Al Fritz, the Schwinn employee who invented the Stringray, has died. It was Fritz who noticed in the early 1960s the rise of the muscle-car culture and how that began to bleed into bicycling with kids customizing their bikes. The Stingray was less a bike than a hot rod with two wheels and pedals. And for kids like me who were born in the 1950s and ’60s, the Stringray was one of the first status symbols we ever encountered. It wasn’t just a toy. No, the Stingray was rolling style. It was Beach Boys-hip and as indestructible as a Chevy Bel Air, that is, until you took it off a five-brick-high ramp (in my neighborhood we measured ramp height by the number of bricks we stacked at the high end). Turns out, nothing could stand up to that.
To say that Fritz was the inventor of the Stringray isn’t overstating his achievement. Prior to the Stringray, kids’ bikes had all the flash and style of a turnip. With the Stingray, Fritz gave kids a chance to reflect their personality with a production product. Ask anyone involved in branding and marketing today and they’ll tell you that only the truly transcendent products do that.
How influential was Fritz? Here’s one way to measure it: Who didn’t want a Stingray? Hell, I still want one. The Orange Krate was the first product I can recall coveting, of seeing someone else with something that I actively, passionately wanted. My mom, being the closeted hippy that she was, bought me a Raleigh Chopper. Though it was Union Jack cool, it was poison oak on an open wound. Yeah, it was orange, but still … so close and yet…. The Orange Krate taught me the value of the feature. It wasn’t just a Stingray. No, it had a five-speed gear shifter, hand brakes and the banana seat sat on shock absorbers—shock absorbers! Those gears, those brakes, that suspension—the machine was the very expression of aspiration. I’d look at one and dream of all the riding I could do, if only.
The effect Fritz had on me and so many other people—Schwinn sold more than a million Stingrays—was to plant the seed of making the bike itself cool. Here at RKP we like to say that cycling isn’t just one hobby, it’s at least four or five of them. That love of the thing itself, of the synergy that arises from our appreciation of both what the bicycle can do and our fascination with a machine made beautiful can keep cycling exciting even when we’re unable to ride. Fritz wasn’t the first to make the bike beautiful, not by a longshot. What made the Stringray different was that he captured so many of us when we were blank canvases to passion. There came a point for most of us when we gave up the bike for a while. Those of us who found our way back to the sport owe him a debt. Turns out, the Stingray was as durable as a dream.
Those childhood loves are rarely shaken. Thank God.