The first mountain bikes: Brief MTB history lesson

Nov 17, 2022 BY Luke Rees

These days mountain bikes come in shapes, styles and budgets to suit everyone. At the top end they are more expensive than cars, and at the bottom end cheaper than a big night out. But it wasn’t always that way. Read this brief MTB history lesson to find out about the first mountain bikes.

**Updated November 2022**

The first mountain bikes Brief MTB history lesson 1939 Schwinn recent Klunker conversion and 1982 MTB Wikimedia CC image by Don't B. Silly

Over the last 40ish years mountain bikes have evolved into seriously technical bits of kit that we ride on local trails and on mountain biking holidays worldwide. Frankly, in terms of innovation, they are light years ahead of road bikes and are still changing with major improvements almost every year.

But don’t think your full suspension beast of an enduro bike was just invented. Like anything that evolves it took time. And while the first mountain bikes are almost unrecognisable compared to the bikes we ride now, they really aren’t that old – particularly as this evolution has mostly happened in my lifetime.

Brief MTB history lesson

So let’s take a look back over the last 40 years of so to find out a how the first mountain bikes developed into the machines we love. There are a few familiar names here, so you’ll get to see that some MTB manufacturers really are old skool.

1930s

Before the mountain bike there was the ‘fat-tyre’. These were bikes from as early as the 1930s that had tyres fatter than 2 inches (cross section). The first of these to try out the rough stuff may have been from Europe and possibly German. Arnold, Schwinn & Co took the fat tire idea back to the US from German in 1932.

The first mountain bikes Brief MTB history lesson 1930s Schwinn Streamline Aerocycle Flickr CC image by turbojams

1950s

Evolution starts slowly and it wasn’t until 1953 that John Finley Scott may have invented what would eventually became the mountain bike. His knobbly-tyres and geared up ‘Woodsie’ was a huge step forward for off-road riding.

1970s

It wasn’t until the 70s the evolution really sped up. In 1973 Rus Mahon of California raced a ‘balloon tire’ bike with a derailleur. Then in 1974 Gary Fisher had a bike built by Schwinn which put these bigger tyres on an older more robust bike frame.

As you can see from the comments below in the early 70s there was a lot of experimentation by cyclists to ride off road. In California they were using knobby tyres with Schwinn hubs and hitting mountain baths – with rather dodgy brakes. Likewise in the UK they were importing similar tyres and converting road bikes to hit jumps and berms they had built.

In 1975 Bob Crispin was riding what he called a ‘Tankagnolo’ (hybrid of tank – because of its weight – and Campagnolo, the component manufacturer). Up to this point, the bikes were pieced together and known as ‘Clunkers’.

The first mountain bikes Brief MTB history lesson Raleigh Grifter image from Pinterest by neilwatson23

At the same time in the UK, Raleigh were working on something to compete with BMX bikes. They introduced the Grifter in June 1976, a three speed bike with wide tyres and mudguards that worked well on off-road trails. My dad had one and he loved to tell me it was ‘born’ the same time as me.

The first mountain bikes

Credited as ‘inventing’ the first mountain bikes is Joe Breezer. He built the Breezer 1 from 1977 to 1978 in Marin County, after local riders pushed for something better suited to the local terrain. He only made 10, they were built from the ground up and have rightly been given legend status.

In an interview with Bicycling.com he said, “it’s the first time you had a shiny new bike and up until that time we were calling them ‘Clunkers’, and it’s kinda hard to call a shiny new bike a Clunker and so we had to come up with a new name, and that came a little bit later: Mountain Bikes”.

The first mountain bikes Brief MTB history lesson Breezer 1 image courtesy of National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Around the same time Tom Ritchey was also building dedicated fat-tyre frames for Gary Fisher – with money invested by Scott. Some of which were assembled into complete bikes and they were sold by Fisher for as much as $2,000 – if you own a bit of this MTB history I am sure it is worth even more now.

1980s

The first production MTBs didn’t appear till 1978 when the Lawwill Pro Cruiser hit the streets. In 1981 the Specialized Stumpjumper (a name the brand still uses today), was the first mass produced mountain bike. From then the popularity of mountain bikes in the United States began to soar.

MTB history: Going global

Of course, this brief MTB history lesson is not confined to the United States and it wasn’t long before bike manufactures in Europe started getting involved. German company Univega was one of the first, it produced the Alpina range in the early 80s.

In the UK Raleigh released the Bomber in 1981. With chunky knobbly tyres and wide handle bars it looked like the early mountain bikes, but was developed independently of the MTB craze that had now begun in the US.

The first mountain bikes Brief MTB history lesson Raleigh Mustang image courtesy of alexinkildare

The first mountain bikes made and sold in the UK began to appear around 1983 or 1984. Ridgeback, Saracen via F W Evans and Muddy Fox were the trail blazers and worth including in this brief MTB history.

Raleigh were relatively late to the party, it wasn’t until 1985 that they launched the Maverick. But it was not an instant success. In about 1988 my dad upgraded his Grifter for a Maverick and I got my first mountain bike – the Raleigh Mustang I have been riding off-road ever since!

Recent MTB history

And from here it’s all been downhill…..

The sport has evolved into various different types of mountain biking, with bikes to match the disciplines. With shapes, technology and suspension changing to suit various riding styles and constant innovation MTBs today are almost as far removed from the first mountain bikes as they are from road bikes.

From the heavy duty freeride downhill bikes to lightweight carbon fibre enduro beasts there is a mountain bike for you. Whether you want full suspension, shocks just at the front or no suspension at all, you can now ride in comfort appropriate to the trails you enjoy.

Best new mountain bikes of 2013 lapierre zesty 914 ei 2013

Wheel sizes vary from traditional 26 inch up to 29, with each size offering different advantages. There are fatbikes – the less said about them the better – with tyres wide enough to ride on snow or sand. And now electric MTBs are taking the world by storm although with a lot of resistance from traditional riders.

Mountain bike history

Mountain bikes have spread from a handful of pioneers in the US to be used by a massive base of riders all over the world. And their use is not restricted to the off-road community. Mountain bikes are big business, and their extra ruggedness is much loved by everyone from commuters to those going on cycling holidays worldwide.

Styles may have changed and technology may have improved, but it’s still a strong frame, fat tyres and low gears that will help you ride off road. And with the constant innovation, mountain bikes are taking on bigger drops more radical terrain than ever before.

We hope you enjoyed finding out about the first mountain bikes in this brief MTB history lesson. For gear reviews and travel inspiration and money saving discounts check out the rest of our mountain biking articles

 

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10 responses to “The first mountain bikes: Brief MTB history lesson”

  1. Unfortunately Raleigh had nothing to do with the MTB, they even dismissed the bike as a fad. The Bomber has nothing to do with the MTB whatsoever and was just a rebadged roadster sold in Nigeria and sold as a beach cruiser. The earliest UK brands were Ridgeback, Saracen via F W Evans and Muddy Fox, all traced back to 1983 and 1984. Raleigh as a company were very late to the party and never really had any impact on the scene until the early 1990’s with the Dynatech range. Please dont let missinformation become fact!

    • Except that Raleigh produced the Maverick from 85 and the Mustang from around 87 so like them of loathe them they were part of the evolution of mountain bikes in the UK. At least where I lived everyone who had a MTB had a Raleigh at least until the early 90s so they were key in the growth.

      But I agree Ridgeback and other UK brands deserve a mention as they influenced the British MTB scene. So I will update the article. If you have any links to where I can find the info as those brands only appeared in the mid 90s really (at least where I rode) but it seems they were around earlier.

      Regarding the bomber the article says they were independent of the MTB craze. But they were not dissimilar to the Breezer hence their inclusion. MTBs have evolved and there have been plenty of dead ends along the way. Likewise the article can evolve too – so I will update it when I get time. Any useful links you have would be appreciated.

  2. Joe Breezer was at least three years behind Jack Davis of Ontario, California. He built the first 26 inch wide tire, lightweight bikes that were raced on BMX tracks in So. Cal. It was 1974, possibly 1975, but no later than that. I know this because he rolled two of them into the shop I worked at in Ontario (Bumsteads Sporting Goods). He also built my 531 road bike I raced at that time. It is high time the record is set straight.

    • Wait, you’re saying Jack Davis of Ontario welded up frames and forks and built several multi-gear, fat-tired bikes in ’74 or ’75? Do you have pictures? I’d sure be interested in seeing them, as would the MTB Hall of Fame.

  3. I have a purple-colored Raleigh M20, a mountain bike without any shock absorbers, made in the USA, 26″ stand over height, “Chromoly” main tube and “Grip Shift”. Serial # R905270034.
    Anybody have a date of manufacture for it?
    Thanks!

  4. Great piece. In the UK in 1973,4,5, me and my mates were stripping down and modifying road bikes with fat knobbly tires (from California) and charging round the woods, making jumps and berms around old bomb holes. I remember my brother buying a purpose built mountain bike around 1982. I’m still mountain biking and competing today 🙂

    • Wow such a cool story! Great how the sports evolved simultaneously in different places. I am a bit younger than you but also had some of the early(ish) mountain bikes too and we used to build little trails for them (although I started on a BMX) and I am still riding now. But my Raleigh Mustang would be almost unrecognisable compared to the £9,000 bike I was riding in Austria a couple of weeks ago! I have never competed though.

  5. I grew up in Cupertino, California during the 1960s and 70s. I still remember the summer day in 1970 when I saw some knobby 26″ tires in the hardware store at Homestead and Hollenbeck, and I bought them without thinking twice. My brothers and I had ruined many of our Schwinn 10-speed rims (and axles) on the steep mountain dirt paths that we rode on–especially the one that goes east from the water tank (still there) at the corner of 280 and Foothill Expwy. We called it Axlebreaker. I knew nothing about respoking wheels, but I took the rims from an old one-speed 26″ beach bike, reconnected them to my 10-speed Schwinn hubs, pulled the forks and frame apart, and jammed the wheels in. It worked! The brakes were a pain, though, because I didn’t take shop at St. Francis High School (one of the problems of being in the college prep track), and I extended the caliper brakes using folded tin cans. LOL! But the brakes did kindof work, and lots of kids on the dirt trails around Cupertino and Sunnyvale saw my bike and thought it was totally cool. I’m pretty sure that the Cupertino riders saw it and copied the idea when they took it up to the Marin Repack Races, where bike shop owner Gary Fisher saw them.
    I’ve been through my old photos, and have plenty of picture that I took *from* my bike, but never *of* my Schwinn Varsity with the 26″ knobbies. Eye roll, I know.
    The thing is, the first known mountain bike was really built in 1953 – the year before I was born – by UC Davis Professor John Finley Scott. In 1974, Scott lent Gary Fisher $10,000 to *commercialize* the building of mountain bikes.
    Building things is just what Californians do. Commercializing them is what makes them rich. There is an important lesson there somewhere.

    • Awesome information. Thanks so much for your input. It is funny how things work out and you can rightly be proud of your contribution – a shame about the photos!

  6. en was also credited with introducing one of the very first production mountain bikes available for less than $1000 in 1981. The first line was called the Alpina series of mountain bikes.
    Univega Alpina

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