Ken Coster Interview
BMX Icons: Ken Coster
Ken Coster is the president of Skyway Machine Inc., a company we also have known as Skyway Recreation Products. Ken worked his way up through the ranks until today where he is the leader of a company that in 1974 "re-invented" the wheel by introducing the Skyway Tuff Wheel to the new demanding sport of BMX. For more than twenty years Skyway has supplied Tuff Wheels in a wide range of hub configurations to serve the Bicycle, Health Care, Industrial Equipment and Lawn & Garden markets. We talked with Ken about the company and its BMX related products.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: When and how did Skyway Recreation get started?
Ken Coster / Skyway: We actually started in 1963, located in Glendale. We started as a machine shop, and there was an airport across the street named "Skyway." At that time, Chuck Raudman thought, "ah, that's a cool name-Skyway," and that's how we got our name.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: What were the first products you manufactured?
Ken Coster / Skyway: It was for the aerospace industry, a lot of intricate parts for the aerospace-machine parts. Also Disney contacted Skyway, if you've ever seen the President Lincoln robot, a lot of those valves and intricate parts were made by Skyway Machine.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How did Skyway enter into the bicycle business?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Well, at first we thought we'd make a nylon motorcycle wheel because the founder of the company was a motorcycle racer, and thought it would be pretty cool to have a composite wheel for a motorcycle. But talking with material suppliers like DuPont, there was a concern with the heat that would be generated with the speed of a motorcycle. So about that time, BMX was starting to make a little noise out there-kids racing bicycles. So we thought, well, if we can't do a motorcycle wheel, maybe we could do a bicycle wheel. No one's ever done one, and that's what kicked it off.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How did Skyway come up with the original design for the Tuff 1?
Ken Coster / Skyway: A lot of R&D. We knew there had to be spokes in there, but we knew we didn't want to have a lot of spokes to have them look like a wagon wheel, so the odd number amount of spokes we thought looked better, so we came up with the design of five spokes, and it was perfect for a 20-inch because of the span between the spokes was almost perfect--so you know the larger the span, the weaker the point--so we thought well, that's a good way to start. And we all thought the 5-spoke looked good, and that's how that design came and there was, we helped develop a toughener with Dupont to get the wheels strong and tough and not cause any rim spreading-you know with X amount of BFI in the tire, and we popped the first one out in 1974.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: What was the color of the first wheel?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Black. It was all black.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: That was in 1974?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: When did you start producing Tuff Wheels in colors?
Ken Coster / Skyway: The first color we came out with was in 1977, and it was, we were talking to Schwinn at that time, and they wanted yellow for their Scrambler model, they really liked the Tuff wheel concept. In fact, they were our first OEM customers.
Ken Coster / Skyway: And then we also introduced red and blue
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Did you ever produce a Tuff Wheel in a natural nylon color?
Ken Coster / Skyway: No.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: There is a sort of myth that did produce it?
Ken Coster / Skyway: No natural-we looked at natural nylon. It's an ugly, off-white, beige looking thing-
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: When did you start producing the Tuff Goggles?
Ken Coster / Skyway: We made those long before the Tuff wheel came out. That was going to motorcycle outlets. It was a carryover into the bicycle industry.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: This brings us to the Tuff fork. What was the story behind that?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Kind of looking at the overall bicycle industry and saying, "Hey, what else could we do out there?" So we came out with the Tuff fork, and about as soon as we came out with it we stopped it. We realized we were not into the fork business, we were in the Tuff wheel business and we didn't know what we were doing, so it was decided to get out of it. That was very quick.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How long did you make the fork?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Maybe 6 months. Not long
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: The next wheel that came out was an improvement upon the original Tuff wheel.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes, it was. That was just a simple Tuff II.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How and why did you do the changeover from the Tuff I to the Tuff II? What was the reason for it?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Well, actually the Tuff Wheel II was introduced in '79, and we wanted the second generation to be lighter in weight. Basically that was the biggest issue, lighter in weight, which it did. And then we came up with the patented concept of the Kool hub, which you know, provided a heat-insulated air gap between the hub and the nylon wheel.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Were you having problems with the heat on the Tuff I?
Ken Coster / Skyway: No, it was just a progression to enhance the product. We always try to make things better the second, third, fourth time.
Ken Coster / Skyway: And I think it looked, it really looked cool.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: It is a cool looking wheel.
Ken Coster / Skyway: But the number one thing was weight.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: The first version was a coaster brake on the Tuff II. How did you come about working an agreement with Sun Tour to use their hubs and go with a free hub? Was that just a logical step up because you were using Bendix coaster brake in your original wheels?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah. Sun Tour actually came to us and actually worked with us on designing that coaster brake and making the flanges for them.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: And so the flanges themselves were made by Sun Tour?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes. It was our design for that star pattern for the cool hub. It was riveted in.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: And the free wheel was just the next step. Same thing-Sun Tour built them and sent them to you, and you guys put them into your wheel.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Continuing on with the Tuff 2, the Graphite Tuff Wheel came out, and we all know how famous those became as a product of Skyway.
Ken Coster / Skyway: We didn't think they would, believe it or not.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How did the Graphite Tuff wheel come about?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Well, we actually were talking to our materials supplier, Dupont. We said, "We need something that's trick". We need something out there because you know, BMX was making a pretty good climb and we had some pretty good racers. We wanted to get something out there that looks like the standard black Tuff wheel that our racers can use that would be stiffer and lighter yet, and we want to put the best hub components in there, we just wanted to do something like that. You know if you look at the other industries, they have some real high-tech stuff that the racers use that they try to pull in from the stand, and we thought that it would really put a boost to our Tuff wheel sales. A lot of black wheels would be sold because they would try to copy the graphite. So we came up with the material that we thought was lighter, stiffer, which it was, graphite nylon, and back then, you remember the Trans Am was black and gold?
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Yes.
Ken Coster / Skyway: We thought it was a really neat combo, so we thought why don't we do the hubs in black or gold. And we did, and we just-I know the first racer that we gave them to that won, and BMX Action and BMX Plus and Super BMX, they were all on it, it was Perry Kramer. PK. He put them on his Ripper. It came out in the magazine that "Perry Kramer blew the competition away with the new Skyway Graphite's."
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: You can't ask for better advertising than that.
Ken Coster / Skyway: PK will tell you today that he did that, and he did. He won the nationals with those Graphite's on there. And the rest is history. I mean, because of the expense of the material, they retailed for like $220, $250-and that time, we thought, no, there's not going to be that many people so we thought, "let's do a limited run." They sold out in hours, literally. They had the trick yellow box with the black lettering on the box. We went all out to promote this thing. And we were amazed. We made-John(Raudman) and Chuck(Raudman) and I were down there, by hand making every one of those hubs. A lot of people asked, "why didn't you stick with the Campagnolo hubs?" Campagnolo, they didn't do anything special for us, we had to use what they normally use for the road bikes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Track axles?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Exactly. But the component parts on that, such as the cone nuts and lock nuts, they were so hard, they were almost brittle, so we had to temper every one of those down so that they would not snap on impact when these kids were out racing or jumping or whatever.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Really?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Oh, yeah. Very costly. And those components were very, very costly.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: I've seen in some magazine ads, especially a group ad with the whole Skyway team, and on one of the bikes, there was a wheel that had a round flange in it.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: What was the story behind that flange because that never seemed to go into production.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Good question. When the racers would come here, when a lot of them would come here, they'd fly here. We'd fly them in, whenever they wanted to see the factory. When we were designing this star hub, we were trying to look at different hubs to look trick. And we had a little of different hubs. We had round hubs with round holes in them. We had round hubs with square holes in them. The best design that we liked was the star pattern hub, which you see today. One of the racers-it might have been Greg Esser, it might have been Andy Patterson-I don't remember-
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: It was on Esser's bike.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Was it? They said, "Oh, trick! Please, please, please! I want, I want, I want!" because everyone wants to be different, and we thought, no, we don't want to do that because it's going to, well we did it anyway, you know, the riders and stuff, we did that, and to tell you the truth, we never got that many calls on that. They all liked that star pattern.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: So, you would have produced those if anybody asked for them.
Ken Coster / Skyway: If it had been another craze, we would have produced the round ones, yes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Did you produce any magnesium flanges?
Ken Coster / Skyway: There's a limited number of magnesium's out there, which only went to the team riders
Ken Coster / Skyway: There's some blue anodized hubs out there also. I would say maybe, you're talking rare breed here, 2-3 pairs.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Only 2-3 pairs of the blue anodized hubs?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Andy Patterson had a set of the blue. He had a blue Tuff wheel. Here's another myth. A lot of people thought we were doing the graphite's in white, in blue and in red. No. You cannot make a graphite in a white or any other color, because graphite is black. In fact, we sued ACS because after the graphite craze, they came out and they claimed they had a white wheel graphite. So we had our attorneys go after them, and immediately they pulled the ad because they knew we were going to nail them on that.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Now, Peregrine also supposedly had colored wheels that they said were graphite.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah, anybody that did that, if you saw their ads and their statement of being graphite were pulled immediately. You can't make a graphite wheel in color.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: That's shattered a lot of people's beliefs that they had colored graphite wheels!
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: I recall seeing a picture in an early BMX Action of a set of the wheels on somebody's bike, and they appeared to be silver. Would they have been the magnesium ones?
Ken Coster / Skyway: They could have been, but we still had some riders such as Andy Patterson who liked the silver hub in a black wheel versus the gold in, and okay that's fine, we'll do it for you.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Okay. And now going back, PK was the first rider to have them?
Ken Coster / Skyway: He was the first rider to win a national.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How did you give Graphite Tuffs to the Pro riders?
Ken Coster / Skyway: We always went to the races with extra sets of wheels. In case I found a good rider, or whatever, "Hey try these, ride them."
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: You originally had the hand-made flange, the next version of the flange was a forged aluminum?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes, they were.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: What was the purpose of that-time and savings?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Oh, yeah.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: You realized at that point that you were making enough of these wheels that it was, you know, worth the cost to have them forged?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes. They had the stamped name of "graphite" in the hub.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How many sets do you think you produced overall?
Ken Coster / Skyway: See, I knew you were going ask that question. Oh, my. Boy. I could probably count that up too, because I used to keep a record on that in the '80's. I'll try to dig that up. I was going back into my production calendars, and I could get pretty close. It's in the thousands. I don't think it's near 5,000
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Why did you switch from Campagnolo to your own sealed hub?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Campagnolo is huge, and we thought selling 500-600 sets of Graphite's was enough, but that's nothing to them. Campagnolo was saying to us at one time that the volume was not there. We also decided to leave Campagnolo because of liability. We were afraid, you know, maybe these things weren't strong enough. We had our riders out there testing them, but we still were weary about the Campagnolo components because we had to temper the parts down.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Your next generation of wheel had a molded-in hub on the regular Tuff wheel. What was the reason for doing that?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Cost. We had a lot of distributors and OEMs, especially the OEMs that would dictate to us, you know? The cost was getting up there, because at that time there was quite a few competitors coming in from the Orient as well as the U.S. and riveting was very, very expensive.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Labor intensive?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Labor intensive. You had five rivets to a wheel. The rivets were stainless steel rivets, so they were going up to 9-10 cents apiece. Then you had the labor. Each one was riveted in individually by one of our riveters on a Torwel orbital riveting machine. It was very time-consuming. So we thought, well, we have the capability of molding these things in, no-brainer. We get rid of the filed rivets and we get rid of a lot of the labor, and off we go.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: That was the next generation and that's stayed to modern day?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: There's been no change on the Zytel wheels since then?
Ken Coster / Skyway: No.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: The 16-inch Tuff wheels. How did they come about?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Pit bikes.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: That was the reason.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah. I was out at a race and I saw the little pit bikes come up and I said, "Hey, we need that!" So in 1981, we did the smaller version of the Tuff wheel I. And that took off. That went over very, very well.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Those are cool wheels
Ken Coster / Skyway: Very well. It's amazing that it went over as well as it did.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: 24-inch Tuff wheels. How did those come about?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Cruisers. Kind of the same thing, there was the cruiser class out there, and we thought, "Man, why don't we get the cruiser class on Tuff wheels!" So we did that, we didn't sell a lot of those into the bicycle, but we sold a lot of them into the lawn and garden industry.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: The 24's.
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: For lawn carts and such?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Right.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Here's the story everybody wants to know: 24-inch graphites. You needed them for the factory guys?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Yeah.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Do you recall how many were produced?
Ken Coster / Skyway: Not very many. I don't think 100 sets, if 100 sets.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Were they distributed only to the factory riders?
Ken Coster / Skyway: No, I sold a few of those. They weren't cheap. They were expensive because that's twice the material and that material is very, very expensive.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: Any recollection on what they might have run, price-wise?
Ken Coster / Skyway: I think they might have been $340, something like that.
Bill Curtin / VintageBMX: How do Skyway come up with the idea for Skyway T/ A frameset?
At this point we had to end the interview. More to follow.