I used to own a Sting-Ray. A couple of them, actually. I traded my ’66 for a higher performance version in ’71. It was great for awhile, but then I wrecked it and moved on to more normal wheels. I always missed those Sting-Rays and years later bought another for my oldest son’s first vehicle. Oh wait – you thought I was talking about Corvettes? Sorry – there is no “-” in the name on that one. I am talking about the Schwinn versions and how my boys and I engaged in some inter-generational bonding.
My first two wheel bike was a 1966 Schwinn Sting-Ray, in Radiant Coppertone. It was presented to me on a sunny morning in our driveway on my seventh birthday before my father left for work. I had become quite adept riding a two wheeler that had been handed down from some cousins. OK, as long as a (girl’s) two wheeler with training wheels counted. But there were no training wheels on this bad boy and, although I had some trepidation, I screwed up my courage and decided that the day had come to man-up and ride for real.
My father gave me a start and I was thrilled as I sailed down my street. I was mainly thrilled that I remained upright, amazed at how this phenomenon actually worked. I knew nothing of gyroscopes at that age but began getting a feel for the machine. I then realized that my first problem as a rider of a two wheeler was ahead of me: an intersection. I was not confident enough to get through a 180 degree turn without stopping. Getting going again was an entirely different thing. With no dad-push I was on my own. After many failed attempts I finally got moving and triumphantly began the ride back to the house. I felt no small amount of pride as I saw my the familiar white Country Squire coming my way – yes, it had taken me long enough to get moving again that he began to doubt my quickly-advancing skills. There may have been a motherly request involved.
By that evening the stupid plastic streamers had been removed from the ends of the hand grips and I had become competent enough to ride in the small confines of the family driveway. And irritated that I had to sit still for pictures when I could be riding instead. From that day onward the golden Sting-Ray was my constant companion.
I grew up in an era when summer days were kind of like going to work. After a “Bye, Mom” I would leave the house and ride to one of my friends’ houses. From there we would do whatever young boys do at various houses or just around the neighborhood. My Sting-Ray gave me that freedom to roam with my buds in our suburban subdivision.
By 1970 I was ready for an upgrade. The gold Sting-Ray was traded for a Pea Picker – the green version of the Sting-Ray “Krate” series that ran from 1968-73. It synced right up with the Muscle Car Era and was the Hemi ‘Cuda of kids’ bikes. Except in actual performance because my friends who got more practical bikes with bigger wheels would leave me huffing and puffing to keep up. It was the first vehicle I wrecked (a tale I have told before) and judging from the prices I have seen, I wish I had that one back.
But I digress. The Schwinn Sting-Ray may be the most famous bike of its era. Every kid who grew up during “The Wonder Years” either had one or wanted one. It was the “it” bike. According to the folks at bikehistory.org, the Sting-Ray was not something Schwinn intended to build. But Al Fritz, Schwinn’s director of research and development had noticed that kids in California were customizing twenty inch bikes in ways that made them mimic motorcycles. Banana seats and chopper-style handlebars transformed the entire attitude of the bike. Fritz built a prototype to present to Schwinn management. Which was amused by the idea, but gave the go-ahead anyway.
To everyone’s surprise, Schwinn sold over forty five thousand of them within the first couple of months of its 1963 introduction, a number that would have been higher but for limited supplies of tires. For some perspective, a 10,000 unit run for a popular model had been considered a success.
As reported in a piece at bikemag.com, Schwinn sold two million Sting-Rays during the first five years of the model’s run. When adding similar bikes from other manufacturers, the Sting-Ray style of bike accounted for a full 60% of bike sales in the US in the mid ’60s. In the Sting-Ray, Schwinn had built the 1965 Ford Mustang of the kids’ bike world, except that the Schwinn had a much longer run.
Fast forward about twenty-five years. My eldest son had outgrown his training wheel bike and was ready for a two wheeler. When you have children with January birthdays, there is a problem. You know those stores that are brimming with all kinds of things for kids between Thanksgiving and Christmas? (Or at least they were in the late 90’s.) Did you ever go back and check the shelves in mid-January? I did and found the place picked clean of interesting kids’ bicycles, a situation I lamented about at the office.
One of the secretaries asked if I would want to buy the bike she had bought from an older lawyer in my office. It seems that the yellow Sting-Ray that these folks had bought their son for his birthday in 1976 had been put up for sale and our secretary had purchased it for her son. Unfortunately, the first time he took it out his friends made fun of him for riding an old hand-me-down bike. The lad’s parents gave up and bought him a new bike. I knew the yellow Sting-Ray would be in great shape. The original owners were the kind of people who took care of their things and if that bike had ever spent a night outside, it’s rider undoubtedly found himself in trouble over it.
I drove to the secretary’s house, looked the bike over and handed over what they had paid for it a short while earlier. The first thing I did was take it to a bike shop to get a good lubrication and tune up. The guy at the shop was impressed with its condition and remarked that the seat and hand grips for the yellow bikes were very hard to come by. He also told me that it was built in late 1975, which lined up with what I had been told about its early life.
On the birthday I left a series of clues that would take him on a treasure hunt through the house before he would find his bike. Being a lover of all things classic and knowing what an icon the Sting-Ray was, I presented the bike with the appropriate buildup about this being a genuine classic, far better than anything available in the stores today. All true, and I believed every word I said about it. And still do today.
My son was thrilled. On the first decent day outside he learned how to do two wheels. There is a small church in our neighborhood where each of my kids got their early bike practice. There was a good sized asphalt parking lot that was empty but for an old Dodge van that parked out at one end. Oh, and there was a single wooden light pole smack in the middle of the lot. Which was like a magnet. What do you think each of my children ran into, and more than once? Go figure.
The Sting Ray served until the second son was ready, and we then bought a new, larger bike for older brother. Son number two took up where his brother left off, enjoying the feel of the banana seat and the high rise handlebars. Then tragedy stuck.
All that time we had been riding on original twenty-five year old rubber. One day during a family neighborhood ride the back tire finally packed it in with a spectacular blowout. It was time for a larger bike for the lad anyhow and rather than put new tires onto it, it went down into the basement until I could decide what to do with it.
The problem with basements is that things go down there much easier than they come back out. I would grumble a little when the bike would get in the way of getting at Christmas decorations, but otherwise it was out of sight and out of mind.
The biggest difference between four wheel and two wheel varieties of Sting-Ray is that an aging baby boomer can drive the four wheeled one. The bike? Just nope. This one is strictly for kids. So it is time to say goodbye.
The other way that bikes are better than old cars is that “malaise” did not hit bikes in the same way that it hit American auto manufacturers. There is nothing about a 1975 version of this Sting-Ray that makes it inherently inferior to a similar one made earlier in the run (as is the case with that other Sting Ray). The Chopper-style banana seat and the Krate-derived taller handlebars even make this one more appealing than my old ’66.
Reader/Commenter Syke was good enough to give me some pointers on selling it when I corresponded with him a year or so ago. But life got in the way again and it went back to the basement for “a few days”, which turned into a few months. OK, more than a few. But now I am serious.
I have mixed feelings about selling it, but those are mostly about memories of young children with a few of my own childhood thrown in. Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I am writing about it now – creating a way to nail those memories down with some good pictures to call them forth when necessary. And a CC piece online takes up a lot less room than this bike does in my basement.