Al Fritz and the Schwinn Sting-Ray

Image credit: 
SchwinnCruisers.com/Erin McCarthy

They called it the "Corvette of bicycles": The Schwinn Sting-Ray, which revolutionized the industry in the 1960s, was created by Al Fritz, who died on May 7, 2013 of complications from a stroke

After serving on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines, Fritz was hired to work in the factory at the bicycle company Schwinn; in his 40 years there, Fritz climbed the ranks from floor worker to executive, even putting his typing skills to use in a stint as a secretary. Jay Towley, a former Schwinn executive, recalled: “So Al was still in his welding outfit with a leather apron and steel-toed shoes, and he washed his hands and went into the old man’s office ... and said he was there to apply for the secretary job.” After transcribing one “flawless” letter, Fritz was hired on the spot.

While working as Schwinn’s Director of Research and Development in 1962, Fritz noticed a strange trend that was sweeping the Los Angeles area. Teenagers were outfitting their own boring 20-inch bicycles with longer banana seats and butterfly handlebars, transforming standard factory bikes into sportier, motorcycle-esque contraptions. After witnessing this wildly popular trend, Fritz reported back to Schwinn: “Something goofy is happening in California.”

Fritz promptly went to work on his own version of the Los Angeles-style bike, and eventually landed on the low-slung, high-handled design of the Sting-Ray. Though the nontraditional prototype was initially scoffed at by Fritz’s fellow executives, nearly 45,000 Sting-Rays were sold in the first few months of its release—eventually selling out the entire year’s stock. In colors like “Flamboyant Lime” and “Radiant Coppertone,” and equipped with stick-shift and other features marketed toward youngsters with car fever, the Sting-Ray transformed the bicycle into a cool, flashy sporting good akin to a luxury automobile for kids.

Competitors quickly followed suit, and at one point, bikes in the Sting-Ray style—including countless imitations—made up over 60 percent of all U.S. bike sales.

Al Fritz paved the way for bicycles as something sporty and exciting, rather than a simple mode of transportation, paving the way for the eventual rise of BMX and other extreme sports. In fact, in 2010, Al Fritz was inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame. After his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009, Fritz’s granddaughter paid tribute to him as a participant in a 20-mile fundraising bike ride—riding, of course, an original 1963 Sting-Ray.

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May 17, 2013 - 8:00am
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