Rebuilding freedom - Gary John's passion for vintage muscle bikes
Everyone remembers their first bicycle. For most of us, it was our first taste of speed and freedom, principles we intended to live by. Wobbly at first, before long we were racing down the block and around street corners, shirts billowing. The world was wide open.
People do not usually expect to find that kind of nostalgia at the Qwest Field Event Center, much less for car shows held there, but at the Seattle Roadster Show, amid a sea of turbo-charged, V8 engines were a handful of vintage kid's bicycles from the '60s and '70s - muscle bikes they're called - that peddled out of the past. Their owner, Gary John, stood nearby, talking with people who learned to ride on such bikes.
"There's not a person that goes by those bikes, and doesn't at least smile," said John. "The smile on their faces says it all. There's something about our hectic world today that we need to go back and feel like we did as a kid."
John, born and raised in Ballard, wasn't always smiling when he was a kid. He grew up in a fractured and sometimes abusive household and by the time he was 16, he had moved out and was supporting himself while attending Ballard High School. Maybe the lean years helped etch his features and today, John cuts an imposing figure, with his long hair, beard, and tightly drawn face. Ask him about his bikes though, and his face lights up.
He began collecting muscle bikes a decade ago. While on-line, he came across a 1968 Schwinn Orange-Krate that was for sale. He was hooked.
"I've been riding it ever since," John said. "I still ride it. It was the one that inspired me; it was the one that I seem to enjoy the most. It's always your first bike."
Today, his collection has grown to over 150 bicycles stashed in various storage units throughout the city. His home is flooded with spare parts, accessories, and whole bikes.
Interest in muscle bikes "seems to have really escalated over the last four, five, or six years," John said. He tries to stay ahead of the curve in his restoration projects. Some of the results are readily evident, such as a flame-throwing bike. Attached to the rear wheel are tubes resembling exhaust pipes that can burn propane. John's Innovations have gained the attention of Hot Rod magazine.
John finds bikes in all sorts of condition, from fully restored to rust-covered frames. A true connoisseur, he is able to look at a piece of would-be junk and see its potential. The fire bike began as "a rusty old frame and a pair of rusty old wheels." Today it's a beautifully restored 1962 Schwinn Corvette. Where the bikes come from is just as diverse, ranging from swap meets to barns. Like many collectors, John travels the country looking for them, and displaying his own.
The Internet has made the hobby much more accessible and spurred its growth in recent years.
"The Internet has made it possible for people world wide to deal with each other; eBay has changed things a lot," Michael Fallon, owner of Copake Auction, Inc., wrote via e-mail. "People now have more of a resource to buy rare parts and accessories more than they had in the past.... Every year our clientele grows and merchandise gets harder to get."
Riding is an important part of collecting according to John, who can often be seen riding along NW Market Street. Another riding collector is Ron Summer, a mainstay in the local and national vintage bicycle community for over thirty years. He is one of the organizers of the Seattle-area Old Bike Swap Meet and Show. Partially blind, Summer still loves to ride his bikes, usually following a friend wearing a brightly colored shirt.
In the early-'90s, Summer helped form the now defunct Puget Sound Vintage Cycle Enthusiasts, which numbered over 350 members at one point and regularly organized rides. Summer is hoping to do this again with the newly-formed Vintage Bicycle Enthusiasts of Seattle.
Despite all the changes the hobby has undergone, one thing remains the same: that first taste of freedom and speed.
"That eight-year old freedom is amazing," explained Summer. "That moment when Mom or Pop doesn't have their hand on the bike...I still get that feeling sometimes."