Hell on Wheels: LIFE With Mutant Bicycles

Wallace Kirkland—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Wallace Kirkland—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "Four-man bicycle is powered by five chains and has brakes on both its wheels. The bike was built by Art Rothschild (top position) who broke three ribs while learning how to ride it."
Culture
'40s

Every year, more and more people in the United States are clambering aboard their beloved bicycles and blithely pedaling into a brighter, cleaner, healthier tomorrow. Or losing their balance, wiping out and maiming themselves. Either way, they’re getting exercise.

But back in 1948, a number of inspired amateur craftsmen — not content with riding mundane, conventional bicycles — took their enthusiasm to another, unlikely level and . . . well, let’s let LIFE tell it, in the words the magazine used in its December 27, 1948, issue:

To Webster a bicycle is “a light vehicle having two wheels, one behind the other.” Such a definition theoretically describes the contraptions [seen in the article], but fails to do justice to the imagination of the Chicago chapter of the National Bicycle Dealers’ Association.

By artfully applying welders’ torches to metal tubing, the chapter’s members transform ordinary, utilitarian bicycles into traveling monstrosities. By far the most outlandish ideas have come from the Steinlauf family, who produced from their bicycle repair shop most of the oddities [shown in the article]. They are hazardous; generally at least one member of the clan is to be found in the hospital.

Here, LIFE.com offers a selection of photos of these preposterous creations from six long decades ago — mechanistic marvels that belie the famous old saying (which we just made up) that there’s no such thing as a useless bicycle.

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