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I can't really call 1 better than the other, because they are such different animals.
I like both of them, but for different riding/trail conditions. I'm gonna sell the Prophet this Spring...I have 3 Yetis & prefer those bikes.
Keeping the SM600
From my mtb perspective, the modern rigs are hands down more capable. Eg, my 1983 Trek 850 (trek first production mtb) is surprisingly very capable and fun to ride for a full rigid but my modern mtb higher end model is substantively more capable, no major issues. They are dialed in so riders can enjoy technical trails, go farther than before. But for beach, park, errands I love my heavy steel 80 plus year old ballooner.
Perhaps the newer stuff the OP is working on is either poorly designed, regardless of price, or, overall quality of even high end stuff has gone downhill.
This was not the case through the later 1990’s and two thousand year bikes.
Perhaps it’s all shoddy now, I don’t know what the OP is working on.
As far as carbon fiber goes, the catastrophic failures and dubious durability issues were dealt with decades ago. Most of these problems are old wives tales that refuse to die.
I have never had an issue with CF.
I have cracked high quality chromoly frames through simple wear and tear. YMMV.
I have noticed a difference between the old bikes and the newer stuff I’ve had.
First, quality is relative. I have only had mid to higher end bikes over the last 30+ years so I haven't dealt with cheap Chinese junk or even lower end Taiwanese manufactured parts. So, nothing I have had falls apart or breaks easily.
The old bikes I have are the same as far as material quality, that is, very good for the time period. Gas tubing frames of yore were all about as high tech as the next. Chromoly/aluminum/ CF frames from good manufacturers of today are at par with technology.
I consider the material quality of each era to be apples to apples as far as that is concerned.
So, what I am going to submit concerns quality bikes, not Asian junk. I rate all the older bikes as being reasonably high quality, even Huffys weren’t total junk.
The BIG difference I have noticed while working on my older, 50’s-60’s bikes is the differences in tolerances and types of fasteners. Almost any bike I have had since the mid-late 80’s and beyond can be adjusted and repaired with only a tri-way hex wrench, the whole bike! There are a few areas which may need a standard wrench or a larger hex wrench but they are only one or two places.
The old stuff uses many many different types and sizes of fasteners. Screws, nuts, bolts and clamps, Oh my!
Better have your tool chest nearby.
The machining and tolerances can be much better on newer stuff. The vintage fasteners aren’t nearly as precise. I have found nuts that are simply between sizes, including both metric and SAE. I have good tools so it isn’t bad tool tolerance, it’s the old fasteners and no, I’m not talking about worn out rounded fasteners. Some fasteners simply aren’t machined to spec.
On newer bikes a single hex bolt usually takes the place of the old nut/bolt fasteners of the vintage stuff so it’s much easier to assemble/disassemble things, just line stuff up, stick the hex bolt in, screw it in, one handed. Simple.
If the hex bolt doesn’t line up, that’s the fault of sloppy machining and or poor engineering. The single hex bolt design isn’t to blame.
On old bikes you need two hands to assemble a nut and bolt and often one or the other is hard to access while trying to line up with the other.
Old bikes use standard flat head screws, not even Philips head! Flat heads are a pain to use on anything, let alone in the often tight places on a bike.
Now as far as design advancement:
Quick release hubs. No contest. I dread the day I have to fix a flat on my old bikes miles out on a trail. I could be done replacing a tube on my newer bikes in less time than akes just to get the wheel off a vintage bike.
Quick realize brakes or disks; Same thing.
Disc brakes. One of the greatest advancements in bikes ever, especially off road riding in slop or even rain on the road bikes. They are practically foolproof and once set up don’t need adjusting and fiddling with. If they aren’t working well, it’s the fault of the manufacturer, not the inherent design of disks. They don’t squeal or lose power in water and mud.
I wouldn’t trade disc brakes for anything now.
Calipers had a lot of drawbacks. Coaster brakes? Incredibly complex compared to disks.
Sealed bearings? I have bikes with thousands of miles, much of it in wet conditions, still tight and fresh as new.
Multiple repacks with the old bearing designs were needed in frequently and especially in adverse conditions
Speaking of bearings, old designs and tolerances are noticeably grittier than modern ones even after new grease and balls in a rebuild.
I actually re-did a few areas on my old bikes thinking I had not cleaned them well, or missed something, only to figure out that the tolerances just aren’t as precise as good modern machined races. They were as good as they were able to be, which, is not that good.
Seat frames, clamps and posts;
Modern seat frame clamps, easy as pie to assemble, adjust and tighten.
The old designs, well, they are archaic and can be a pain to even assemble. Clamps and posts often need the loving touch of a hammer. Nuff said.
As I talk to mostly younger people about my old bikes they ask a lot of questions. One thing I tell them is that despite the awesome novelty of these machines, they are a pain to work on compared to modern bikes. Just pointing out that vintage bikes are screwed and bolted together surprises them. They have largely never dealt with machines built that way and it doesn’t quite compute in their minds!
The new bikes may be lighter, faster and machined better but the old vintage Schwinns of the 40's and 50's are more comfortable by far. I have ridden STP multiple times on each and on a vintage bike the ride is much more comfortable thus more enjoyable.