The Sting-Ray: Was It the Coolest Bike Ever?

If you were a prepubescent boy in the mid-1960s, a great deal of your social status hinged on your bike. If you rode a big clunky cruiser with fat tires that looked like a hand-me-down from Beaver Cleaver, you had no chance for membership in the Cool Kids Club, even if you adorned it with streamers and stuffed baseball cards in the spokes.

758px-Schwinn_StingRay_OrangeKrate_5speed_1968No, what you bugged your parents to get you for your birthday or Christmas was a Schwinn Sting-Ray. It had strangely tiny wheels and an undersized 20-inch frame, with a curvy “banana” seat and ape-hanger handlebars. Adults thought it was goofy, but in your mind, it looked exactly like one of the Harley-Davidson choppers you saw in the newspaper ads for those drive-in movies you weren’t old enough to go to see yet. You imagined pedaling around your neighborhood, slouched back as you clutched those plastic-handle grips, looking so boss as you popped a wheelie and balanced on the back wheel for a split second, like a cowboy trying to break a wild horse.

See also: Hottest summer songs from 1960s (slideshow)

Schwinn executive Al Fritz, who died on April 7 at age 88 in Barrington, Ill., was the bicycle industry visionary responsible for your youthful fantasy. As the then-Chicago-based company’s director for research and development in the early 1960s, Fritz found out that kids in California were getting old 20-inch-frame bikes from the scrap heap and customizing them to look like motorcycles by replacing the factory seats and handlebars. He devised a prototype, and although company management initially snickered at the idea, it quickly became a runaway hit. From 1963 to 1968, Schwinn sold nearly two million Sting-Rays, and the style became so popular that for a while, with competitors churning out clones, it accounted for 60 percent of all the bikes sold in the United States. Here’s a video that plays tribute to classic Sting-Ray advertisements:

Here are 5 intriguing facts about Fritz and his brainchild:

  1. According to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, before he invented the Sting-Ray, Fritz played a significant role in the development of Schwinn’s Varsity and Continental 10-speeds, which were the first U.S.-made lightweight derailleur bikes. He also came up with the idea for the Airdyne, a stationary exercise bike with moving arms that powered a giant fan.
  2. The “banana seat” of the Sting-Ray actually evolved from a seat designed for use in playing bicycle polo, according to bike historian William Love.
  3. Though the Sting-Ray originally was intended to evoke a custom motorcycle, Schwinn also imitated 1960s car fads. It tried to capitalize on the growing popularity of drag racing with a 1965 model that featured a dragster-style slick rear tire. The following year, it came out with a Sting-Ray model, the Fastback,  that incorporated a gearshift, just like the ones in the Pontiac GTO and other mid-1960s muscle cars.
  4. Schwinn made an even smaller version of the Sting-Ray, the Midget, from 1967 to 1972, which had a scaled-down frame so that your little brother or sister could pretend to be a big kid, which probably drove you crazy.
  5. The apex of Sting-Ray coolness was the Krate line, introduced in 1968, which an advertisement touted as the “flashiest” Sting-Ray ever. It featured a tiny 16-inch front wheel, designed to emulate a rail dragster, with a heavy-duty aluminum-encased front brake, a five-speed “Stik-Shift,” spring struts under the banana seat and a frame with a flamboyantly bright paint job. The original Orange Krate model was followed by the red Apple Crate, the yellow Lemon Peeler, and the green Pea Picker.


Wham-O, more famous for its flying disks, tried to capitalize on the Sting-Ray fad by marketing an add-on gadget that made it easier to do a wheelie. Here’s the commercial, which is a hoot:


Photo: Nels P. Olsen via Wikipedia


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