CHARLESTOWN, MASS. — ON a quiet Sunday morning on the industrial side of a Boston suburb, die-hard enthusiasts of vintage American bikes congregate at a makeshift ``showroom'' - a deserted parking lot.
Inside this barbed-wire space, a handful of serious collectors from across New England proudly display their bikes. Built between the 1890s and 1960s, the 120 models range in price from $5 to $5,200.
Wearing a long ponytail and a crinkled straw hat, event organizer Dan Fields greets visitors to the first annual Yankee Bicycle Show. ``It's a hunk of humanity stuck on bicycles,'' he says, looking back at the crowd with a smile.
Across the country, the buzz surrounding old bikes is broadening. In addition to swap-meet forums like this, where rows of (mostly) rusty clunkers are bartered and sold, bicycles are also beginning to show up in swankier spots like antique-car shows and auction houses. Exquisitely restored and spit-shined, these bikes have reached the status of art objects: One auction house recently sold a 1950s bicycle for $15,000. Three Bowden Spacelander ``originals'' (restored with original parts) were recently featured in the Hammecher-Schlemmer mail-order catalog for $15,000 apiece.
Bikes have been elevating to collectable status in investors' minds, says Bruce Burgess, assistant director of the Bicycle Institute in Washington, D.C., an industry-supported promotional group.
But the most passionate collectors are bike mechanics, former bike racers, and nostalgic adults. ``The discussion of value is of very little interest to these kinds of collectors,'' Mr. Burgess says. ``They get pure enjoyment simply from gazing at them and riding them. Their interest rests in preserving bicycle folklore and artifacts of a period.''
Burgess points to other signs of vintage-bike popularity: Just this past year, two dedicated individuals started small-scale bicycle museums: Pedaling History (the Burgwardt Bicycle Museum) in Orchard Park, N.Y., and the American Bicycle Museum (formerly Schwinn's corporate museum) in Chicago. They join the longstanding National Bicycle History Archives of America in Santa Ana, Calif., which houses some 30,000 bike manufacturing catalogs.
For all collectors, tracking down old bikes can be a long and slow journey. Unlike the well-established links among antique-car or baseball-card fans, bike-collectors' ties are flimsy.
But, says Mike Kaplan at the Yankee show: ``The fun is in the search, and in dreaming up ways to unearth these things.'' Bike collectors like Mr. Kaplan find most of their two-wheeled treasures in classified ads, garage sales, and even dumpsters.
One Maine dealer - eager to hand out his ``Bicycle Bob'' business cards - says collectors today scout for ``Schwinns, Columbias, Stingrays.... Those are hot. People would kill to have them.''
Apart from brand names and dates of manufacture, gender also determines worth: Boys' bikes are almost twice as valuable as girls' bikes. The reason? Boys, more than girls, tended to ride their bikes to pieces.
John Illeneye, an art restorer by day, also restores bikes. Among the four polished beauties he brought to the Yankee show from Clinton, N.Y., was an 1897 handmade hickory bike. A century ago, it cost around $100. Minutes ago, it was snapped up by a fellow dealer for $1,500.
Still unsold is his sleek yellow racing bike from the 1930s. The Mr. Illeneye crouches by its one-piece maple rims to point out various details, all the while taking onlookers through a deft synopsis of bike-racing history.
``The variation is incredible in bikes, and they reflect the era so well. Cars don't go back that far,'' he says, ``and you can only fit so many in your garage. With bikes, I can squeeze at least 60 inside my garage.''
How easy is it to make a living peddling old bikes? Jim Smith, a young man from nearby Ipswich, Mass., has been at it for five years but may soon be calling it quits. Fewer and fewer classic bikes from the 1950s - packaged with balloon tires, stylish tanks, and shock-absorbing front forks - can be found these days, he says. Prices are inflated, ``and a lot of people are fading out in the business. The small guy can't survive anymore.''
His voice rises with excitement as he recounts his fascination with the Elgin Bluebird, a 1935-37 Sears model now worth between $6,000 and $12,000. Mr. Smith says he would gladly give up his entire bike collection for one of these beauties. ``I'd put it under Plexiglas in my living room and kiss it every day,'' he beams. ``But if someone gave me a good price, I'd sell it in an instant. It's good to be a collector, but no matter how you look at it - it's a business.''