a photo of a beach cruiser bike.
It won't win any races, but fat-tired cruisers bring car-free mobility to beach towns nationwide. Shutterstock

In the 1970s, the signature fat-tired mobility mode of beach towns managed to turn vacationers into bicycle riders.

If you hit the beach this summer, you’ll see them. Fat tires. Wide handlebars. Candy-colored retro-looking frames.

That particular kind of bicycle is known as a “beach cruiser.” While it looks like a nostalgic holdover from the Eisenhower era, the bikes that ramble along boardwalks of America’s beach towns were born in mid-1970s. And, as Marketplace chronicled a few years back, they found their way to the beach thanks to the efforts of one man.

Back in those days, American bike consumers had limited options, defined by age group. Kids rode fat-tired, wheelie-friendly frames—think of the bikes ridden by the kids in Stranger Things. Grown-ups got 10-speed road bikes with skinny wheels. Larry McNeely, who owned a bike shop called Recycled Cycles along the boardwalk of Newport Beach, California, did good business modifying vintage bikes for bike motocross (or BMX-style) stunt riding, and the most common bike that McNeely had been adapting was the Schwinn Sting-Ray, the iconic kid-bike used in his day by paperboys.

But when those kids outgrew their bikes, they had to switch to road bikes, which required a different style of riding. “I would see these kids graduate from a heavy-duty BMX bike to a lightweight racer. They would be bent over the handlebars with a little tiny seat that crawls up your ass, and skinny tires that sink into the sand,” says McNeely.

Spindly 10-speeds did not fit the Southern California lifestyle; at the beach, McNeely reasoned, riders need comfort and durability, not speed or light weight for long commutes. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What do most people do around here?’ They ride the boardwalk, which was always sandy. They run to the liquor store to get a six-pack of beer or a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. They cut through parking lots and turf fields.”

Adult road bikes lacked an important feature: big fat tires. The chonky rubber that made the Sting-Ray into a sturdy curb-hopper and dirt-racer also made it the ideal two-wheeler for bumming around the beach. So McFeely retrieved his old bike, a Schwinn Wasp, from his parents’ yard to restore and he imitated its features to update Sting-Rays for a more casual kind of riding.* He did not have to change much. He swapped the Sting-Ray’s banana seat for a wider oversize saddle and added backswept touring handlebars for sit-up-straight comfort. He kept the no-fuss single gear. “I realized that the old-fashioned, balloon-tire bike was better suited for the average person,” McNeely says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the bike that needs to be produced. It fits what people need.’”

The name “beach cruiser” seemed to come in with the tide. “I had a customer that had an old English three-speed. It looked like she kept it on a rope off the end of the pier and pulled it up, with barnacles and rust,” McNeely recalls. “She brought it in to me and said, ‘Hey, I need a flat fixed.’ I go, ‘You ride this?’ And she says, ‘Yeah, it’s my bay cruiser. I can take my surfboard, go down to the beach, throw this bike down in the sand, go surfing, come back, and it’s still gonna be there because it’s ugly and nobody wants to steal it.’ And I thought, ‘Bay cruiser, huh?’ That’s clever. Beach cruiser!”

McNeely trademarked the term “California Beach Cruiser” in 1976, when he was 21 years old. He started selling the bikes at his store, with the tagline “comfort, durability, and nostalgia.” They caught on. After the Los Angeles Times wrote a syndicated story about McNeely’s new entrepreneurial niche in biking, McNeely started getting bags of mail from potential buyers. “We couldn’t build enough of them each night to supply the next day’s demand. There’s no way I was going to be able to sell the bikes across the country.”

Soon, the bigger bike companies—Schwinn, Huffy, Murray, and Cleveland Welding Company—capitalized on the energy of McNeely’s reinvention. Schwinn revamped some of its retro designs, unveiling the “Spitfire” in their 1977 catalog. But with an article by Leon Dixon in the January 1978 issue of Popular Mechanics, the balloon-tire beach cruiser’s reputation blew up.

One of Larry McNeely’s Recycled Cycles outposts, in Costa Mesa, California. (Photo courtesy of Leon Dixon/NBHAA.com)

“What happened was the parents all went in to the bike shop saying, ‘No, my kids want a Cruiser, not the Spitfire,’” says McNeely. “So Schwinn realized that the ‘cruiser’ moniker was the main identifying factor for the lifestyle.”

Schwinn Cruisers had existed as motorcycles back in the 1930s, but the company had never used the term for pedal bikes. When the company revived the Cruiser name in 1978, McNeely sued. Eventually, the company settled out of court, arranging for a 25-cent per-bike royalty that amounted to about $100,000 each year (in the 1980s). By the time the Schwinn 1982 catalog came out, it included this description for the Cruiser, marketing beyond the California shores:

Several years ago, California cyclists adapted the word “cruiser” to their world of sandy beaches, and enjoyed riding old balloon-tired bikes along the ocean's edge.

The name “Schwinn” in front of the title “Cruiser” has traditionally meant solid, comfortable riding, a cantilever frame atop balloon tires and an overall look that never goes out of style. This year Schwinn offers a wide choice of Cruiser speeds, sizes and colors. You can enjoy cruising with or without a beach in your neighborhood. A Schwinn Cruiser is a ticket to fun- around town, at school, in street and sand.

Schwinn churned out hundreds of thousands of Cruisers every year in the 1980s, and they were soon joined by beach-themed models from Huffy (“Good Vibrations”) and Murray (“Monterey”). While those companies have all restructured since the 1990s, beach bikes have held onto their niche, making up between 5 and 7 percent of the 15 to 20 million bicycles sold in the U.S. each year, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

The cruisers that insinuated themselves into America’s beach towns found fertile territory—a flat, rideable landscape where bikes could pull day-to-day mobility and beach-chair hauling duty for a population of riders who weren’t in a hurry.

A board-hauling cruiser in its element on the boardwalk. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

As Greater Greater Washington pointed out earlier this summer, older resort towns—places like Cape May, New Jersey, where gingerbread Victorians are stacked closely on historic, narrow streets—often boast good urbanist bones. Their small scale, compact downtowns, and residential density make them extraordinarily bike friendly. Plus, the easy-going pace and relative absence of white-knuckle vehicle traffic makes riding on regular streets a relatively safe and pleasant experience for casual or beginner cyclists, compared to the bigger, congested metropolises from which visitors are often escaping.

“Having tourists and seasonal residents changes the way communities need to think about planning,” says Amelia Neptune, director of the Bicycle Friendly America Program at the League of American Bicyclists. In applications to the League’s awards program, beach towns emphasize that they may not have as much need for the same sorts of on-street infrastructure that cities require, with shared-use paths and trails taking bikes on more scenic paths. Local driving culture tends to be more laid back, too. “People are not trying to get through to somewhere, since that place is the destination. They understand people want to enjoy it at a slower pace.”

Beach towns also place less emphasis on bike parking, since theft is not as much of a worry. “One of the towns pushed back on our [bike rack standards],” Neptune says. “They live in a small beach community. It’s incredibly safe. Most people don’t even bother locking their bikes.” (The League does encourage employers to provide bike storage for their seasonal workforce.)

With their ponderous dimensions and La-Z-Boy riding styles, beach cruisers can be effective gateway vehicles for non-cyclists. Resort towns deploy fleets of them for rent to vacationers who might not otherwise get on a bicycle for the rest of the year; some hotels, condos, and rental homes have bikes available already. And that, says Neptune, can be powerful outreach. “As an advocate, I think of beach towns as opportunities for more people to get positive experiences with bikes,” she says. “They do it once while they’re on vacation and then they go home and wonder, ‘Why can’t I try this here? Why doesn’t my neighborhood have routes that feel that comfortable?’”

McNeely sees this first-hand in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California. “Where I live, people ditch their car keys when they get home on Friday night. Everyone has a bike in town.”

That sounds like the future urbanists want. But McNeely is a bit more skeptical about whether the beach cruiser—and the casual riding-for-all lifestyle it represents—can help usher in an urban bike utopia for cities. In the U.S., the luxury of stress-free biking on vacation in a beach town may just be that: a luxury.

“You’ve got to understand, I’m from Southern California. I live in a what we call quaint beach community,” says McNeely. For bikes to work as primary transportation in big cities and car-centric suburbs, it’s going to take dedicated lanes. “In my opinion, you’ve got to build the infrastructure first,” he says. “Then maybe you could build a bicycle-friendly place—everything built that way to start with, and everything planned. If you build on the outskirts with no services, people still need a car.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that McNeely’s old bike was a Schwinn Wasp, not a Schwinn Sting-Ray.

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