When I was a boy my father, of Clayton and Willard Sales, fame would bring home to our breezeway a trunk load of rims and spokes and hubs and for .25 cents apiece I, and sometimes neighborhood kids, were expected to build the parts into wheels. You gotta love the joys of child labor! We didn’t have to be forced however, because one could put together as many as four wheels an hour and that equated to pretty good money for a kid and we didn’t have to true the wheels either (so technical a job as that could only be left in the hands of seasoned adults).
So one wheel every fifteen minutes became the norm for building wheels. The method of construction was invented by my dad who, like myself, was a master of autodidactness. Apparently one of the mysteries to entering into the retail bicycle business was the ability to spoke wheels; in Miami, where pops and his brother Willard started, no one was willing to advance the “secret of the wheel” and share how to do it with neophyte retailers right after WWII (I don’t know, maybe most of the bike people didn’t make it through the war; I’m just telling you what dear old dad told me). He came up with a method that usually worked based on where the valve hole was located and by using math one could deduce where the second spoke would go: complicated but it worked. Dad even built the front wheels for drag motorcycles; one of which broke a world’s record with dad’s trailer hub front end and .120 gauge spokes.
Then I toured the Schwinn factory in Chicago. They were assembling over a million wheels a year and I was astonished that they weren’t using dad’s formula. Placing all the spokes in a hub and placing the hubs in trays the “mess” was transferred to a proprietary hydraulic machine and all the spokes were tightened at one time. Build time about five minutes.
I spent weeks, after I returned from the Army, at the Mustangfabriken in Trelleborg Sweden and there I saw the ultimate man made wheel take shape in three minutes right before my eyes. The builder loaded the spokes into the hub, snatched a handful of nipples and in three minutes with a three speed Fichtel and Sachs rear hub and only nine digits it was done. Goodbye to dad’s wheel hello Swedish style which then became my style. Two guys made fifty thousand wheels per year.
For the next ten years I would teach generations of wheel builders the “Swedish” technique. One family of Cambodians managed to pay cash for a $100,000 brand new home within that ten years by making a dollar a wheel; they lived rent free in a house we provided at the plant.
Surpassing the three minutes was the two minute wheel. When Schwinn went out of business in Mississippi I bought two of their wheel lines (Two C.F. machines and a Robot from Holland Mechanics – state of the art) and at one point we were making 2,000 wheels a week for Caloi (a Brazilian outfit) when they were assembled with their frames in Jacksonville.
What did I learn? The wheels of my father were just as good as the Holland Mechanics but only a fool ignores technology. Today our Emory C-4 line of bikes is a combination of hand made and state of the art manufacturing with full on CAD CAM and CNC manufacturing. We will continue to use the marvels of the present and future while never forgetting the quality and workmanship of our past.