Sitting in the doughnut shop enjoying a chocolate old-fashioned and a black coffee, I was reading the paper and glancing up occasionally at my Cook Brothers Cruiser leaned against the wall outside. Unencumbered by a lock, it was only ten feet away from me, although a window and a wall were between us. As it happened, I wasn’t its only admirer. A tough looking young guy approached from the sidewalk, keeping a purposeful eye on the bike as he stopped and rolled up the right cuff on his jeans. He was a stride away from the bike when he made eye contact with me through the window. In that instant of recognition, I’m sure he was asking himself, “Can that old dude get out of the chair and through the door, before I can get a leg over the bike and put a couple of turns of the pedals between us?”
Published April 26, 2011
I felt that sinking dread in the pit of the stomach that always accompanies physical confrontation, going all the way back to the schoolyard. I imagined rolling around on the ground with this thug while decent citizens looked on, aghast, at the sight of a switchblade glinting in the morning sunlight. Lurching from my chair, I knocked over my coffee and threw out my back. The kid veered away from the bike and hurried across the grass and down the sidewalk. As the sports pages soaked up my coffee, I settled back into my chair, regretting once again my failure to sign up for karate lessons, or even to do my back exercises.
The Cook Brothers Cruiser is a bike worth fighting for. Mine was built for me with a custom, over-size frame by Craig and Gary Cook thirty years ago. The frame is finished in black chrome and almost everything attached to it was also designed and hand-built in their Santa Ana, shop. The sealed bearing hubs, bottom bracket, crank set, head set, handlebar stem, handlebars and seat post are all Cook Brothers originals.
If anybody in America today is making a complete bike, components and all, under one roof, I haven’t heard about it. It was a monumental accomplishment then, and probably economically impossible today. Actually, it proved to be economically impossible then too, or Craig and Gary might still be at it.
What Cook Bros. was doing on a small scale, Schwinn was doing on huge scale at the same time. I remember visiting the Schwinn factory on Kostner Avenue in Chicago in the late seventies and seeing a railroad siding leading right up to the building. Bulk deliveries of sheet and tube steel arrived at the factory on freight cars and bicycles came out the other end. They even rolled their own rims, at least for the cruisers. For better or worse, it was bicycle manufacturing as smokestack industry. As big as it was, Schwinn was not just an American company or even a Chicago company. In some sense, it was a neighborhood company. A lot of Schwinn’s 2000 employees lived on the “west side” and could walk, take the bus, or ride a bike to work.
Cook Brothers never had more than twenty employees, including Craig and Gary, but they were local people, too. Even more than most of Southern California, Santa Ana benefits from diversity, both cultural and economic. Anti-immigration zealots never seem to wonder why cities are named Santa Ana, San Diego, or Los Angeles. “Made in America...by Mexicans,” Gary used to say with ironic pride, as one of the Spanish speaking employees affixed the little American flag decal on the seat tube of every frame.
Both businesses were run by brothers who would see their company and family names sold to outsiders. The reasons are many and complex. An entire book was written on the fall of the house of Schwinn. Nobody wrote a book about the Cook Brothers, but it might have been the more interesting story. To oversimplify (you get to do that with a blog) Cook Brothers innovated too much, too soon and Schwinn innovated too little, too late.
At Cook Brothers, Craig was the bike guy and Gary was the business guy. For a time at Schwinn, Richard Schwinn was the bike guy and Ed Schwinn was the business guy. If Richard’s job was difficult, Ed’s was impossible. He was made CEO at the age of thirty. A year after he took over, the union went out on strike. It’s been said that no large family business can survive intact past three generations. Founder Ignaz Schwinn was Ed’s great-grandfather. At a trade show I once asked Ed if he’d ever thought of getting a corporate jet. He responded to my lame question with more grace and humor than it deserved. “No,” he said, “if we got a jet, I’d never be able to get it away from my mother and my aunts.”
Cook Brothers were early promoters and innovators during the BMX boom of the seventies and the Mountain Bike boom of the eighties. Schwinn was late to both parties. Craig and Gary Cook sponsored racers and races. They were at the track on Sunday and at the lathe on Monday, experimenting with new component designs. A brilliant machinist, Craig had a sculptor’s ability to see the part hiding inside the block of aluminum. Unfortunately, once he’d brought it forth, everybody else could see it too, and some were able to copy it and bring it to market cheaper and quicker than the Cooks could. I remember being at a trade show in Japan with Craig when he spotted an exact copy of his sealed bearing bottom bracket in the display case of a significant parts maker.
BMX was started by a bunch of rapscallion kids ripping around vacant lots on stripped down Schwinn Stingrays. (See the opening scenes of Bruce Brown’s seminal motorcycle movie “On Any Sunday”.) Of course the jumps and bumps eventually led to broken frames, which had been warranted for life by Schwinn. Schwinn, an old school quality house, couldn’t support this subversive new movement, leaving the field open for people like Skip Hess Sr., the Cook Brothers, Richard Long and Gary Turner.
“We didn’t really build that many complete bikes, like yours,” Craig told me recently, “but we did sell a lot of frames. GT and guys like that did it the smart way. They went to Taiwan and showed them how to make things.”
Actually, nobody did a better job of outsourcing bicycle manufacturing to Taiwan and China than Schwinn. Schwinn’s brilliant engineer, Frank Brilando, moved to the Far East and showed them how to make things. They learned quickly and they learned well. Some would say too well, for Schwinn’s long term good. If ever there was a true “paradigm shift” in the bicycle industry, this was it and Schwinn led the way. Ed Schwinn’s judgement may not have been perfect, but he never lacked guts. Before he was through, Schwinn had manufacturing bases in Greenville, MS and Hungary. They also had a growing pile of debt.
After the Kostner plant was closed, Schwinn moved into industrial chic offices in downtown Chicago. The remarkable Schwinn bicycle collection was displayed throughout the property, suspended from the open beam ceilings. It appeared to be a great place to work, as I discovered when I made a poorly timed winter pilgrimage there. It was snowing pretty hard outside and it looked like O’Hare might shut down. Ed asked me where I was staying. I said I was at the Allerton, which was within walking distance on Michigan Avenue. “The Allerton,” he said with a knowing smile. “That’s not a bad place to be stuck. They’ve got a great bar. I got in a fight there once.”
He didn’t say who won that fight, but he lost the bigger battle to save the family business. Other brands began using the same improving Taiwan manufacturers, so Schwinn expanded to China, taking an ownership stake in China Bike Company. This was a bold and visionary move that blew up in Ed’s face when Schwinn’s primary Taiwan supplier, Giant, responded by entering the American market under its own name. Meanwhile, Schwinn’s debt pile was becoming a mountain.
The widely anticipated end came shortly after the Interbike show in Anaheim in 1992. Schwinn had one of the biggest exhibits in the show. In a show of strength, they hired Arnold Schwarzenegger to work the booth. Deaf to the rumors and whispers, Ed worked the booth, too. A lesser man would have stayed in the hotel room, or home in Chicago. If Eddie felt that sinking dread as he walked through the schoolyard, he didn’t show it. He even brought his wife and kids to the industry party at Disneyland. Many saw it as a desperate display of denial. I’d rather remember it as the last stand of a fighter who took a brutal pounding, but went the distance hoping to land a miracle knockout punch. Sam Zell, “the grave dancer”, bought the name, one of the most respected and iconic brands in American history, for petty cash by today’s standards. The bicycle collection was sold at auction.
We’re all smarter than Eddie now. But how many of us would have been then, in the crucible, alone at the top? In the early eighties my friend , Stan Chambers, and I both left the security of a big, established trade show company to start our own fledgling events. He called me to commiserate at the end of one long and harrowing day when we’d both received several crucial exhibitor cancellations. “You know, Steve,” he said with a note of despair in his voice, “you don’t appreciate how bad your judgement can be until you’re forced to use it, all alone, every day.”
As too many bike dealers can attest, nothing will try your intellectual, emotional and moral resources more mercilessly than a family business, big or small. It will break your heart, if you let it, and sometimes even if you don’t.
Richard Schwinn is still a bike guy. As a principal in Waterford Cycles, he’s turning out exquisite, virtually hand made bicycles in quantities similar to what Cook Brothers were producing in their better days.
Craig Cook is still a sculptor of aluminum and steel. At his well equipped machine shop in Oceanside, CA he fabricates everything from door hinges for Airbus jets to instruments used in the manufacture of golf clubs. In his spare time he’s building an airplane for himself. When I talked to him recently, I mentioned how often people recognize and admire my Cook Brothers Cruiser.
“You and Gary left a fine legacy,” I told him. “It was a noble experiment.”
“Yeah, that’s what it was, Ready,” Craig Cook said with a laugh not lacking in warmth or regret, “a noble experiment.”