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**
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Credited as ‘inventing’ the first mountain bikes is Joe Breeze. 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”.
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.
The first production MTBs didn’t appear till 1978 when the Lawwill Pro Cruiser hit the streets
At a bike trade show in 1981, there were three custom mountain bikes. One from Tom Ritchey/Gary Fisher (Fisher), Victor Vicente (Marin) and Jeff Lindsay (Mountain Goat). Also 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. By the mid 80s mountain bikes began to split into different styles with comfy all day bikes and lighter race style bikes. And by the late 1980s mountain biking became mainstream.
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 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 and I have been riding off-road ever since!
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.
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 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.