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Bike collection spans vintage, space-age

| Friday, Aug. 28, 2009

Parking a bicycle in a living room is for space-challenged folks living on the East or West Coasts, not suburban Pittsburghers with garage space aplenty.

But Craig Morrow makes his living buying, selling and collecting vintage bicycles. So propping a spotless blue Bowden Spacelander bicycle in his roomy Ben Avon home follows naturally. Fortunately, he has a tolerant wife.

During the past 20-plus years, Morrow bought and sold many bicycles and now has a continually changing collection of about 1,000 bicycles, including several unusual and prized Bowden Spacelander bicycles.

"No one's had more than a few of them; I have 12," says Morrow, 52.

The Spacelander, which Benjamin Bowden designed in 1948, wasn't manufactured until 1960. The crossbar and bicycle chain were encased in a curved Fiberglas frame with a large oval in the center. Space-age-style lights fore and aft and a deco-type curved wheel frame add to the unusual look. Morrow displays a pale blue Spacelander in his living room; others he owns are in a variety of colors, including a bright green.

Today, such bicycles can sell for around $15,000 each.

"They're the rarest, most collectible bikes in the world," says Kurt Hagler of Shaler, an auto-body technician who does bicycle repair work for Morrow, including manufacturing missing parts. Hagler, 54, once collected bicycles himself and is returning to the hobby because of his grown son's interest.

Hagler says the Spacelander is historically significant because it comprised two firsts. It was the first bicycle to have a monocoque frame, in which an object's external skin supports the structural load. That's what gives the Spacelander such an unusual spacecraft look.

Secondly, its inventor, Bowden, was the first designer to use color-injected Fiberglas. The bicycles were not painted but came in an array of colors. Only about 500 were manufactured. Hagler says only 50 or so Spacelanders remain, meaning Morrow has cornered nearly one-quarter of the Spacelander market.

Morrow has an impressive array of bicycles, making him, as Hagler says, "one of the biggest collectors in the world." Several of Morrow's vintage bicycles were featured in the August 2007 edition of Country Living magazine, though not the Spacelander, which has a decidedly non-"country" look.

"I have 3,000 bikes and millions of parts," says Morrow, who had to move out of a home in Bellevue because he had accumulated so many bicycles.

Other favorites of Morrow's include Schwinn Stingrays and Stingray Krates, of which he has about 140. Most are hanging from the ceiling in his basement. Krate models include the red Apple Krate, the Orange Krate, the Lemon Peeler and several others, each with a name corresponding to its color. All the Krates had a smaller wheel in front, a front "fork" akin to a set of motorcycle handlebars, shocks and front suspension with drum front brakes and rear disc brakes. The regular Stingray had 20-inch wheels back and front and no shocks.

"The Pittsburgh area had a lot of Schwinn Stingrays because people had money around at that time," when steel mills flourished, Morrow says. "I find a lot (of bicycles) in Ambridge and Bridgeville."

He's also taken a fancy to a J.C. Higgins Colorflow, manufactured in 1948. Morrow's find has its original paint and glass reflectors, with a so-called "batwing" light on the front.

Bikes have been both Morrow's hobby and his bread and butter. For more than 20 years, he has been fixing, buying and selling bicycles.

"I'm a flea-market guy," Morrow says. "I go to flea markets looking for that stuff." He buys locally and sells on the Internet. His mother, her husband and a helper aid him in his business, called Bicycle Heaven.

Most of the bicycles in Morrow's collection are vintage models, though he has a few modern ones. He stores quite a few in the newer home he shares with his wife, Ming, who puts up with her husband's affinity for parking at least one spotless bicycle in most rooms in the home. Morrow, the father of five, is currently sharing his knowledge of bicycles with his stepson, Chien, 14.

Long after childhood, Morrow began fixing bicycles for neighborhood children after he was sickened by paint fumes while doing custom painting on automobiles. During his time off, he also bought one bicycle for $30, fixed it up and sold it for $150 -- a 400 percent profit.

"I thought, 'Hey, that's a good way to make money,' " and he has made his living that way ever since.

In today's beleaguered economy, Morrow says the bicycle business is not affected as much as other goods because people can still ride them and save money on gasoline.

Morrow's ultimate goal would be a bicycle museum in which he could display his finds. Until then, he'll be buying and selling and attending bike shows, including a major local show each year in Butler. But he won't part with some of his finds.

"I'm probably going to keep my Bowdens for awhile, and my Stingray Krates," he says.

For more information on vintage bicycles, contact Morrow at 412-716-4956.

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