attach my Youngstown bike license. It had a carrier on the back with slots that allowed you to tie things to it. It also had a “tank” between the seat and the handle bars. The handlebars were much more wide swept than handle bars today, and because it was old, the chrome was worn off. It had a coaster brake in the back. Like the bike in the picture, it had a wide, padded seat with springs underneath. In one article I read, they said these bikes weighed about 76 pounds. I can believe it! That thing was heavy, and it only had one speed.

Of course, I added to the weight with various accessories: a headlight, mirrors, a speedometer, a horn and a rear tail light. Most of that I bought in the bike aisle at the Western Auto in the Mahoning Plaza. That bike took a lot of energy to get up hills and with some, you just ended up walking. But it could haul downhill–30 miles per hour on my speedometer. That actually got scary one time when the bike started shaking when I tried to put on the brake. Somehow I got it stopped. Because it was so old and clunky, even though I lovingly polished it up, I never had to worry about it being stolen–not with all the spiffy English racers and other cool bikes other kids had. Little did they know that these retro bikes would eventually fetch high prices. I saw one on Etsy selling for $4750! It was from 1950 and looked to be in mint condition.

Eventually, I used some paper route money and bought a 5-speed Schwinn Collegiate second hand (which I still own). I don’t know what happened to the old Western Flyer. At one point, I think my dad turned it into a stationary bike for some exercise. I remember that those old handlebars developed a crack. I suspect it might have been trashed–it wasn’t around when we cleaned out the house.

Western Flyers were first sold by Western Auto in 1931 and the brand continued to be sold until 1998. Other companies actually manufactured the bicycles including Murray and Huffy, the Cleveland Welding Company and the Shelby Cycle Company. Some of the most iconic bikes were sold between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. The Speedline Airflo, built in the late 1930’s, was one of the most popular, and was built by Shelby Cycle. The X-53 series from the 1950’s was also popular and included a frame made of hydrogen-braised seamless steel. There is even a Facebook group for Western Flyer X-53 Bicycles! Even though these things were heavy, they looked sleek, a lot like some of our cars from the Fifties.

I don’t think today’s “retro” bikes are quite as heavy. The thing that was great about these old bikes was that they were comfortable to ride and solid enough to deal with the rough use we gave them as kids. It was a time when we put streamers and baskets and lights and mirrors and lots of other stuff on our bikes and these were big enough that there was room for it all. I think some of us were imagining the motorcycles or the cars we would own in a few years and how we would customize them,

It would be fun to hear about your bike memories. Anyone else have a Western Flyer? What was your first bike? Anyone still have a bike from their youth?

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Bicycles


Do you remember learning to ride a bike? This was a bit of a sore spot for me. I was overweight and somewhat clumsy as a child and don’t think I learned how to ride a bike until long after many of my friends, probably somewhere around the transition to junior high. Around that time, I went through a growth spurt and got skinnier–I describe it as “stretching” where I grew but didn’t gain weight for a couple years.

When I finally did I was too big for one of those little bikes with training wheels. First, one of my friends let me learn on his 26″ Huffy, which I eventually rode from one end of the block to another, after many failed wobbly attempts though not too many skinned knees. So dad pulled my brother’s old Western Flyer out of storage, cleaned and lubed it up and made sure the coaster brake worked.

It was a big old bike. It had balloon tires, a heavy frame, a “tank”, and a carrier on back as well as wide, heavy fenders. It had one speed, which usually wasn’t very fast. I spent a lot of time at the Western Auto store in the Mahoning Plaza buying accessories for the bike–front and back lights, mirrors, and a speedometer. I think the fastest I ever got that bike to go was 30 mph, pedaling down the drive into Mill Creek Park from Calvary Cemetery. The challenge was stopping. When I went to apply the brakes, the whole thing shuddered and I barely got the bike slowed down without wiping out!

Eventually, I got tired of that big old bike that was nothing like the sleeker models most of my friends had. I wish I had it today because “retro” bikes like this are cool again. The last I remember, my dad had turned it into a stationary bike and I don’t know whatever happened to it.

I bought a 5-speed Schwinn Collegiate from a high school friend who had graduated to cars and didn’t really care about bikes. I still have that bike. It had a deep blue frame, chrome fenders and a comfortable seat. I had friends over in New Wilmington, PA, about a 20 mile ride and rode the bike there and back several times.

I loved riding when I had free time and during college bought a 10 speed Concord (also still hanging in our rafters) that was light and fast. It had racing handlebars, a hard racing seat to which my butt got accustomed. I loved to ride it through Mill Creek Park, speeding through curves, going full speed down Suicide Hill.

I suspect my guardian angel probably worked overtime during this period. I had several wipeouts on gravel, a few close calls with cars–and none of us wore bike helmets back then.

My wife’s experience was different. She also had a blue Schwinn bike with a basket that she wishes she still had. At some point her parents decided that she was too old for bikes and got rid of it. She later got a ten-speed when we were dating so we could ride together. But her experience reflected a difference between then and now. Most kids wanted to get a car as soon as they could drive. Bikes weren’t really seen as transportation, more as toys that we outgrew.

That began to change in our college years with the growth of an ecological consciousness and rising gas prices. Today things are very different. A number of friends cycle to work at the university on a bikeway from the north end of our city to campus. More and more of our roads have bike lanes. Still it has been a long time since I’ve ridden and the traffic in our city scares me. I might be tempted to break out the old bikes someday, but it is probably more likely that I’ll enjoy the memories of summer afternoons cycling through Mill Creek Park and some of the other back roads outside of Youngstown.