The One That Got Away: Schwinn Sting-Ray
We here at Car Lust have batted around the idea every now and then of doing an occasional series called "The One That Got Away": Vehicles that we either had and let slip away or ones that we had a chance to buy but neglected to take the plunge on. . . .until it was too late. We've never quite gotten around to formally deciding to, well, take the plunge with the idea (irony duly noted), but I figured I might as well start it off anyway, jumping on the Way-Back Machine and starting with the very first one that got away for me.
This is one of my biggest regrets in life (which probably says something about me, I suppose): that of all the bikes I had as a kid, I always wanted a Sting-Ray but never got one. I suppose this is sort of off the beaten path as far as Car Lust is concerned, but I imagine most of us got our first taste of the freedom that your own set of wheels provides from our bikes. I further imagine that this might be a generational thing: Back when I was a kid, nearly everyone had a bike. We rode them everywhere: to school and back (unsupervised!), to the swimming pool in the summer (unsupervised!), to our friends' houses (unsupervised!), to the Dairy Queen (unsupervised!), and pretty much all over town all day nearly every day in the summer (unsupervised!). There was no such thing as a "play date" and the only time we didn't walk or get driven to school or wherever was when the weather was too cold or raining or snowing or some such. Otherwise, our bikes were our transportation, our favorite toy, our imaginary motorcycle, or anything else the young mind can come up with.
And when I was a kid in Wisconsin in the late '60s and early '70s, the Sting-Ray was the bike to have. Sadly, I never had one and made do with a string of largely forgettable two wheelers that to this day probably foreshadowed my eventual string of largely forgettable cars.
Schwinn had been producing bicycles since 1895, but up until the 1950s you wouldn't have known it: They sold the bulk of their bikes to stores who then labeled them as their own store brand and sold them that way. Starting in 1952, Schwinn began branding their products as Schwinns and getting those stores to sell them as such, often as their exclusive brand. Eventually they dominated the market, at least for youth models.
And then in 1963 they dropped the bomb: The Sting-Ray. Whoa. Not just a couple of wheels with a seat in the middle, the seat was directly over the back wheel and was long -- a banana seat, they called it. And the handlebars didn't just kind of stick out to the side, they curved upwards. Supposedly, they were modeled after the low-riders, dragsters, and custom motorcycles of the day, but whatever the source the Sting-Ray was distinctly different from everything else on the market, at least in the way it looked. As a bicycle, it wasn't all that much different from other bicycles: it had a single speed and basic coaster brakes. It didn't appeal much to adults, but kids ate it up.
Schwinn, much like Ford was doing at the same time with the Mustang, also offered a bunch of accessories that you could add to your bike to make it more uniquely yours: streamers for the ends of the handlebars, side-view mirrors, different colored seats, and a basket on the front for the ladies. Plus you could modify it yourself: pull the handelbars back and you'd have yourself a chopper; push them forward and you'd have yourself a. . . .well, I don't know what, but I remember a lot of kids doing that.
Then in 1968 they brought out. . . .The Krate. The ultimate Sting-Ray. It was da bomb. The front wheel was smaller than the back, and it had a shock absorber for the seat. It had dual caliper brakes (just like a motorcycle!), and multiple gears. . .with a stick shift on the bar! On top of that, they made several different specialty models including the original Orange Krate, the Apple Krate (bright red), the Grey Ghost, the Cotton Picker (white with lots of chrome), the Manta Ray (larger wheels), and the Ram's Horn (curled racing handlebars). See several examples at First Flight Bicycles, but watch your wallet if you're feeling nostalgic. Sadly, the Stik-Shift was banned in 1974, but by 1970 Schwinn had sold over a million Krates.
Sales started to fade in the late '70s as BMX-style bikes started to become more popular. By that time I had moved on to a 10-speed touring bike called the Schwinn Continental II (which I still have, btw), a derivative of the Varsity that you can see in the ad above. But no, I never had a Sting-Ray. At the time it was a fairly pricey little bicycle and that wasn't something that my parents were willing spend much money on, especially seeing as how I was pretty hard on bikes at the time. I remember having a neat 3-speed tourer for a time (which I trashed), a clunky old black thing that I painted gold (which I trashed), and then a green BMX type that I tried my darndest to trash but couldn't. And so I left childhood behind never having been one of the cool kids with a tricked-out Sting-Ray.
Baby Boomer nostalgia has been making old Sting-Rays into collectors items, many in mint condition going for up to $4,000, with rumors of some going even higher. I can understand the motivation, as lately I've taken to buying vintage stereo gear from my youth. But I don't think I'll be buying a Sting-Ray anytime soon, never mind the money: vintage speakers I can listen to and enjoy; not sure I'd want to be seen out riding an old Sting-Ray around the neighborhood even if I could swing it size-wise.
Schwinn brought back the Sting-Ray in 2004, this time making it look more like a motorcycle than ever before. But times have changed and I doubt it had the same impact as the original. I'm not sure what it's like in the rest of the country, but here in Seattle you don't see too many kids just out riding their bikes around much, at least not outside of their own immediate neighborhood. Some of that's no doubt due to the urban nature of this area, but I think the days of the youth bicycle culture are long gone, as much due to video games as our helicopter parent culture. Back in the day during the summer, we'd often leave the house in the morning and spend nearly the whole day just riding our bikes around and goofing off. My mom wanted to sort of know what we were planning and who with, but otherwise we'd just go and amuse ourselves most of the time. Somehow the words "Mom, I'm going out and I'll be back for dinner" don't seem to me to be spoken much any more. Nowadays it seems as if not knowing exactly where your kid is, who they're with, and what they're doing 24/7/365 will get you a visit from Child Protective Services.
But whatever. I don't really ride the old Schwinn much anymore, mostly because Seattle is very hilly, very rainy, and very full of cars, not to mention that I don't much care to show up at work sweating like a pig from a long bike ride. At the moment it's hanging upside down in the garage waiting for me to completely overhaul it so I can at least ride it every now and then in the summer. We've had a lot of adventures, my Continental II and I, but, you know, I'll always have a bit of unrequited Lust for the Sting-Ray and always wonder. . .what if. . . .
Credits: The top photo is from Karl Ziegler's blog (including a bit of carspotting), and the ad copy comes from Raleigh Ron's Classics pages, the Grey Ghost is from The Salvage Yard, the Orange Krate is from the Antique Warehouseand the 2004 Sting-Ray is from Gene's BMX site.