In the mid-60s and well into the mid-70s, almost every suburban kid had a banana-seat bikewhether it was an original Schwinn Sting-Ray, Sears Screamer, a Huffy, Ross or some other knockoff. Schwinn was the first to pioneer these bikes thanks to a young engineer named Al Fritz who in 1963 got a legendary phone call from one of his distributors in L.A. Kids were rebuilding their bikes to look like motorcycles, customizing them with longhorn saddles so the rider was lower to the ground. Fritz built his own lowrider prototype and rode it around the Schwinn warehouse. At first, his colleagues laughed at him, but soon his co-workers were taking it for a spin only to find that this odd contraption was actually fun to ride. The era of the muscle bike was born. Within a year, 70 percent of all bikes being sold in the U.S. were Schwinn Sting-Rays. Plugging the bikes on his popular childrens TV show, Captain Kangaroo became the companys spokesman. Schwinn began shooting all promotional material on location in Disneyland. Young Al was on to something big!
Sting-Rays were on the market from 1963-1979the height of the muscle-car craze. Mustangs and GTOs were hot. Big Daddy Roth would hit it big with his souped-up custom cars, and motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel was hurdling over buses, capturing the heart of the nation. A year after the first Sting-Ray was out on the market, Al was watching the Indy 500 and saw rear slick tires on the racecars. He sought to improve his creation and introduced sliks treadless rear tires for his bikes. Like motorcycles, Als bikes had ape-hanger handlebars and sissy bars. Like dragsters, they would possess rear sliks. Later models featured stick shifts, front sprockets made to resemble car mag wheels, and front hubs reminiscent of motorcycle brakes. Schwinn would shoot photos of the bikes at the race track and the ad copy would describe muscle bikes with drag-racing features.
Schwinn soon branched out from Sting-Rays to Deluxe Sting-Rays to Superdeluxe Sting-Rays. The retail price ranged from $50 to $100, which made the bikes pricey in their day. The Krate, first introduced in 1968, was the ultimate Sting-Ray muscle bikeequipped with stick shifts, spring forks, and shock absorbers. With its tiny front tire and drum brake, the Krate looked extreme, borrowing the best features of motorcycles and dragsters. Initially, the Krates were distinguishable by their quirky namesLemon Peeler, Orange Krate and Apple Krate, and the series Kool-aid colors, Kool Lemon, Kool Orange, and Kool Red. Each year Schwinn introduced a new model: the Cotton Picker, Pea Picker, and Gray Ghost. In 1974, the Consumer Product Safety Commission outlawed stick shifts on bikes. Popping wheelies, kids were getting impaled in the groin. The Krates were just too dangerous, so Schwinn decided to discontinue the series.
Other models that emerged from the Sting-Ray tradition were the lightweight Fastback, which folded for storage, the Mini-Twinn Tandem, and the Manta-Rayan oversized Sting-Ray with a wide banana seat. It was only manufactured for two years. Then there was the Sneaker Sting-Raythe biggest bomb. The company had anticipated a sneaker trend that never really hit. The bike had a banana seat that laced up like a sneaker. (No kid with any integrity would be caught dead on it!) Although Sting-Rays were primarily boys bikes, there were Sting-Rays for girls, too: the Fairlady, Slik Chic, and Lil Chic (for little girls). These bikes featured floral seats and feminine baskets, but with their rear slik tires, the girls in the neighborhood could still skid on a dime.
In the mid-70s, the BMX craze hit and Sting-Rays became passé. Inspired by motocross, kids bikes started to look lighter and slimmer. Schwinn came out with a BX Sting-Raya hybrid with a Sting-Ray frame and a BMX seatbut it never really took off. The original Sting-Ray had been a phenomenon, but the age of the muscle bike was long gone. Just a few years later, if you were sighted on your Orange Krate, kids just laughed.
Liz Fried talks to the man who sired the Schwinn Sting-Ray, Al Fritz.
Liz Fried: Tell me about the conception of the Sting-Raythe legendary phone call that inspired you to design the first model.
AL Fritz: I was good personal friends with all our field people and the one on the West Coast was a particular sharp individual. His name was Dick Mort and he called me up this Saturday morning indicating that he thought something goofy was going on there. That Schwinn 20-inch frames seemed to be the hottest thing going. Any used 20-inch Schwinn bicyclewhythe kids were hot after it. It was becoming a scarce item there, and what they were doing was converting them to a sport-type bicycle, if you want to call it that, with the Texas longhorn handlebars and the banana seat. Well, I had never seen a Texas longhorn handlebar at that time, so I asked them to send me the bar, and I did have the seat and. . . that was the beginning of it.
LF: How come you already had the seats? Were they just lying around the factory?
AF: No, Bob Persons who was president of Persons Majestic at that timethey were bicycle-seat manufacturershe went to one of those Scandinavian countries. Sweden, yeah! Thats where the banana seat originated to the best of my recollection. He brought some back and sent us some samples and I had them in my office. At that point, I really hadnt done too much with themso I did have the seats available.
LF: Why do you suppose the bike took off so quickly?
AF: The bike was just fun to ride. So, thats the reaction I got when I showed it to some distributors the day of Mr. Schwinns funeral. Mr. Schwinn passed away at that time. We closed the factory, obviously, in his honor, and the mass wasnt until 11:00 a.m. Three of our distributors who I considered to be the leading men of the group, I invited out to the factory, and I had them ride the prototype. It was interesting; every time they got on it they were shakythe front wheels, the unusually high handlebars and low profile. An adult seemed to be top-heavy, but as they were riding it, even erratically, it was fun to them. They started laughing. Well, they were laughing at me when they got off it. They said, Youve got to be some kind of nut to think this is going to go! But, they were enjoying themselves. Thats the spirit I saw in that bicycle. That was the beginning of it.
LF: How did you come up with a name for the bike?
AF: I was very product-oriented. I had a little flair for it. I was always looking for nameswe used to always have our own private label; names on tires and things of that type. I used to look for names that phonetically sounded good with the name Schwinn. Schwinn Spitfirethat was one of our names. I used to look through the dictionary and I would always start with S. This was an old, old Websters Collegiate Dictionary. They had an illustration of a stingray fish, and the outline of it, at least in that particular illustration, reminded me of the side view of the Sting-Ray with the handlebars and thatso right then and there I sketched out the stylized word sting with the stylized S with little simulated wheels and ended up getting a trademark on the name.
LF: How did you convince the company to go ahead and manufacture the prototype?
AF: I was the one who was always in charge of our new models. The chairman of the board at that time, Bill Steffers, more or less relied on me. Mr. Schwinneven when he was livingI was the one who was more or less the catalyst working with Frank Orlando, our chief engineer, and working with our salespeople. I had the responsibility of introducing and trying to get the ideas and sell them to our distributors, our marketing peopleeven internally. The first time I showed the bike to Ed Schwinn Sr. (he was living at that time and he and I shared an office together) I had it there in the office and he walked in one morning and said What the hell have you got here? and I said This is going to be our hottest selling model! and he said, You are out of your blankety-blank!
LF: Why was that?
AF: With every tire, you need a mold. At that time, the only tire company in the bicycle business was the United States Rubber Company. They only had a few molds and you can only produce so much. There was not the confidence at that time on the part of our salespeople, who also influenced the buying and forecasting and thatso we didnt order enough molds and we actually ran out of tires. We would have sold more than 40,000.
LF: How quickly did the competitors arrive on the scene?
LF: Why didnt it sell? Huffy was out in California where it was all happening.
AF: Well, number onemaybe their bicycles just didnt stand up. See, they were not selling through the independent bicycle dealers at that time. They were selling through mass merchandisers more than anybody elsein those days your mass merchandisers like Sears, Wards, and big department stores, etc. There was a big turnover of personnel. They didnt have the specialists. It used to be pitiful when I would walk into Sears and I would see a componenta handlebar put on crooked or backwards or whatever it was. They werent bicycle people. The guy selling bicycles this Saturday might be selling womens lingerie next Saturday.
LF: Sears had a bike, the Sears Screamermy friend John has one. Do you remember that bike?
AF: Oh surethere were so many names, but only after we popularized it. You might say I took it and ran with it. We were able to persuade our dealers to stock it. And when it was on the floor. . . it started in California, but it crept eastward very rapidly. So that was amusing to me because Huffy, well they prided themselves on being astute business people, but this onethey really dropped the ball on it. If there was any substance to that rumor.
LF: What about the Raleigh Chopper bike? That bike was really big abroad.
AF: Well, all of those. . . any name like that had to be a high-rise bicycle. The first one to come out with a chopper, though. . . we had ours on the market a few months and the president at the time and chairman of Westfield Manufacturingthat was Columbia Bicyclesthe president there, his name was Norm Clark, he called Bill Steffers. They were good personal friends working on industry matters together. In those days there was a Bicycle Institute of AmericaCycling Manufacturing Association and all of thoseso there was good camaraderie between us as competitors. Friendships would strike up and Bill told me Norm called him and said Frank W. must be spinning in his grave with that atrocity the Sting-Ray which you put on the street. It wasnt too many months later that they had to start producing similar bikes, if I remember correctly. Westfield was the first one to put a chopper fork on a bicycle. See, the chopper fork was a motorcycle fork. One of the hallmarks of a successfully engineered bicycleproperly designed, manufactured, etc.you could ride a bicycle for great distances, turning the corner and everything else without having your hands on the handlebars, because if it was properly balanced and you had good alignment between the frame and the wheels and the fork, etc., you just shifted your weight and made turns and that. Well, with a chopper fork you didnt dare take your hands off the handlebars.
I remember one of our tooling engineers, a little fellowhe was always a very vocal person, quick to make comments and thatand he came to me one evening and said You know, I think youre missing the ball by not coming out with one of these chopper forks. Now, we had a sample of one there, so I said Come here, Eric. We had a long hallway in our offices on Kosner Avenue and I said, Go down to the end there and ride that bike, and he drove by me smiling and I said, Now, take your hands off the handlebars, and he did a brody. He crashed right into a wall. It didnt last very long a chopper fork was not a safe item. Some of our competitors came out with the banana seats where they put, like a motorcycle, a higher seat strutthe strut was fastened to the rear axle. They raised it because that was the style of motorcyclesa boy swings on a bike, he puts his foot on one pedal and swings his leg over and when he dismounts, he dismounts the same way. And that was a dangerous thingwe never adopted that. Ours was the original lowslung seat supportyou didnt rest your back against it the way they do on motorcycles. That was dangerous.
LF: But Schwinn was the first to introduce the stick shift?
AF: We were the ones who introduced the stick shift on the Fastbackthe Krate series and that. We took a 20-inch diamond frame which is a lightweight style and named it the Fastbackwe curved the top barthats where we got the name Fastback because it was more of a touring type of bicycle; it just made sense to us. I remember Frank Orlando spent a lot of timewe traveled to the East Coast where there was a fellow in New Jersey making cables and we worked with him coming up with the stick shift. Actually the Consumer Product Safety Commission outlawed the stick shift because if a child hits something he might fly up front and hurt himself in the groin. Well, we designed ours so if he did move up there, the stick shift would givehe wouldnt hurt himself.
LF: They still made you discontinue it?
AF: They just crossed the board with the regulations. You couldnt have stick shifts on bicycles.
LF: Were the girls bikes as popular? Did they sell as well?
AF: Oh yeah, they sold. We had the Sting-Ray tandem. . .
LF: The Mini-Twinn. . .
AF: Yeah, the Mini-Twinn. I know its digressing a little bit. . . you know the way we came about it? I got a letter from a gal from Lombard or Oak Parkshe was married to a vet who had been blinded during the warand he wanted to keep active so they bought a tandem, but most of the tandems were mens-style frame in the front. It was extremely difficult for her heightshe was five two or five threeto get on the front and steer the bicycle, and she said it was impossible to look ladylike doing so. So we came up with the idea to make it lady-style front and back thinking itll be easier to get on and off. Frank (Orlando) and I rode it to make sure the frame had integrity, and it was very tolerant. A test that we did was wed ride it into a seven-inch curb and see what would happen to it. The integrity of Schwinn construction was such that you could do things like that. Schwinn bikes were always more expensivebut for good reasons. Well, the reason that the kids kept looking for Schwinn 20-inch frames is that the other frames were designed for juvenilesthe quality just wasnt there.
LF: What was so special about the Krate series?
AF: The first thing that the Krate had, well, at that time we reintroduced spring forksthe front suspension fork, that was a patented item. Back in the 40s in some towns you still had cobblestone streets and the spring fork was intended to take that jar off the hands. We introduced it with a 20-inch rear wheel and front suspension, and an internal brake on the front wheel which would be affected by a caliber brake. We had the seat strut springloaded. We had chrome fenders on it. It was just really dolled up. And remember, too! It did have the stick shift.
LF: Who came up with the candy-coated names?
AF: I probably was the catalyst. We were the only company for many yearsit used to amaze mewho actually copyrighted our names. We protected that because everyone was calling their high-rise bicycles Sting-Rayswe were worried it was going to become a generic term like Kleenex.
LF: Were the bikes designed to pop wheelies?
AF: When I got the call from the West Coast, at that time kids werent into it yet. In subsequent yearsafter our dealers had it. I remember I used to go out to the West Coast a couple times a year thats where they started doing the wheeliesbut our design was not specific to do wheelies, we made no changes in construction. We didnt have to beef up our frames. We didnt have to beef up our hubs. We didnt have to beef up our rims. Any of our original componentry for all of our bicycles withstood that type of action.
LF: But in the Krate series, to deliberately put a 16-inch front wheel. . .
AF: As I mentioned, Liz, and I truly believe it, the reason the high-rise bikes became popular was that it was an enjoyable bike to ride. And it did have a different appearance than the othersit was like a roadster and it just caught on. Children want to emulate each other and then they started doing the tricks on itthat came afterwards. I remember there was one dealer. Two brothers. They were gangbusters on it. They were doing jumpsI nearly had a heart attack. Holy Christ! What if that front fork breaks. . .
LF: People see you as the engineer, the designer of the Sting-Ray, but in actuality all the components of the bike already existed.
AF: Thats right. The ones who designed the bike were the kids out in California. If I deserve any credit, its recognizing it as a unique type of bicycle, and I ran with the idea. The thing that we had. . . we paid more attention. We were real bicycle people. We lived and breathed bicycles. I used to say many years ago, if you cut that main artery in my wrist, little Schwinn bicycles would come out of it.