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!