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.
No, 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.
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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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