Three-speed bicycles reigned for decades as the quintessential bicycle for the everyman. I dreamed of owning one during my growing-up years, and spent many a lazy afternoon in the late 1960s and early 1970s staring at the various models available from the Sears catalog. I never did get one.
Three-speeds in that era were typified by an upright seating position for comfort, flat pedals and a chain guard to enable riding in street clothes, and a three-speed hub with internal gearing that was protected from the elements. Braking was often a combination of coaster brake (rear) and hand-brake (front). These were bikes that you could just hop on and ride -- no preparation required.
The following scan of a 1973 Sears catalog page hints at two related trends that pushed three-speed bicycles out the mainstream consciousness for decades, though now they are experiencing somewhat of a rebirth. First came an onslaught of ten-speed racing bicycles during the great bicycle boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then followed a massive shift toward the derailleur gearing that those racing bikes relied upon.
This 1973 catalog page captures a moment in time when derailleur- and hub gearing were presented side-by-side as equal options, and ten-speed bicycles could even be had in the same upright-seating and casual-riding configurations as the soon-to-be-forgotten three-speed models.
The style of pedal, grip, seat, and handlebar in the photos so far typify what I grew up thinking of as the normal appearance of a bicycle. Decades went by before I began to understand why anyone would ever want anything different.
And what of my three-speed dreams? Mom threw down for a Schwinn Typhoon in red. Single-speed for simplicity and cost. Schwinn for reliability. Fat tires because she was ahead of her time.
Mom knew best! That Schwinn became my second home after school for years to come. It was still going strong during my college years when one day I must not have locked it, and then it was gone.