J O H N   B R A I N ' S   H I S T O R Y   O F
V O L U M E   O N E :  The first five years 1958-'62
The first "high rise" bicycles (as they came to be known) were garage-built by California teenagers. Old 20-inch children's bikes were converted to the new style by replacing the 
factory seats with "Solo Polo" seats, and mounting tall "butterfly" (or "apehanger) 
handlebars in place of the stock ones.  
ILLUSTRATION  © 2008, JOHN BRAIN
1962 was a pivotal year. 
The craze to bicycle kustomization continued to grow unabated in Southern California. And, despite ongoing concerns over handlebar safety from police and school officials, there seemed to be no end in sight for this youth-driven movement. Along with the high handlebars, the seat area continued to be looked at for modification. For a small number of California teens the fabricating of long motorcycle-like seats was a logical step towards a new kustom look.

The long seat trend began in 1961 but really started to flourish by early 1962. Home made seats could be cut out of wood and padded in whatever way the kids found available (sewn by mom?). To hold these long seats up, many boys mounted them directly to the top of rear carriers. Carriers were often mounted at the seat post bolt, and were held up in back by metal supports bolted to the rear axle. These old rear carriers were often just the right length and width to make the modification. Of course there must have been other ways to accomplish the task of installing a homemade seat, especially by young teens with basic fabrication skills.

The breakthrough event that made "home-made" seats unnecessary came in 1962, when there was a sudden landslide of renewed interest in " Solo Polo" bicycle seats - made by the "Persons Majestic" corporation (a seat manufacturer). The "Solo Polo" seat was long, narrow, and over a foot long, and was held up in the back by a steel support bar mounted to the rear axle. 

Persons Polo seats had been around since the late 1950's; but there was virtually no market for them till 1962 - when they suddenly became a hot ticket item for young teen kustomizers. Bob Persons was the man behind the company. In the late 1950's Bob went on a business trip to Europe (visiting either Holland or Sweden) and came across a unique kind of bicycle seat reportedly developed for the sport of bicycle polo. Always keen to pursue new avenues of business Persons brought back a few of the seats to America for assessment. He soon developed his own version of the long polo saddle, and began putting out the idea to his distributors that "bicycle polo" was something that had real marketing potential. Persons hoped that his long saddles would find legions of buyers if the sport of bicycle polo took off. He even suggested to "Schwinn" that Solo Polo seats would be a good fit on their tandem bikes.

Despite Persons' initial enthusiasm, it soon became apparent that the marketing of bicycle polo was going nowhere. Americans were just not interested in the idea. So, Bob basically wound up with a quantity of unwanted "Solo Polo" seats in his warehouse. The only place where the seats had sold in any number at all (and it was a small number) was in sunny California. 

Sensing that he'd better make the best of a less than ideal situation, Persons sold his languishing stock of "Polo" seats to any willing distributors that would take them off his hands (at a major discount). Then, after a while a funny thing happened, all of a sudden there was growing interest in the seats, especially in the San Diego area. Teenagers were coming into area bicycle shops and buying the cheap Polo seats; but, they weren't buying them to play polo, instead they were mounting them onto old 20-inch children's bicycles. Along with the "Polo" seats, teens were also installing tall "butterfly" handlebars (apehangers) on their bikes, creating a new and cool-looking mode of transportation. The "Polo" seats and tall handlebars increased the arm and leg reach on the little bikes, allowing teenagers to ride them comfortably.

In the later months of 1962 San Diego bike shop owners Gene Randel and Marion Moore sold quite a number of the Polo seats and tall handlebars to area teenagers, the kids were making them into the fun little sport bikes. So many sold, in fact, that Randel and Moore decided to go one better, and put together a few of their own 20-inch polo-seated bikes to sell at their shop. 

Interest in these "shop made" sport bikes grew, to the point that it was not only teenagers that were riding the polo-seated bikes, but others too. Servicemen stationed nearby were buying them to ride; and they bought them not only for themselves but also for their children. During the 1962 Christmas season Randel and Moore sold as many of the little bikes as they could put together with the parts they had on hand. The trend grew so big in fact that soon distributors and manufacturers were looking to get in on the action.  Persons Majestic had to restart production of the Polo seats when distributors couldn't fill orders with their remaining stock, and, by the end of 1962 corporate interests began thinking about the possibilities of taking this teenage bike fad out of the garage, and onto the assembly line. John Brain 
Below: Old children's bicycles (like this one) were prime candidates for upgrading. Mounting a "Solo Polo" seat and tall "butterfly" handlebars onto a bike like this one would transform it into a cool riding machine. Most young teens probably had bikes like this as children, and if they still had the bikes sitting unused in their garages, they were ripe to be kustomized.
Above: An example of garage-made "high- rise" style, based upon a child's bike frame. So many home-made bicycles like this one were showing up on the streets of southern California that bicycle companies and distributors took notice. It wouldn't be long until someone would decide to produce them on an assembly line. 
San Diego, CA.
Below: Could this bicycle be the missing link between the early kustom bicycles of the late 50s and the factory "high-rise" bikes of the mid-1960s? This newspaper photo is from Jan.8, 1962. It shows a boy riding a wild kustom bike featuring enormous ape hanger handlebars and a long homemade seat mounted to the rear carrier. The style is obviously motorcycle-influenced (especially the seat). You can imagine what the police thought of 26-inch high handlebars. 
Norco, CA.
Above: This Editorial cartoon says it all. Police and safety officials considered high handlebars an extremely dangerous trend. New laws against such modifications were being contemplated by legislators at the time. Fresno, CA.

Below: Kustom motorcycles were also a target of official scrutiny. It was not uncommon to see radical handlebar height on street bikes. Kustom bicycles and motorcycles drew a lot of attention because of their high handlebars, and not all of it positive. Despite official denigration, kustom bike builders continued to take it to the streets, in wild style. Rod and Custom magazine May 1962.

Below: Advertisement for "butterfly" handlebars. The sale of the tall bars had become big business all over North America. Oakland, CA Newspaper


Below: Here is an interesting accessory- "wheel discs", many of the Bonneville salt flat racers used disc wheel covers, and this cool bike accessory gave cyclists their own special high-speed look. Bicycle Journal
Below: This 1962 photo from Michigan shows a young boy with apehanger handlebars mounted on his "English Racer". Private collection
Below: Another name for "Apehanger" handlebars was "Montana" handlebars. A variety of names was given to the tall bars in the early 1960's including "Texas Steerhorn", "Texas Longhorn", "Butterfly bars", "Apehangers", "Monkey Bars", "San Diego Handlebars", "High Rise handlebars" etc. Marion, OH.
Above: A 1962 classified ad for a 26-inch bicycle with "butterfly" handlebars and "high riser" seat. Long Beach, CA.

Below Left and Right: Tall bikes remained popular; they could be seen in most every State in the U.S.A and every province of Canada. Holland, MI and Pomona, CA newspapers.

Below: This bicycle was called "The Little Swinger", and was probably the first radical kustom bicycle built for exhibition in California. It was a collaborative effort between Hayward residents Bob Brown and Don Bell. Theirs was a perfect combination of talents that came together to make this bicycle. Brown owned a Schwinn bicycle shop and had experience making his own line of hand-made bicycles during WW2. Don Bell built award-winning kustom motorcycles and had extensive connections in the automotive field.
ILLUSTRATION  © 2009, JOHN BRAIN
Brown did the actual fabrication work on the bicycle, for friend Don Bell's son, and incorporated visual elements from Bell's kustom Harley into its design. Kustom bicycles with modified frames, custom paint and show chrome were unheard of in 1962; but, the "Little Swinger" was truly a milestone in this regard, as it featured all three of these kustom elements. The "Little Swinger" also featured a 24-inch two-speed rear wheel, a raked neck, re-curved Phantom spring forks (to get the bike lower), and a 20 X 1-3/8" front wheel. Bob Brown would go on to build more award-winning kustom bicycles in the 1960s, and should be regarded as one of the great pioneers of the kustom bicycle movement (The full story on Bob Brown and his kustom bikes will be featured in the next issue of BR&K).
Above: Here is a rare photo of the "Little Swinger" being exhibited at the 1962 "Oakland Roadster Show" next to Don Bell's kustom motorcycle. The motorcycle and bicycle shared certain design features. Built by Bob Brown, the bicycle was made for Don Bell's young son Steven. "Car Craft" magazine June 1962.

Right: Here is another photo of "The Little Swinger" being shown at another kustom car show. The bicycle was exhibited extensively for a number of years.
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*What factory-made bike was the first to have a "Solo Polo" banana seat and hi-rise handlebars as standard equipment?  
*Over the last 10 years no question has sparked more speculation and controversy in the bike world than this one. It was also a question that didn't seem to have a conclusive answer; which intrigued us here at BR&K. People talked about a first factory bike they had heard about - but had never seen. There were rumors of a mysterious first bike existing - but no photographs of one could be found. There was talk of "Hi-Rise" bikes made on the assembly line in 1962 - with butterfly handlebars and solo polo banana seats, but not a single example of one could be found in any bike collection in North America. Well - This kind of gossip is intriguing, and we here at BikeRod&Kustom like a good mystery; and we also like answers. So we looked into the forgotten pages of history and found the information that will finally answer the question, of who really was- first off the line. 

Is the answer right under our noses? Maybe we know what bike it is already? Maybe it's worth $100,000 to a foreign collector, then again- maybe not. Read about the man who first took a California bike fad out of the garage - and onto the assembly line; in the next installment of BikeRod&Kustom's:  "History of KustomBiking: 1963-1969" 

Hint: This creature is a very good swimmer!

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