I am being 100% honest with you when I saw that I am not one of those ‘vintage was waaay better man!’ guys. I remember riding my Bridgestone a couple years ago, and thinking I’d try it on some of the root infested, technical trails we have all over the river valley here in Edmonton.
It was terrible. I could barely keep my hands on the bars. And I was worried the whole time about how this very lightweight steel frame – with a reputation for breaking – was handling the punishment of the trail, and the very not lightweight rider pounding it through the roots.
So, I would say unequivocally, that the general off road riding experience has been improved since 1990. V-brakes, and disc brakes, better forks, proper rear suspension – all of these have made mountain biking better.
But, I am convinced that there is something about vintage bikes that modern bikes don’t have. Some intangible factor that existed in the early days that you don’t see now. And this early 90’s GT Karakoram just might show us what that is.
I’m pretty certain this is a 1991, even with the U-brake on it. Most companies were done with U-brakes by 1989, but GT stuck with it longer. The ’91 Rocky Mountain Fusion had a U-brake too in fact. The design actually worked pretty well with GT’s unusual seatstay setup.
The Karakoram sold for $600 in 1993 as per Bikepedia, so I would expect it to cost about the same in 1990. It was far from top of the line, featuring Shimano LX parts, which sat under DX, XT, and XTR at the time. Top of the line was the RTS-1, with full XTR, for $3000.
What’s really amazing to me, is the paint on this bike. It’s very much a product of the time, as loud colours and paint splatters were popular in the late 80’s. Kona and Marin did this as well. But ponder for a moment how this was done; it would have to be that terrific orange base coat, then the white “bursts,” and finally black drizzled over top, like chocolate sauce.
I really have no idea how you’d do this. There are continuous lines of the black paint going around the tubes – like the frame was being rotated as the paint was drizzled onto it. This honestly blows my mind!
Also, the fork and stem are painted to match! On a $600 bike! Even if you correct for inflation, that’s only $1000 in 2017. I guarantee you will not find a $1000 bike today with this much effort put into the paint. One colour and maybe some tape graphics – that’s it.
And even more mind-blowing is the fact that this is only one bike in GT’s lineup. The Avalanche, Tequesta, Timberline, and Tachyon all featured paint like this, and even offered two different paint options on each bike!
The best comparison I can think of, is Squid bikes, which offers custom spray can paint on their aluminium CX bikes. As pictured here, it’ll cost you $2000 – for the frame only.
I simply can’t stress enough how incredible the paint is on these entry-level GT mountain bikes.
Now unfortunately, as much as I’d like for this to be an example of how bike companies just cared more about their bikes back in 1991, and why vintage bikes are so much cooler than new bikes, I’m going to have to get all House on this, and point out that it’s simply a matter of economics.
Honestly – the only way that GT could have made any money on these bikes is if they paid the artisans that did the paint peanuts. The Squid frame pictured above is $1200 without paint, which means an artistic custom paint job in 2017 will run you $800. Apply that back to 1991, and that would nearly double the price of a GT.
So, remember that intangible factor that I mentioned earlier? The feel of a custom bike that you could get on a mass produced, entry-level bike in 1991, but not today? That’s because a big American company was able to take advantage of a very cheap labour market, and do custom paint for seemingly no premium over regular paint.
Bike companies aren’t soulless today, they simply can’t do custom paint on cheap bikes and expect to stay in business.
Have you heard of the comedian Adam Conover? Adam Ruins Everything? I guess it’s 80 Ruins Everything today.
Maybe let’s just enjoy the beauty of that vintage GT, and be happy that dudes working in Taiwanese bike factories are (hopefully) not being taken advantage of anymore.