Recycling a boomer bike trend

Schwinn Sting-Ray pedals in, powered by strong nostalgia

Material World

April 11, 2004|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,SPECIAL TO THE COURANT

Four decades ago, the coolest transportation on two wheels was the Schwinn Sting-Ray bike. Introduced in 1963 during the muscle-car craze, the bike with the butterfly handlebars and distinctive "banana seat" was the must-have possession for kids too young to drive, but too old for ordinary, old-fashioned bikes.

Schwinn is now hoping a whole new generation of kids will bug moms and dads for the company's re-invention of the classic. The updated Sting-Ray, which cruises into stores this month, pays homage to the original, but features plenty of updated bad-boy character.

Available in a range of colors, dripping with chrome and fitted with a rear tire big enough for a motorcycle, the 20-inch bike sports a studded banana seat and wishbone kickstand and retails for about $175.

"The Sting-Ray is an American icon, a legendary bicycle," says Greg Blake, Schwinn's director of new category development. "People kept asking us to bring it back, so we did, with attitude."

The concept for the original Sting-Ray was born in 1962, when a young Schwinn engineer named Al Fritz caught wind of a hot West Coast trend. California kids were creating their own wheels from used bike frames retrofitted with customized parts - including "ape hanger" handlebars and low-rider banana seats. Inspired, Fritz set out to design a bike that not only looked like the California creations, but also lent itself to customization, enabling kids to outfit their wheels with headlights, mirrors and accessories, just as older teens were outfitting hot rods and choppers.

The first Sting-Ray drew a mixed response, especially from parents who found the design decidedly weird. Kids, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of the new bikes. Priced at a hefty $49.95, Schwinn sold more than 40,000 Sting-Rays in 1963 and would have sold more if the company hadn't run out of 20-inch tires.

The first girl's Sting-Ray, the Fair Lady model, was introduced in 1964. By 1968, 70 percent of all bikes sold in America were Sting-Rays or Sting-Ray knockoffs.

The bike remained on the market until 1982. But Mo Moorman, media spokesman for Pacific Cycle, Schwinn's parent company, says customers never stopped asking for the bike's return.

"In spite of the popularity of BMX, mountain bikes and traditional sidewalk bikes, people never forgot the Sting-Ray," says Moorman. Including collectors. While the Sting-Ray era may have ended with the birth of BMX, the popularity of the Orange Krate, Apple Krate, Pea Picker, Grey Ghost or other classic models continues.

The new version, available at big retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, is geared toward 7- to 13-year old boys. But Moorman says the bike holds such nostalgic appeal for baby boomers that an adult model, a girl's model and even a Sting-Ray tricycle are all currently on the drawing board.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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