A recent obituary sparked memories of the most unforgettable gift I ever received: a brand-new, gleaming, too cool, 1965 Schwinn Sting-Ray.
It had a white banana seat, “Opalescent Violet” paint, a “high loop” sissy bar, a “Slik” rear tire and those totally bad, high-rise “ape-hanger” handlebars that every boy wanted. I got it in June or July of 1965, shortly after my 11th birthday. It seemed to be a present straight from God.
I had been riding a junky little Huffy, but I had outgrown it. We were on a vacation in Jeffersonville, Ind., when I spotted a used, adult-sized English three-speed in a bike shop. The price was $18; I had $10 and asked Dad to loan me the rest.
When he saw the funereal black three-speed, he looked at the sporty purple Sting-Ray and said, “Wouldn’t you rather have one like that?”
It was $49.95 — big money then — but I greedily said “YES!” Then, inexplicably, Dad proceeded to buy it for me. I couldn’t believe it. Replacing the Huffy with a Schwinn Sting-Ray was like going from a rusty Corvair to a new Corvette. I instantly became the envy of my friends. I let a selected few take my new bike for a spin and pop modest wheelies.
I thought of all that when I read that Al Fritz died May 7 at age 88. He was the Schwinn executive who fathered the immortal ‘Ray. It was introduced in late 1963; by 1968, Schwinn sold nearly 2 million of them. Production ended in 1979.
Fritz didn’t invent the bike — kids in Southern California did that by adding bicycle polo seats and high-rise, long-horn handlebars to their little 20-inch bicycles. The result was a souped-up, Rat Fink, Big Daddy Roth, Kustom Kulture, hot-rod, drag-racer, muscle car, chopper-style kid’s bicycle that was insane to look at, incredibly fun to ride and easy to do tricks with.
Fritz, Schwinn’s research and development director, was intrigued by what was going on in California, so he created the first Schwinn Sting-Ray from parts. Despite skepticism by company brass, it was a hit. More than 60 variations followed, including some with three-speed and five-speed “Stik-Shift” gear changers, just like real hot rods. Others had seat shock absorbers, drum brakes and spring-action front forks, like real Harleys.
There were standard Sting-Rays, like mine; plus deluxe and super-deluxe models, Fastbacks, and the color-coded Krate series: Apple Krate, Cotton Picker, Lemon Peeler, Pea Picker and Silver Ghost.
Other manufacturers offered kids’ bikes with high-rise handlebars and banana seats, but Schwinn cornered the market on style, durability and beautiful, eye-popping candy colors. “Radiant Coppertone” “Sky Blue” and “Flamboyant Lime” were popular paint options. “Opalescent Violet” wasn’t, but I loved mine.
Al Fritz worked for Schwinn for 40 years, and the Sting-Ray was his masterpiece.
“If you cut my arm,” he once said, “little Schwinn bicycles will flow out.”
Little Schwinn Sting-Rays, that is.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.