This is something I thought would be interesting to share. It’s adapted from a list I’ve written myself in recent years, as I’ve searched for interesting vintage mountain bikes for my own collection.
As one might guess, there is an obvious bias towards the following:
bikes from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, principally 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995
MTBs with steel frames
MTBs that won’t cost an arm and a leg
MTB brands that were available in the USA, Canada, and the British Isles
It’s not exhaustive, and it’s not especially objective either. It’s simply a list of what I consider to be the best 100 vintage mountain bikes. These are all bikes I’d like to own, and would consider buying for myself, in the right size and condition.
I plan to add links to photos or catalogue scans for each of the listed bikes, in the near future.
Alpinestars Cro Mega (e-stay or normal)
Alpinestars Alu Mega (e-stay, without cracks)
Alpinestars Ti Mega (e-stay, without cracks)
Bontrager Race / Race Lite
Cannondale Killer V series
Cannondale M series
Diamond Back Axis
Diamond Back Axis TT
Diamond Back WCF / Vertex
Gary Fisher Montare, or any pre-Trek steel Fisher
GT Zaskar and Xixang
KHS Montana Comp
Klein Attitude (pre Trek)
Koga Miyata Ridgerunner
Kona Hei Hei (Titanium)
Litespeed Titanium (without cracks – lifetime warranties no longer valid after buyout)
Marin Rift Zone
Marin Eldridge Grade
Marin with late 80s to early 90s splatter paint
Merlin Titanium (without cracks – lifetime warranties no longer valid after buyout)
Mountain Cycle Moho
Mountain Cycle San Andreas
Muddy Fox Courier Comp
Orange Vitamin T (or T2)
Pace RC200 (and other RC frames)
Panasonic MC Pro (rare but awesome)
Pro Flex 855 (and similar)
Raleigh Dynatech Torus
Raleigh Dynatech Diablo LX, DX, or STX
Raleigh M Trax Ti 3000 or 4000 (1995 model with UGLI fork)
Raleigh Special Products Division 853 (hard-tail or full suspension)
Raleigh lugged and brazed 531 frames from the late 1980s (Moonshine, Thunder Road, White Lightning, and others)
Mountain biking has a rich and varied history, and this richness was at its zenith during the 90’s. That era saw a big-bang of innovations – some of which are still with us today, while others, including some that seemed like fantastic innovations at the time, have fallen out of favour and slipped into obscurity and ridicule.
This iconic design of frame (said to have been invented by Richard Cunningham) started to appear around 1988, and lasted well into the mid 90s, the elevated chain stay (or e-stay) gained a cult following, but never came close to replacing the classic double-triangle frame design.
E-stay frames allowed for greater clearance for the rear wheel, a shorter wheel-base for better climbing and manoeuvrability, elimination of chain-slap, and the ability to remove a chain without breaking it.
For many, these advantages outweighed the downsides, which included additional weight, and some extra lateral flexibility and weakness in the bottom bracket area.
A fair few e-stay frames eventually snapped or cracked after sustained but not excessive use – particularly those built from aluminium or titanium. It’s still possible to find e-stay frames for sale on ebay or retrobikes, mostly in steel, but with the odd uncracked aluminium or titanium specimen.
The rise in popularity of 29″ and 650b wheeled mountain bikes has rekindled interest in elevated chain stays, as a way to have a shorter wheel-base when using big wheels: There are already e-stay 29er prototypes going around. It would be rather ironic if a modern innovation like large wheels were to now lead mountain bikers back to an extinct design like the e-stay.
The 90’s also saw the arrival of the Slingshot, yet another eye-catching and quirky frame design. With a hinge where the top tube and seat tube join, and a steel cable on a coil spring replacing the down tube, the manufacturer claims the design provides some suspension and more efficient use of energy. I’m not entirely convinced of its positive effect, but it doesn’t appear to do any harm. Nonetheless, it’s telling that it has remained sufficiently popular for its manufacturer to remain in business even today.
3. Lawwill Leader suspension fork
Designed by Mert Lawwill, this incredible looking suspension fork benefited from a single shock unit, constant fork rake during compression, and stiff steering.
These features would have been valued during the 90’s, especially when most other suspension forks were about as stiff as a soggy noodle.
Another innovative linkage fork, this usually came as standard on the K2 / Pro Flex range of full suspension bikes. Like the Lawwill, these forks gave stiff steering and a unique look – some loved them, other hated their look.
5. Suspension stems
Before the advent of suspension forks, suspension stems were a cheap way to dampen trail-buzz. Some riders complained of sore wrists as a result of the change in angle of the handlebar. Others found the substantial side to side flex unnerving, when using bar-ends and sprinting out of the saddle.
Curiously, at least one company (StaFast) is now manufacturing suspension stems for modern mountain bikes. It’ll be interested to see if suspension stems make a come-back.
6. Pro Flex full suspension bikes
Photo credit: Pro Mountain Biker by Jeremy Evans and Brant Richards.
With a Girvin fork and split seat tube frame design, Pro Flex full suspension bikes looked pretty awesome. The pro XC riders of the 90s usually preferred to have the rear suspension locked out to avoid wasting too much energy bouncing up and down – not that they admitted it in public, of course.
Using what may have seemed like a good idea on paper – placing the rear suspension pivot on the top tube – the Klein Mantra was pretty awful, by most accounts.
A few riders liked the absence of suspension bob while pedaling, the main issue for most reviewers seems to have been the way the rear suspension only works when the rider is seated. Unsurprisingly, these are among the cheapest of vintage the Kleins.
8. Cannondale Headshok
Another cool looking suspension fork, the Cannondale Headshok gave steering similar to a fully rigid fork, but with a couple of inches of suspension travel. It worked fine in dry, Californian conditions, but in muddy northern European conditions, the seals just weren’t enough to keep the moving parts clean and functional for very long.
9. GT RTS
At one time I was considering buying one of these frames, as they were deemed among the best XC full suspension frames, because the rear suspension system stiffened up while pedaling. Fortunately, more sensible designs have now taken hold in the world of XC full suspension!
I still might get hold of one, though!
10. Glued frames
Around 1990 Raleigh UK and Raleigh USA developed a new range of mid to high-end mountain bike frames, partly constructed using aerospace bonding technology. The three main tubes were glued into steel or aluminium lugs, resulting in frames that were lighter and stronger than welded or lugged and brazed frames.
Initially the frames were made from steel, like the example below:
But later, Raleigh UK started using titanium main tubes and an aluminium head tube, to reduce weight and give some of the benefits of titanium’s resilience. The examples below (M Trax 300 and Dynatech Diablo STX) come from my collection.
Note the bonded steel and aluminium fork on the Dynatech Diablo SXT.
Instead of titanium or steel, Raleigh USA opted for aluminium main tubes in the Technium range, which gave slightly different ride characteristics and weight.
I’ll never trust any bike component made of anything with atomic number lower than 22, and that’s why I still ride steel instead of aluminium. Well, at least that’s the tired joke I tell on the Sunday rides with my mountain biking club.
Aluminum mountain bike frames have come a long way since the old days. But Jesus Christ, aren’t modern frames boring? Back in the 90s, bikes were made to be as cool and flashy as possible, and despite my general distaste for aluminum frames, I did (and still do) have a soft spot for several of them – particularly the ink blue Zaskar.
Here’s a run-down of my ten favourite old school aluminum-framed mountain bikes.