This past week, my early-childhood glory days came flooding back to mind at the news that the inventor of the Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle, Al Fritz, had died.
The precursor of the BMX bike, the Schwinn Sting-Ray was built from 1963 to 1981 and was America’s most popular bike. When Al Fritz rose to become Schwinn’s research and development director in the early 1960s, he looked for fresh ideas in bicycle design. He heard about a southern California fad of tricking out old 20-inch-frame bikes with high “ape hanger” handlebars and banana seats to look like customized Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Fritz was inspired. He pushed through a line of novel-looking bicycles that offered those same features and other accessories like whitewall tires, neon colors, and hot-rod looking stick shifts.
Sting-Rays became known as the “Corvette of bicycles” which, at the time, meant it was the ultimate ticket to Cool.
- It was new – Not to sound ungrateful to my loving and generous parents but, because I was the youngest of eight kids I grew up using mostly hand-me-downs. Lots of them – clothes, toys, Catholic school uniforms so worn the fabric was almost transparent. So when my parents bought me a new, “Sky Blue” Schwinn Sting-Ray bike, it was incredible because it was mine.
- It was hip – Being new was reason enough for me to love my bike. But it was also hip (when hip was cool, when hip and cool meant good things). My Sting-Ray was actually the girls version called Fair Lady. It came with a white wicker basket trimmed in plastic flower appliqués, which sounds tacky but wasn’t then. Remember, wicker was also very hip in the 1960s, and plastics were the latest greatest thing, calling to mind the scene from the 1967 movie, The Graduate. My bike had all the hot new stuff.
- It was popular – Every kid in America wanted a Sting-Ray bike, and many parents were happy to oblige – Schwinn sold almost two million Sting-Rays between 1963 and 1968. At one point, Sting-Ray bikes and knock-offs sold by competitors cornered 60% of the bicycle market. Those were the good old days when kids had more time and terrain to ride bikes.
- It was the ultimate training bike – I found my athleticism on my Sting-Ray. With its fat tires and low frame, I could pop wheelies and jump curbs. I could ride anywhere, on the street or in the nearby woods. I spent loads of time riding with my sisters and friends on the dirt trails that we cut in the woods; the trails featured steep slopes and natural ramps that allowed us to catch some air and clear streams. We were BMXers before BMX. It was freedom and adrenaline wrapped in kid fearlessness. Heaven.
- It was righteous rebellion masquerading as mainstream – The Sting-Ray’s design allowed us to ride like rebels. Its revolutionary style, with the famous banana saddle and high handlebars, was taken from the early counter-culture. The Sting-Ray allowed us to look like rebels, too. We were easy riders like Easy Rider. Any dweeby kid in a small town could become a bad-ass with a Sting-Ray.
- It symbolized a changing America – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the popularity of the Sting-Ray bike signaled the cultural upheaval that would convulse the country by the late 1960s. The hippie subculture, Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam War protests were driven by rising youth movements that would erupt at once, changing the nation forever. To quote graphic designer, Robert L. Peters: “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”
Who knew that a cool kids bike would point the way?