BMX rider showing off some cool tricks!
(Photo by iStock)

Retro BMX: Inside The ’80s Craze And Its Continuing Appeal

Like many kids in the late 1970s, Bob Haro loved hitting his local racetrack—pedaling, jumping and whizzing around curves. He and other teenagers rolled their bikes onto motocross tracks, leaving the concrete behind for the thrills of competing on dirt. There was no shortage of interest in this type of bicycle riding, and to many, this sport just looked fun.

BMX Bandits

Haro was certainly one of those, but he sensed that the interest might be much more than just a passing fad. By the early 1980s, these same kids had introduced another style of “riding” a bike—BMX freestyle. These pedal-powered artists literally turned traditional bikes upside down, using spins, tricks, acrobatics and massive ramp jumps to redefine what many believed was possible on two wheels.

By 1981, Haro was traveling the country and performing in shows as part of the first BMX freestyle stunt team. The trend soon swept across California and then the country as a whole. But Haro envisioned even more. That same year he designed the first bike frame and fork tailored specifically for BMX freestyle. The Haro Freestyler was officially released a year later, and the BMX bicycle industry was born.

Kids around the world amped up their creativity and big-air skills over the next decade. More companies, like GT, Diamondback, Dyno, Hutch, Redline and Mongoose introduced their own lines of bikes, and many of those are now collector’s items. Major competitive events, like the X Games, only fueled the sport’s popularity.

And while the BMX craze of the 1980s may have subsided from those highs, there are still plenty of kids hitting ramps and bike parks and tail-whipping their bike frames around like merry-go-rounds. In fact, the industry is expected to reach a global market value of $5.8 billion by 2025, and a sense of nostalgia has even created a significant market for fans who collect those early BMX machines.

The half pipe was many a BMX kids favorite place to be.
(Photo by iStock)

Road Bikes To Rad

Sam Bernard experienced the initial BMX craze firsthand. He was a 25-year-old Hollywood producer and screenwriter looking for a break, and a scene at Venice Beach in the early ’80s caught his eye when he happened upon a group of kids whipping their bikes around and catching big air in ways he had never seen before.

“In all honesty, I’d never heard of BMX until that day,” he says. “I watched these teen boys with weirdly placed plywood on some kind of makeshift braces or whatever, which I later learned were called half-pipes. They were complete daredevils.

“They had Van Halen T-shirts and were just really into getting as much air as they could. I tried talking to them about what they were doing, and they just shook their heads and scoffed. I watched for a while and tried again. They basically told me to get lost.” 

Undeterred, Bernard visited a local bike shop to learn about this new way to ride. By 1986, he had cowritten the screenplay for the BMX film Rad, which included some major names, like Lori Loughlin, Talia Shire, Ray Walston and Bart Conner. Stuntman and producer Hal Needham (also a friend of Burt Reynolds) directed the film and gave BMX kids a movie of their own. Rad may not have been a hit, but it has become a cult classic. Due to reignited interest in the film, it became available on Blu-ray in March.

“I think there were probably variations of stunt riding way before that,” Bernard says of the sport’s early days. “BMX seems only a natural evolution. In the ’80s, organized BMX started to flourish, and the companies like Redline, Mongoose and Haro saw the future and jumped all over it.”

From ’80s Fun To Modern Collectibles

By 1984, the sport had its own stars, even outside of California. Kansas City’s Dennis McCoy may have been the biggest. He was one of a number of young riders who would define the sport for years to come. McCoy was a master of “flatland” riding—rolling on a flat surface and performing numerous intricate tricks linked together without putting a foot on the ground.

However, unlike some riders today who specialize in just one type of riding, McCoy also excelled on ramps. That continues almost four decades later, and he still competes at age 54—even ripping a 900 (spinning two and a half complete revolutions) off a half-pipe at the X Games in 2018. He shows no signs of slowing down.

“To reflect back on those early years is really cool,” he told ESPN in 2017. “But it’s cool too to be up on the deck with the newest generation of guys that rip it up and to have been able to be a part of both and everything in between.”

Riders like McCoy, Matt Hoffman and Dave Mirra drew plenty of fans as they soared through the air. Many of those ’80s kids who were riders and fans are now in their 40s and 50s, and suddenly those classic bicycles have become collectibles. The pursuit of these bikes allows riders and former riders to relive some of those early years, and snagging a classic isn’t cheap. That original 1982 Haro Freestyler is quite rare and may not even be attainable.

“It’s highly likely that we won’t see a great number of the first-generation freestylers surface in the future due to the relatively smaller quantities produced—around 500 in total,” notes.

This dude does amazing BMX big air tricks!
(Photo by iStock)

Collector Paradise

However, a quick scan of sites like eBay can give collectors many options. Other classic Haro bikes from the 1980s can fetch as much as $2,000 or more. Top performers from Diamondback, Dyno, GT, Haro, Hutch, Redline and Mongoose can also be found for hundreds of dollars or more.

Perhaps you are looking to get back on the bike and perfect some of those moves long forgotten. Maybe you traded in that fancy Mongoose for a car, but you always loved your pedal-power performances. Some classic but newer bikes from that era might be bargains compared to the ’80s classics. Nevertheless, you can pony up $750 for a GT Vertigo or GT Performer, and then you’re ready to hit the streets. Freestyle isn’t the only type of BMX bike fetching big bucks, however. A sleek 1983 black and gold Diamondback Team Pro Koizumi racer recently listed at $5,000. Those with smaller budgets may want to check out a vintage Redline PL-20 Pro Line for only $2,000.

What makes so many purchase these pieces of BMX history? Simply put, nostalgia. Collecting is fun, and these bikes have lots of meaning for those who grew up shredding (or at least trying to shred) on these chrome machines. Some riders even compete in “show and shine” races that involve displaying their classic bikes for others to admire, similar to a car show, and then hitting the track afterward.

The Good Old Days

With so many Americans focused on fitness today, some older BMX fans may also reminisce about those great times spent rolling with friends. Lacing up those Vans to perfect that endo or tailwhip may seem a lot more fun than heading to a CrossFit workout. Many former BMXers might simply conclude, “Why not ride instead?” McCoy, the grandfather of BMX, has a similar line of thinking.

“Looking ahead to 60 seems like better years than 40 to 50 did, and I loved every one of those,” he told ESPN. “So, it’s just about doing what you love and keeping at it … I can set an example to people that you don’t have to stop when the mainstream public thinks you’re too old to ride a bike or someone else says you’re going to have arthritis or you’re going to ache—just go ride.”

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