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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 KidonStingRay 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.

64_Schwinn_ad_2-487x591And 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 Greyghost_5spddifferent 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.

OrangeKrateBaby 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 2004-stingray-walmartcompletely 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. . . .

 

--Anthony Cagle

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.

 

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I had the Lemon Peeler (bright yellow) version of the Krate. As I remember it, Sing Rays and the like were replaced (at least in our little subculture) by 10-speed racing bikes with ultra-narrow tires and "ram's horn" handlebars.

"...we'd often leave the house in the morning and spend nearly the whole day just riding our bikes around and goofing off..."

Is it any wonder we have so many fat kids today? Back then, young 'uns had freedoms that are sadly lost now. Skateboarding and rollerblading was outlawed where I live in 1989 because it was "unsafe," never mind that twice as many people each year got killed playing golf. On "The Andy Griffith Show," Opie carried a jackknife. Try that today.

I also wanted one of these bikes. My smaller frame fit one perfectly, so my father bought me, of course, a bicycle that I could barely hold up.

As far as the handlebars go, do you remember around this time when they were substituted with steering wheels? Now that looked pretty cool at the time!

I remember the steering wheels!!!

Come to think of it, I even trashed my beloved Continental by ramming it into the back of a parked car. But I got a whole new frame for it after that little incident and I've kept it pretty well maintained ever since. When will those start getting pricey?

As I recall, one of the things that really, really set the Sting Ray apart was you could do wheelies with them.

Oh yeah, way better for wheelies.

My first bike was a new Stingray.
As a child I suffered from "Lazy Eye" which played havoc with my balance. After an operation in the summer of 1964, I could finally ride a bike.
To celebrate, my dad bought me a new Stingray, candy apple gold.
It was an early model, no gears and a fairly flat "banana" seat in white vinyl, none of the later tacky metal flake vinyl.

I loved that bike. It had wide tires in back which weren't slicks but had a tread of dime-sized ovals.

It cost dad $50, a good piece of money at the time.

When I was in college, mu mom gave it to my worthless cousin's kids.
Still wish I had it.

Mine was bright blue metallic - a conventional Stingray - where I grew up, the 'Crates were for the rich kids. I bought mine used, with the money that I'd earned mowing lawns. Couple of my friends had them, as well, and our Summers back then sound very much like Anthony's. I traded mine a handful of years later, for a Continental, which is still in my folk's garage, back in Southern Indiana. I took a look at Stingrays on ebay a few years ago, and was startled at their value - found one exactly like my old one, for $1700.00. Didn't buy that one, but did get a nice, clean '90 Camaro convertible a bit later on for pretty much the same money . . .

One of my friends growing up had one, but none of us knew what it was - hey, it was the 80's and you had to have a BMX bike to be cool. Or, have a Stingray that had been repainted and covered with hot rod decals. It was a pretty neat bike, and the banana seat was perfect for giving your buddy a ride, too. One thing I recall was when we'd trade bikes for the afternoon or whatever, and after riding the 'ray for a few hours, my BMX just felt bizarre. I still give Schwinn props for taking a beach cruiser frame and forks, and turning into the kid's version of a chopper. Only in the 60's, man.

Are you kidding me? I had 2 of those, one around 1975-76, and another one in 1980-81 - the 2nd one was by far the coolest, paid $20 bucks for it, it was metallic brown and a 5-speed with the shifter on the middle bar (more on that in a moment), actually had white letter tires (the back tire was like a fat slick) and of course had the requisite banana seat. I even added a speedometer to it which I thought was ultra cool (till I realized it actually slowed you down, then I got rid of it). If memory serves I even disconnected the front brake cable so I could operate the pull-handle like a pretend motorcycle clutch. Peter Fonda had nothing on me! (or so I thought...)

Until I crashed the bike not once but twice, and both times that aforementioned shifter on the middle bar proved to be very crippling and excruciatingly painful when you hit it with a certain part of your anatomy (yes, I'm talking about the "twins"). After that embarrasing lesson, I went back to a conventional 10-speed.

But I do wonder what a bike like the Stingray like I had would be worth today in pristine condition.

I grew up in Detroit in the late '40's and early '50's when Detroit was the vibrant "Motor City." My first bike was a Roadmaster, and my friends and I would ride all over, including several miles to nearby parks, all without incident, and needless to say, unsupervised. Later on I got a Schwinn "Black Phantom," which is a rarity today. In the early '50's the English Raleighs were imported to this country. They were racers with narrower tires, rim brakes, and lever-action three speeds with the gearing within the rear axle. Some time in there Bendix came out with an adaptive three-speed setup that could be placed in the rear axle. It worked OK, but didn't have the versatility of the units on the British racers. I currently have a Schwinn mountain bike, which I bought new a few years back. It has at least 15 speeds, all operated from the hand grips. It is quite light and since I bought it new, it comes with a lifetime warranty for frame replacement if it ever breaks.

Wow, great post! I had one just like that. ;-)

@Bill T.: Funny you should mentions those English bikes: my parents had one of those, probably is still sitting in the garage.

I had a black banana seat one in burgundy red when I was in 3rd grade. Parents bought it (my Mom, she had taste) at a garage sale for $20. Wish I still had it.

My brother in law is a Schwinn maniac. Here is the book he released, VERY comprehensive!
http://www.greenephantom.com/

Later, I was a BMX nut. Had a JMC Shadow. Nice ones are over a grand now. Mine was $400 and some change, new in the early to mid 80's.

The last 8 years I have returned to the freedom of cycling, driving 600 miles a year (last year was only 300). So sad we let go of what makes us fit, happy, and well. It was one of the best changes in my life, without a doubt, to plan our home around good cycling/walking/transit... not Mc Mansion size and sprawl.

Most of my needs are in a mere 5 miles too boot. Well planned city. Granted, I wish the USA would invest more in safe infrastructure like W. European societies have been benefitting for many decades from.

My bike, btw... is a interpretation of the original 3 speeds for today. An internal gear Breezer. Lovely city bike. Upright, civilized, with a chain guard so I can wear a suit.

Many kids now are getting back to being independent. Obesity is part of the need to back into active transportation (not that adults are also not having this issue). Safe Routes to School programs are popping up (but currently in jeopardy due to cuts) all over the country. Sad part was schools started to be outside neighborhoods due to land use/cost policy.

I recall how much easier it was to focus when I road to school, same goes with work.

Be well. Bike more.

Some additions: Several years ago I saw an ad for an all-plastic bike. Apparently it was definitely all plastic. I called the number and received their full ad in the mail (snailmail) pre-web. I still have the paper somewhere. Some time later I saw an ad for a "Brike." It had three wheels with a direct chain drive, just like a regular road bike. My wife bought one for me for my birthday. It rode well, but was rather slow, needing a multi-speed gearing arrangement. It also could have used a tilting arrangement for the seat, since it did not allow the rider to lean into curves or corneers. I did ride it on the city steets when we lived in the Detroit area,and got a number of looks/stares. then we moved to the northwestern part of the state - the paved roads are a bit of a distance from our house. I still have it and could easily clean it up and ride it.

You really hit a sweet spot with all of us. I had a beautiful, deep green Sting-Ray (with after-market wheelie-wheels and a back rest to match the seat), and my brother had an Orange Krate. I still long for that Sting-Ray, like Citizen Kane longed for Rosebud, his snow sled.

One of the best things about a Stingray bike is you can sit on and ride that banana seat all day long. After moving on to 10-speeds I missed that great comfortable seat. Also, "riding a wheelie" was great.
Did any of you set your handlebars way forward to look cool, only to have them slip back because you didn't get then real tight?

I am actually, and have been, looking for a adult size banana seat bike with the awesome monkey bars. They were soooo comfy.

Who's the cool dude on the stingray? You?

I see there's a '68 Goat behind him.

We had a new '69 model--it sure loved the HI TEST!!!!

I have 1968 single speed I just purchase and its like no other bike ever there is so Mich of a whoa factor to this hard to explain unless u have one

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