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He built the beach cruiser and sold a lifestyle
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In our series Brought to You By, we dive into the stories behind ordinary seasonal items: that grill you fire up for the Fourth of July or the fruitcake that you dig into (or regift) over the holidays. Where did they come from, and why did they become so popular?
Venice Beach has a constant ocean breeze and a boardwalk that runs along the sand, all the way from Muscle Beach past the Santa Monica Ferris wheel. If you want to cover all that ground — the whole 10 miles — you want to take a cue from Tina Issacs, a tourist from Las Vegas, and hop on a beach cruiser. Her agenda for what she’d do with the bike is pretty simple.
“Just ride around, look at everything and get some sun,” she said.
Beach cruisers are ubiquitous on Southern California beaches. They’re sturdy, they’ve got only one speed so they’re easy to repair and most people like to get one in a bright color so everyone sees them riding by, wind in their hair. The thick tires are good for riding over boardwalk planks or sand.
That’s was exactly the thought behind the design. And it was designed by one guy, a Southern California beach native: Larry McNeely.
We met in Huntington Beach, his hometown. He showed me the building where the shop he opened, Recycled Cycles, used to operate. (It’s a restaurant and pub now). It was the second in a franchise he started in 1973, when he was 20. McNeely and his dad restored antique bikes and sold them to collectors. He said there wasn’t much variety in new bikes for sale back then.
“There were only a couple of bikes that were available to the public,” he reminisced. “One was the Schwinn Stingray and the other was the lightweight 10 speeds with racing turned-down handle bars and the little tiny seat that went up your butt.”
Dustin Gyger’s wife bought him a beach cruiser on Craigslist and it eventually led to him opening Beach Bikes.
After restoring a bunch of balloon-tire Schwinns from the 1940s and ’50s, McNeely said he saw an opportunity.
“I’m looking at the overall market and I go, ‘These people in a tight community like Huntington Beach or Newport, they’re only riding their bicycles for short distances, they’re not using them as transportation,’” McNeely explained. “So we promoted the beach cruiser under the comfort, durability and nostalgia aspects, and that’s when it took off.”
McNeely and his dad designed a bike where you rode sitting upright with fat tires that was relatively low to the ground and had vintage details like fenders and vivid colors. They built about seven a week, by hand. He said they couldn’t keep up with demand.
“It went so fast, so big, that I lost control,” McNeely said. “I didn’t have good enough insight to capitalize to its full advantage.”
But Larry McNeely did make one really smart move. He trademarked “California Beach Cruiser” in 1976. The following year, Schwinn came out with a Schwinn Cruiser. Larry hired an attorney.
“We filed suit in the Superior Court of California for trademark infringement, and we settled out of court with a cease and desist,” he remembered.
The next year, he said Schwinn called him. The two parties negotiated for about two years.
“We finally agreed that I would take a per-bike payment for every bike they produced,” McNeely said.
Under the contract, McNeely would get 25 cents for every cruiser Schwinn produced. He had to sign a non-compete agreement, which forced him to shut down his three bike shops.
Schwinn’s sales were so good, he said he made about $100,000 a year (in 1980s dollars) without lifting a finger.
Beach cruisers are still the bikes of choice in Huntington Beach, California, where they were invented.
But the deal didn’t last. McNeely ended up having to get a real job designing aluminum baseball bats.
As for beach cruisers, they’ve pedaled right along. You can buy one pretty much anywhere that sells bikes, from any number of bike brands.
Including a brand called Beach Bikes, which is also headquartered in Southern California.
Dustin Gyger co-founded the company 10 years ago. When Gyger talks about beach cruisers, he uses almost the same selling points as Larry McNeely in the 1970s — a comfortable ride and a lifestyle.
“There’s always going to be a group of people that loves the concept of the beach,” Gyger said. “And if you could ride and get a bike and feel that for a few minutes a day, that inspires us here.”
The beach cruiser’s easy-to-ride design now attracts millions of customers, whether they’re tourists renting one for a few hours on the Venice Beach boardwalk or college students anywhere in the U.S. just trying to make it to class.
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