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4 Chicago Brothers Showed Off Their Strangest Bike Creations In 1939

By Emma G. Gallegos in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 6, 2016 4:40PM

Long before hipsters with scraggly beards and tattoo sleeves were riding their tall bikes up Milwaukee Avenue, there were the Steinlaufs, four brothers from Austria who fell into bike-building upon arriving in Chicago in the early 20th century.

The brothers—Charles, Joseph, Maurice and David—created some freakish contraptions, many of which later ended up in Ripley's Believe It or Not.

One day in 1939 the family showed off some of their most eccentric creations out to Lake Shore Drive for the cameras. Maurice rode a bike whose front was connected to the back only through springs. There were a couple tall bikes of varying heights. Charles' bike made out of a brass headboard got a spin, too.

"One night I was sleeping in my big brass bed and I dreamed I was peddling it down the street," he claims. "So I decided when I woke up I would build a bike out of the bed."

Perhaps the most elaborate of their creations was the sewing machine bicycle created by Charles. The seed of its creation was planted when his wife Lee sent the sewing machine to her husband's garage to be fixed. (The brothers also put their mechanical prowess to use in the burgeoning automobile industry.)

"That's the last I saw or heard of it," she told the Chicago Tribune, "until one day Charles told me he had put wheels on it."

It was a charming answer to a question no one had: how can you finish up some mending while on a bike ride along Lake Shore Drive?

Joseph got his start in the bike world fixing up and reselling junk bikes he found, he told the Tribune. He opened a bike shop in 1919. His first foray into showing off his creations came when he rehabbed a four-seater that he rode at the 1933 World's Fair.

His attempt to create a bike to ride on ice was a failure but it looked pretty cool, too:

"I figured I'd be prepared if Lake Michigan ever froze over," Joseph said. That never happened in his lifetime, which was a blessing since one of the times he used it, it cracked the ice and he nearly drowned. He said, "I used the bike once or twice, and it doesn't work worth a damn."

Joseph's son Fred took to bicycles easily. At a young age, Fred rode a scaled-down baby version of a Schwinn bike his dad rejiggered. Later he would perform, putting one foot on the seat and another on the handlebars. By the time World War II rolled around, he was able to perform at bond rallies on a towering 10-foot unicycle (you can see the photo in the Trib archives).

Some of the brothers' other creations included: a bike with square wheels by David Steinlauf; a bike that allowed a very small rider to pedal from inside the wheel by Charles; a "Gangstercycle" by Joseph that had 15 guns welded to it; and a "Quintocycle" for five by Joseph.

When Joseph got into the automobile tire business, he was still quite a showman. He once asked a police officer to fire a gun into his tires, he told the Tribune, and when the bullet failed to puncture the tire, he earned a contract to equip all the Chicago police and fire department cars with his tires.

Charles said that half the joy of his creations was showing off: "I guess it is because I always wanted to be an actor that I get such a bang out of show bikes."