The American Picker Dream, Part I: Mike Wolfe On His Love Affair With Vintage Bikes
By Ben Marks
As co-host of History Channel's "American Pickers" and the operator of Antique Archaeology, Mike Wolfe is known to millions of TV viewers as the guy who digs crazy treasures out of barns, sheds, and basements. But he’s always been a vintage bicycle guy at heart—that’s what got him started ‘picking’ at age six. In this first of several interviews (read our second installment here), we spoke with Mike about his bike racing days, his current collection of bicycles, and that fateful day in the ’70s when he got hooked by a bunch of banana-seats.
I was walking to school one day and saw all these bikes in the garbage. I was just amazed because I didn’t have one and I found it incredible that anyone was throwing them out. So I gathered up as many as I could and put them all in our garage. They were mostly banana-seat bikes from the ’60s, maybe one was a Schwinn. There was a girl's balloon-tire bike, too. That was the first bike I learned to ride because there was no bar in the middle—I was little, so I would ride it almost right above the cranks.
I basically never went to school that day. My mom came home and at first she was frantic about that.
But then she did something really cool, which has helped me throughout my life—she gave me the garage for all my bikes.
From then on, no matter where we lived or what I brought home, she would say, "The garage is yours." She encouraged me to have that space and make it my own.
So I got one running, which I rode, and then I sold one. It didn't take much to get it going. I put air in the tires and cleaned it all up and stuff, and then I sold it to an older kid down the street. I think I was six then.
I was always fascinated with bikes because when I was young I was very small and slow, but I could go fast on a bike.
Collectors Weekly: So that was the beginning of Mike Wolfe the picker?
Wolfe: Yes. Later on I raced bikes, worked as a sales rep for a bike company, and owned a bike shop for about 10 years. Bikes were a major part of my life, and they led to what I’m doing now. I live off my passions. Bikes were my passion then—they still are now, but in a different way. I felt the most comfortable with myself when I was on a bike.
The gentleman that owned the first shop I worked at had a collection of bikes in his warehouse. I was fascinated by them; I had never seen anything like them.
I’m talking De Luxe balloon-tire prewar airflow bikes. They were just beautiful. I decided to go out and find some of that stuff for myself.
At that point, it was like 1988, I just threw myself into it. I ran ads, put up flyers in small-town cafeterias, and drove up and down country roads looking for any type of older bicycle. That’s how I got started knocking on doors—no one would answer the ads!
Shortly after that, I started racing pretty heavy, from like ’89 until ’98. I did road racing and criteriums. I was a Cat 4 rider, and then I moved up to a Cat 3 for a little while, and then I kind of got out of it. When you run a bike shop, you never really get out of it, though, because you’re around it so much.
Collectors Weekly: What did you ride?
Wolfe: I liked the Italian stuff. I rode Bottecchias. My first really high-end bike was a Viner and that was my first handmade frame, and I always rode Campagnolo. Even when I was in high school, I had a Super Record Campy bike, which was a very expensive bike back then. I had an Atala, which is another Italian bike. I raced that quite a bit, did really well on that one.
When the balloon-tire craze was hot I was buying Phantoms and Panthers, anything with a horn tank. I love the Schwinn stuff.
But I was a purist. I grew up watching these pros and they were all riding handmade Italian Colnagos and Medicis and all that stuff. And everything was Campagnolo, and it was all exotic and amazing and beautiful. I wanted that, so when I started racing and had my own shop, those were the kind of bikes I rode.
The first shop was one I bought—it was called Eldridge Bike Shop. It had been around for like 10 years. When I was a sales rep, the owner was a customer of mine. One day, on a call, he said he was going to sell his shop. And I was like, "Well, how much do you want for it?" It wasn’t a lot of money. It was a small store, but he owned the building and that was the key to it.
Prior to this I’d scraped together enough money from buying and selling antique bicycles that I could afford to buy a restored 1934 Harley. I loved that Harley, but I sold it to a guy in Bangkok, Thailand, to buy the shop. I just walked in there and threw the cash on the counter and said, "I’m buying the store. Here it is." Later I opened Village Bike Shop in East Davenport, which is one of the communities in the Quad Cities.
Collectors Weekly: What were your greatest accomplishments as a racer?
Wolfe: I won the state time trial championships as a Cat 4. When I was a Cat 4 in Chicago, I think, in ’89, I got second in the state criterium championships. I was always in the top five, and I even won a few races.
I was a natural, but if I had had some sort of a coach, I probably could’ve done better. I was happy with what I did, but once you start doing stuff like that for a living, your passion becomes a job and I never wanted it to be that way.
Plus there were a lot of crashes, like every other week. I was a criterium junkie. I was one of those guys that did the work early in the race. I didn’t care if I started in the back. If knew if I busted my butt and could get to the front in the first two laps, if I just wrenched myself to get to the front, then I could hang in the top five after that and just cruise the rest of the race. With that type of attitude, a lot of crashes ensued.
Collectors Weekly: What was the market like for vintage bikes in those days?
Wolfe: The late ’80s, early ’90s, was the heyday of balloon-tire bike collecting. That’s when Schwinn went crazy. This was before the bankruptcy and everything, and they were trying to create a museum in Chicago. Schwinn had warehouses full of its turn-of-the-century bikes, but they had failed to keep any of their balloon-tire stuff. So they hired James Hurd as a curator for their museum, and he started selling off all these turn-of-the-century bikes to enable for them to acquire balloon-tire ones.
I'd find a bike for $50, sell it for $500, take that $500 and do it again.
Guys like me were out there looking for balloon-tire stuff to feed that flame. In return, we were getting early turn-of-the-century bikes from the Schwinn collection. They had a big sale in downtown Chicago. Wood-rim bikes were stacked like cordwood in these warehouses.
Around that time I restored a bike called a Sterling. It was a turn-of-the-century, shaft-drive, wood-rim bike with rear suspension—there was a shock absorber up by the seat stays. I found the bike in pretty rough shape, but I just went full on with it and redid all the nickel and disassembled the bike and found a pair of new-old-stock wood rims. That was my prized possession for many years.
Collectors Weekly: Was that the first 19th-century bicycle you owned?
Wolfe: It wasn’t the very first one, but I was working in a bike shop, so don’t really remember everything I worked on. I was making maybe eight bucks an hour, so I was able to make extra money on the side restoring antique bikes. I’d find a bike for, say, $50 and sell it for $500. I take that $500 and do it again. I was rolling this money over to the point that all of a sudden I had $5,000 to $10,000 to work with. And that's when I would acquire a bike like a Sterling.
I always looked at it realistically. I cherished bikes, but they were also money I could put my hands on. For example, I parlayed a whole bunch of balloon-tire bikes and turn-of-the-century bikes into that 1934 Harley. For a while that was my prized possession, but when the bike shop came up for sale, that thing had to go away because I always wanted to better myself and better my collection.
Collectors Weekly: How did you find your 1885 Victor penny-farthing?
Wolfe: That’s a cool story because that was the first high-wheeler I ever found. Before I had my own shop, the guy I was working for knew where it was. Actually a lot of people knew where it was. It was in a barn outside of town, and the owner wanted $1,500 for it, which was top-dollar for the condition it was in.
So I went to my boss and said, "Do you mind if I go look at that bike if you’re not going to buy it?" And he said, "Sure, go ahead." So I went up to this guy’s barn, and there it was, hanging in the rafters. I pulled it down and I jumped on it and started riding around the pasture, and the guy was amazed because he’d owned it his whole life—as his father had before him—and he'd never seen anybody ride it.
When I was loading it up, he says, "Hey, this bike goes with it," and I said, "What is that?" It was really unusual, a juvenile bike, with rear suspension and a hard tire. I’d never seen anything like it. Turns out it was a Gormully & Jeffery Rambler, which is a very rare bike. Later, Gormully & Jeffery became American Motors.
There were a lot of crashes, like every other week. I was a criterium junkie.
In fact, a lot of car companies started out making bicycles. Everybody made them. If you had a manufacturing facility around the turn of the century, you made bicycles because there were millions of them being sold. At first it was a social thing for the elite, but then, later on, it was transportation for everybody. Then people started to put motors on them like the Orient and, obviously, Harley-Davidson and Indian. That was great stuff.
The Victor was actually a very advanced bike for its time. It had a double-walled rim on it, just like a conventional bike would have today, with a rubber tire. Victor was the Cadillac of high-wheelers. They were made in Boston and San Francisco. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you find a high-wheeler it’s going to be a Columbia. They were a huge company that made a ton of bikes. But I like the Victors. I own another one that I acquired about two months ago.
Collectors Weekly: How fast have you gone on your high-wheeler?
Wolfe: I don’t know. I never put an odometer on it, but I used to take it out in the country and ride it for miles and miles. I was probably cruising at 18 miles an hour on that thing.
Collectors Weekly: How do you stop it?
Wolfe: It has what they called a spoon brake. It compresses against the front tire, but it doesn't exactly stop the bike because the mass of the wheel and the diameter of it is too great. All it really does is clean the tire. You have to slow the bike down gradually by using the muscles in your legs to just kind of bring the wheel to a stop. Basically, it’s the original fixie.
What’s funny is that a lot of that stuff is coming back around. I just read an article in "The New York Times" about people using green materials like wood and bamboo to manufacture bikes. There are companies popping up that make wood rims and fenders. One bike had a wood chain guard.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other bikes you’ve acquired over the years?
Wolfe: When the balloon-tire craze was hot I was buying the Schwinn Phantoms and Panthers, anything with a horn tank, a spring on the front end, a light on the front fender. I love the Schwinn stuff. I thought the Columbia stuff was beautiful, too, especially the 5 Stars. But I always really liked the turn-of-the-century stuff, bikes with hard tires, shaft drives, wood rims, the high-wheelers. I never got into the Schwinn Crate stuff, though, I never got into that at all.
In the last year I've found two of the rarest bikes I’ve ever come across. One of them, I found in the course of doing "American Pickers." It's a 1938 cantilever Schwinn Auto-Cycle. It's a really, really rare bike with original paint, and it’s got what's called a double-duty front end, meaning instead of a springer front end like on a conventional De Luxe Schwinn, the fork travels all the way up past the head tube on each side.
The other bike I found, which is a total bomb, is a Schwinn Aerocycle from the 1930s. I have the only blue one that exists. It’s not all shiny and restored-looking, but I like stuff that shows its age and has some personality to it. Both are hanging in my shop now, and I talk about them a lot on the show.
You've got to remember that bicycles were the vehicle into the rest of my business. I would walk into someone's barn just to look at the bicycles. Later, when I'd talk to antiques dealers, they'd be pressing me on what else I had seen: "Did you see this? Did you see that?" And I’d be like, "Yeah, I see that kind of stuff all the time," and they'd say, "You've got to start buying it and selling it to us." So that’s what I did.
So now I’ve got my Victor high-wheeler, I’ve got my Schwinn Auto-Cycle, and I’ve got my Schwinn Aerocycle. Obviously, I’d like to have a Victor hard-tire safety bike with the front suspension. I’ve always wanted one of those. I've got to put that on my list of stuff I'm looking for.
I'm fortunate right now because we get tens of thousands of leads coming in. Thousands of people want us to come pick their stuff. People see that I like bicycles, so there are lots of leads on bicycles. Probably 80 percent of them are junk, but it just takes that one lead to take you home.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still ride?
Wolfe: Yes. I have a house right outside of Nashville, one mile from the entrance to the Natchez Trace, which is a 444-mile-long parkway that runs from Nashville all the way to Mississippi. So people are always riding by my house. I brought my bike down there, a Kestral 500 SCi, but I’ve only ridden it once in the last maybe six months. When I did get out on the Trace a few months ago, the whole time I was thinking, "This feels good, this is great," but also it was like, "Oh, my God. I’ve got so much work to do!" Not as far as I work for the show, but getting back in cycling shape.
Collectors Weekly: As an Iowan, have you ever done RAGBRAI?
Wolfe: Of course! I’ve done it about 10 times, but not since 1992. A few years ago, RAGBRAI ended in LeClaire, Iowa, right at my building, which was a really cool thing. Today, RAGBRAI is like a roving Mardi Gras, but we’re really fortunate to have that ride. There are a lot of people who come to Iowa for it and then they see how beautiful it is here. Maybe they’ll come back later on.
That’s another thing that's so great about the show: I can’t tell you how many emails and phone calls we get—or people who we just see on the road—that say, "Hey, Iowa’s so beautiful. We want to come." The show shows off the state, the back roads, everything. People are really enamored by it. And it all started with bicycles.