Most British three speeds from the middle twentieth century along with some American three speeds (Schwinn excepted) used a tire/wheel size that can be considered obsolete: 26″ x 1 3/8″. Even though it is labeled as a “26 inch” tire, it is different than the size commonly referred to as 26 inch. The “common” 26 inch, found on mountain bikes and balloon-tire cruisers, has a bead seat diameter (basically, the innermost tire diameter, where it meets the inside of the rim) of 559 mm. The size known as 26″ x 1 3/8″ has a bead seat diameter (B.S.D.) of 590 mm, 31 mm wider in diameter of the common 26 inch tire. (See comic below for more information on different 26 inch tires.)
The 26″ x 1 3/8″ tire has some other common names:
- 650A, which is the French terminology. This will be labeled on the sidewall like 650x37A, the 37 being tire width in mm.
- The ISO size of 590, which refers to the bead seat diameter of 590 mm. This will be labeled on the tire as 37-590, the 37 being tire width in mm. The ISO system was formerly known as the “E.T.R.T.O.” system, developed by the European Tyre and Rim Technical Organisation.
- E.A.3, the British terminology for the tire. This has not been in use for many decades, however, older tires may have this nomenclature.
Anyone who’s spent some time around these old three speeds will come to realize that there’s not much selection in the 26″ x 1 3/8″/650A/ISO 590 tire size anymore. There’s a few good standards and a whole lotta meh. I started researching this uncommon tire size back in 2010, when I got my first British three speed, a Raleigh Wayfarer. I’d hoped that ten years later selection would have improved, but it’s unfortunately the opposite–the pickings got slimmer.
What I’ve found currently available in 26″ x 1 3/8″ is below. Please note that this list is subjective and based around my experiences, your mileage may vary. Also, I tried my best to link directly to the tire maker’s website, but that isn’t always possible. So I don’t particularly endorse any of the commerce sites. Due to where I live, this list is U.S. biased. I expect many of these links to be dead in a year or three, so if it ain’t working, remember that Google (or the search engine of your choice) can be your friend. Please let me know in the comments if a) a link is dead b) a tire is no longer available and c) if you know of any other tires. If so, please be as specific as possible, and let us know what country you live in, as it may not be available everywhere.
Any entry with a * next to tire name means I have personal experience with the tire.
- Schwalbe Delta Cruiser*: This tire has become the “standard bearer” for this wheel size. It hits the sweet spot of durability, rideability, looks, and price. The Delta Cruiser is most famous for its “cream” version, which is what I’ve used off and on over the years, first on that Raleigh Wayfarer. They also offer a straight-up black and black with white sidewalls, which is what I have on my Raleigh Superbe. I’ve seen gumwall and brown offered in other wheel sizes, but not for 590, which is unfortunate.
- Schwalbe is now offering up a “Delta Cruiser Plus” which offers more flat protection at about $10 more a tire. They have it in cream and black. I haven’t had any experience with this tire, and may try it out when I want more cream ones. But I feel that the regular Delta Cruisers are pretty good for flat protection, so I wonder how much ride quality may suffer due to a thicker tire.
- Also worth noting is that Schwalbe offers Marathon and Marathon Plus tires in this size. I have never used them for 590 but used the 700C version on my touring bikes. Marathons are renowned for their flat protection at the cost of ride quality. As it is, these tires are pretty expensive, and the regular Delta Cruisers are pretty good when it comes to flat protection, so I’d only go this route if you are supremely concerned about flats.*** (Worth noting: The Marathon Plus is offered in both 37 mm and 42 mm. The 42 mm should be the widest tire you can get in this size, but there may be clearance issues on old Raleighs.)
- Panaracer Randonneur* or Col de la Vie: The “other” nice tire often found in this size. The Rolling Stones to the Delta Cruisers’ Beatles. (Or The Replacements to the Delta Cruisers’ Husker Du?) The Col de la Vie is gumwall with a classic “brick” tread. It’s a wee bit wider than most tires in this size (40 mm vs the standard 35-37 mm), which can be good and bad. (Good: Wider tires are cool! Bad: May have clearance issues with some bikes, as these bikes were designed around one tire width only.) It’s also more supple than Delta Cruisers, which also can be good and bad. (Good: A cushier ride! Bad: More flat prone.) The max pressure is rated at 45 psi, which may give pause to those who like higher-pressure tires. The first time I used these tires in 2014 or so, I overinflated. And I got a lot of flats. Since I started using them again, I keep pressure to 40-45 psi, and I have gotten few flats. Still, I keep these tires on the Robin Hood, the “sportier” bike that’s not a daily driver.
- Kenda/Sunlite. Kenda offers a few different options in this size. You can get black, gumwall, or whitewall. They are fine tires, though not as high quality as Schwalbe or Panaracer. I’ve used the Sunlite “Nimbus*” version on a couple bikes, and had no issues. They have probably the most “off-road” tread of these tires. Also worth noting is the Sunlite Street Classic in whitewall, which features that classic “block” tread which would have originally come on these bikes. The Kenda offerings are all on the less expensive side, and are most likely the only tire you’ll see in this size if you walk into a bike shop.
- If you want to go super esoteric, super fancy, and super supple, Grand Bois* offers a 650x32A tire. Yeah, it’s narrow, and it’s also pretty flat prone. But they are out there, if you want to spend about $70 a tire.
- That wraps up the “known”. Most major tire manufacturers offer up at least one token tire in this size (Conti is conspicuously absent), but they don’t seem to be that common. Many of them aren’t even available in the US, so you have to order overseas
In Summary: There aren’t a heck of a lot of options these days, but there’s still a bit of selection. My favorites are the Schwalbe Delta Cruisers or Panaracer Col de la Vie. You can’t go wrong with either, it’s all up to your preference: more colors and more durable, or classic look and more supple? Either tire goes for $20-$30 so it won’t break the bank. They are not common in shops, so you either need to buy online or have the shop order for you. Kendas are pretty basic, but get the job done, are less expensive ($10-$20, on average), and more prevalent. You can usually find a Kenda offering in most decent bike shops. Other tires are more obscure.
About Schwinn three speed tire sizing: Schwinn also called the tire on their three speeds and some other “lightweight” bikes 26″ x 1 3/8″, but it’s a totally different size than the British 26″ x 1 3/8″! Schwinn used their own nomenclature of S-6, which may be found on the sidewall of older tires. This Schwinn size is ISO 597, or straight 650. The only tire currently produced in this size (that I know of) is by Kenda. Do not confuse the Schwinn 26″ x 1 3/8″ with the British 26″ x 1 3/8″, they are NOT interchangeable!
Raleigh and some other British makers used this size wheel on a handful of their more fancy bikes in the mid-century, but labeled the tire more accurately as 26″ x 1 1/4″.
Updated 2 August 2020