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WHEELS OF FORTUNE

Frank Mineo was walking through the Biltmore Fashion Park when chance brought him into Antiquities, a second-floor shop that sells memorabilia from the 1950s. There, looking as fresh if it had just come off the assembly line, was a Schwinn Black Phantom bicycle. It was red, black and loaded.

Frank rushed to find his wife, Carol. They own the Valley Pet Centers. "You've got to see it!" he told her. "It's identical to the one I had when I was twelve!" Carol knew that childhood bike. Her husband still had a picture of it. Somewhere, in his mother's misguided cleaning of the family garage, perhaps, it had disappeared.

Carol, needless to say, bought her husband the Black Phantom from Antiquities.

Only now the price tag was $3,500.

SCHWINN BICYCLES of the 1950s are one of the hottest collectibles in a world where seemingly every bit of ephemera the Baby Boom generation ever touched is acquiring resale value. Hammacher Schlemmer sold more than six dozen reconditioned Black Phantoms from its Christmas catalogue at $3,499 each. In November, a gallery in New York's SoHo devoted a show to the bikes. It was presided over by a curator who will insist they are works of art. Tee shirts pledging loyalty to Schwinn bikes and scale models of them, complete with glass display cases, are available for those unable to afford the real thing.

In the past few years, Schwinns have done better than the stock market. They have been subject to the same kind of nonsensical inflation that pushed the price of Vincent van Gogh's "Irises" into the stratosphere.

The cost of an unrestored Schwinn-- fenders missing, chain rotted, chrome rusted out--has risen to $600. Collectors will share stories of bikes bought at yard sales for $2.50, refurbished, sold for $5,000 on Saturday and resold for $7,500 on Wednesday.

1950s Schwinns have achieved collector status and four-figure price tags seemingly against all rationality. They're mentioned in none of the histories of bicycling. Nor are they regarded particularly highly by collectors who specialize in historic two-wheeled vehicles.

Schwinn bicycles of the 1950s had big fat balloon tires, coaster brakes and as one owner says, were heavy enough to bench press. With their headlights, luggage racks and metal tanks that were supposed to look like a motorcycle's fuel tank but instead contained a horn that seldom worked, they were vulgar and gaudy.

They were also produced in very high numbers. In that way they are like '57 Chevys, which have become icons of American popular culture not because they were rare, but because they were common. In fact, Schwinn bikes of the 1950s share many characteristics of cars of that era, in their devotion to weight, chrome and wretched excess.

Although that makes them perversely appealing, that does not seem to be why they have found loving homes in the living rooms of collectors. The devotion to them is explicable only by nostalgia. Schwinn bikes partake of some of the it-was-my-childhood-and-so-it's-important appeal of shows like Leave It to Beaver. They have been given the imprimatur of hip in the form of a starring role in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

They are a barometer of our national dissatisfaction with today's reality. They are a tribute to the power of collective memory and the kinds of things that happen to a man when he reaches middle age. A few random telephone calls have determined that more than your usual number of Schwinn owners are guys in their forties with Jaguars, lots of money and blond second wives who are younger than they are.

One of the wellsprings of collectible Schwinns exists in Phoenix in the shape of Antiquities, where Carol Mineo picked up her husband Frank's childhood dream. Owned by Toby Stoffa and her husband, Mitch Menaker, Antiquities got into 1950s bikes a couple of years ago. Toby thought her husband was nuts when he came home from a buying trip with eight old bikes. Three weeks later, the owner of Lionel Trains walked in and bought seven of them. These days, $4,000 bikes fly out of the store, most of them landing in the homes of out-of-town collectors with a lot of what Toby delicately calls "discretionary income."

ED BRANCH WILL OFFER you a beer before he even invites you to sit down. In fact, you're expected to know that you can sit down. Ed Branch, ruddy faced, blue-jeaned, barefoot and hearty, lives in a house in north Phoenix that is evidence of what happens to decor when there is no woman around. A Texaco gas pump stands in the middle of the floor. There's a jukebox. There's an army helmet on top of a stereo speaker. There are parts lists all over the dining room table.

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Anna Dooling