In summer, guests of the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island enjoy relaxing on rocking chairs placed along a front porch that, at 660 feet, is claimed to be the world’s longest. And, when thirsty, they can buy an icy-cold Coke from a teenager riding a vintage Coca-Cola delivery bike up and down the decking of this resort building that opened in 1887.

“Guests love the Coke bike,” says Julie Rogers, the hotel’s marketing director. “It combines a service with nostalgia in a way that perfectly suits the Grand Hotel’s history and elegance.”

Three-wheel delivery bikes similar to that used by the Grand Hotel were once common in resorts and on city streets. Grocery stores and other establishments also used two-wheelers bedecked in official Coke livery to serve customers before automobiles fully took over for the horse and carriage.

Work bikes are among the many kind of bicycles that have intersected with Coca-Cola history for more than a century. The brand has over the decades given away bikes in promotions, including some wearing its brand, and presently donates bikes for innovative sustainability projects in far-flung corners of the globe. Some Coke fans and collectors have even built their own custom bikes sporting the familiar brand colors.

Pedaling and Peddling



Coca-Cola Pedalers_604_1903 Ad
A Coca-Cola ad from December 27, 1903 featured endorsements from bicycle racers Bob Walthour and Jack Prince. Walthour had just won his second six-day race at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Ten days before, the Wright brothers made their historic powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., funded in part from sales of their custom-made bikes. (Coca-Cola Archives)


Pedaling back in time finds cycling figuring prominently in early Coke marketing, according to Jamal Booker, manager, heritage communications for Coca-Cola. “Bicycles have been in our advertising since the early 1900s,” Booker says. “The first athletes to endorse Coke were bicycle racers, Jack Prince and Bob Walthour.”

Walthour won World Championship six-day bike races in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1901 and 1903. In a 1903 newspaper ad, he credited drinking Coke with helping the effort, saying the results of the six-day contest might have been different without Coca-Cola. 
   
The late 19th century invention of the “safety bicycle,” with two equal-size wheels, balloon tires and chain drive, replaced the difficult-and-dangerous-to-ride high-wheel bikes and triggered an enduring trend. Bikes became affordable and essential transportation tools around the world and became popular for recreation. When bike sales outpaced auto sales in the U.S. in the early 1970s, Coca-Cola took notice.

Coke partnered with French bike maker Stella in 1972 for a regional promotion, offering up to $30 off the price of the 10-speed models, which retailed for $105-$430. Bottle caps from various Coca-Cola products could be redeemed for 10 cents each (in batches of 50) toward the discount.



Coca-Cola Pedalers_604_1974 Ad
Coke called 1974 “The Year of the Bike” and gave away 5,000 Schwinn Varsity 10-speed models. By the early 1970s, bike sales had surpassed auto sales in the U.S. (Coca-Cola Archives)


Two years later, Coke went national with “The Half Million Dollar Bicycle Giveaway.” Coke gave away 5,000 Schwinn Varsity 10-speed bikes, then the country’s most popular model. One entered the sweepstakes by filling out and mailing an entry blank from Coke’s advertisements. Radio spots for the promotion called 1974 “The year of the bike,” and a TV commercial used a couple hundred bikes to create a huge Coca-Cola logo when viewed from above.

Over the years, some Coke bottlers conducted their own promotions involving bicycles, but Booker says there is no way to verify authenticity of bikes claimed to be from such events. On a corporate level, such co-branding has been rare, but Coke collectors seek out examples.

Fifteen years ago, a promotion in the Middle East gave away specially made Coca-Cola mountain bikes. Consumers collected bottle caps and pull-rings printed with images of handlebars, wheels, frames, saddles, pedals and gears.

“These bikes show up routinely on the collectors’ market,” says Booker.

Loyalists Roll Their Own

Sandril Hancock was 13 when she suggested to her father that they build a Coke-themed bike. Jeremy Hancock, who works at Globe Engineering, a sheet metal fabrication company in Wichita, KS had introduced his three children into the hobby of collecting and restoring vintage bicycles. The Hancocks are also a family of Coke drinkers with a memorabilia collection. Jeremy liked the idea of making a Coke bike, something with a 1950s delivery bike vibe. He had the ideal foundation, the frame from a 1963 Schwinn Wasp. Schwinn touted the sturdy model, which continued the balloon tire style popular in the 1940s and 1950s, as the “newsboy’s special.”

Jeremy added a polished Schwinn crossbar tank and, also at his daughter’s suggestion, named the bike the Carbonated Cruiser. The bike won trophies at shows and evoked nostalgia for people who remembered spending afternoons at the local soda shop.

It seems appropriate that the bike is now displayed in the basement of Jeremy’s supervisor, Mark Graf, who converted his basement into a Coke-themed soda shop for the enjoyment of his children and grandchildren.

“I get more comments on that bike than anything else,” says Graf, who cajoled Jeremy for a year to sell it. Others have made balloon tire Coke bikes, while another trend centers on the late 1960s and early 1970s Schwinn Krate, the high-end version of the popular Sting-Ray bike. The Orange Krate, Apple Krate, Lemon Peeler and others were named for their colors. Some Sting-Ray buffs who are also Coke collectors have customized these into "Coca-Cola Krates." They may have taken inspiration from a 1/6-scale model of a similar bike offered in a catalog of Coke premiums in the 1990s.



Sense and Sustainability

Bicycles are playing an increasing role in local solutions for global problems of urban congestion, pollution and poverty, and Coke is supporting the ride. In 2013, the company partnered with transportation and tourism authorities in Ireland for a bike-sharing project with 700 Coke Zero bikes in three cities.

Seemingly a world away, in South Africa, a “Coca-Cola bike” has a much different meaning. There, Coke has partnered with the Wildlands Conservation Trust and Gary Player Invitational to support the greening of communities. Residents known as “green-preneurs” collect empty PET bottles and containers that litter the ground and grow trees in exchange for red Coca-Cola bikes, among other items. The bikes serve as invaluable personal transportation for children to attend school, or for parents to commute to jobs.




The Qhubeka Buffalo bikes used in the Coke program were designed by Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief to stand up to the rigors of daily use in rural South Africa. There, children often walk up to an hour each way to school, and families rely on bikes to carry household supplies long distances. The robust Buffalo can ride 9,000 miles (15,000km) per year while consistently carrying 220 pounds of cargo on the rear carrier. Inexpensive bikes do not hold up under these conditions.

Dr. Andrew Venter, CEO of Wildlands, gets emotional when he describes its impact.

“Every time I see an individual on a Coca-Cola bike, I know we’re changing that person’s life,” he says. “More importantly, I know they’re changing their life.”