The Schwinn Sting-Ray: No longer child’s play

Stick shifts, white-letter tires, chrome speedometers, bucket-style seats, “kandy” colours, all wrapped in memories of cruising down Main Street on a summer Saturday – morning?

In the 1960s and early ’70s, the two-wheel dream machine for many children in the US and Canada was a Schwinn Sting-Ray, a bicycle that put the spirit – if not the power – of a Chevelle SS 396 at their feet. And somewhere between their childhood and middle age, a love of the “muscle bike” was rekindled.

Introduced in the summer of 1963, the Schwinn Sting-Ray emerged in southern California, the same sun-kissed incubator that spawned hot-rodding and drag racing. A savvy Schwinn vice president, Al Fritz, and a regional distributor for rival manufacturer Huffy, Peter Mole, saw an opportunity, having watched children customise their rides with aftermarket high-rise handlebars and “banana” seats.

Though Mole was first to market with the Huffy Penguin, it was Schwinn’s Sting-Ray – the name echoing that year’s dramatic new Chevrolet Corvette model – that would become synonymous with the muscle bike. Print adverts proclaimed the Sting-Ray “the bike with sports car styling.”

Dan Schmitz was stung in ‘67. For his 10th birthday, he received a Sting-Ray Fastback, a model with a lightened frame and narrow, road bike-type tires. He posed it in front of his father’s ’67 Mercury Cougar for a black and white snapshot that still hangs on a wall in his home in St Louis, Missouri. His Sting-Ray Fastback, a special edition, sprouted twisting “Ram’s Horn” handlebars.

“I remember seeing them come into the Schwinn shop. I thought it was the coolest bike ever,” says Schmitz, who runs the printing business founded by his father. His Fastback also wore a defining feature of muscle bikes: a gear shifter mounted on the top tube. Schwinn called it the Stik-Shift, presaging Detroit’s affinity for misspelled muscle-car options, à la the Dodge Charger Track Pak.

Schmitz, who would eventually graduate to Camaros and Corvettes, became nostalgic for the Sting-Ray about 14 years ago. He found an original Ram’s Horn Fastback, starting a collection that would eventually number 125 models. He has since culled that to 75, mostly Fastbacks, and all but two are unrestored originals. The entire lower level of his house is dedicated to showcasing them.

In 1968, with the Detroit muscle-car race at full throttle, Schwinn issued the Hemi of Sting-Rays, the Krate. A 16in front wheel on a springer fork, 20in rear wheel with a wide slick tire and a chrome “sissy” bar mounted on shock absorbers gave the Krate the stance of a Top Fuel dragster. Just to ensure no one missed the point, adverts depicted the bike on a drag strip.

The only thing “muscle” about the Krate, though, was the effort it took a child to motivate its 50lb (23kg) mass. The price tag was hefty, too, with the five-speed models starting at $90 in the US – or roughly $600 in contemporary dollars. Most kids preferred the bright-hued versions: the Orange Krate, Apple Krate, Lemon Peeler and Pea Picker. (Schwinn was also tone-deaf enough to offer a white model called the Cotton Picker.)

Rich McEnroe, a 52-year-old father of four, was nine when his father brought home a slightly used 1971 Orange Krate to ride around the New York suburb of West Orange, New Jersey. His father, an inveterate collector of everything from Native American artefacts to a 1967 Pontiac GTO, eventually stored the Krate in his basement, where it remained until 2014, when McEnroe, a systems analyst for insurance conglomerate Munich RE, retrieved it.

McEnroe’s Orange Krate still wears its original paint and tires, though its owner notes it could benefit from a few upgrades. Via an enthusiast website, he learned of a method to gently remove the oxidation that had encrusted the bike’s chrome over four decades, using nothing more sophisticated than aluminium foil and water.

The cleanup revealed evidence of the bike’s abuse at his boyhood hands.

“I could see nicks and scratches from were I dropped it instead of using the kickstand,” McEnroe says.

An original Orange Krate could be worth $1,400, according to Stephen Komarinetz, a Sting-Ray collector in Uncasville, Connecticut. Twelve when his parents bought him a 1968 Apple Krate, Komarinetz now owns eight original Krates, including a rare 1971 Grey Ghost.

“That’s a $4,000 bike if you find an original,” says Komarinetz, an entrepreneur who builds electric motors for kayaks. He sold his hot-rodded Plymouth and started collecting bikes four years ago. His collection stands at about 30, and he occasionally rides them in the summer.

“I look at eBay first thing in the morning and last thing at night,” he says. “The bidding gets crazy, especially for the Krates.”

In San Francisco, 56-year-old Dave Mariano conveys his bike preference with his screen name in the Schwinn online community: Krate Mayhem. He has about 20 vintage bicycles, including several Iverson muscle bikes designed by famed car customiser George Barris. Mariano rides most of them, usually with his club, the Frisco Bay Sting-Rays, a group of 20 enthusiasts.

“We ride around, get lunch and have a good time,” says Mariano. “Everybody looks at our bikes and talks to us. It’s nostalgia. And it’s great exercise, too.”

Mariano never had a Sting-Ray as a boy.

“A lot of parents couldn’t afford them,” he says. “You might be lucky to get one from a police auction.”

Or, your parents might have bought you one of the many competitors’ bikes, such as Huffy’s post-Penguin Dragster, Rail or Slingshot; a Rollfast Skoot; Sears Screamer; or, from Britain, the Raleigh Chopper.

John Pascuzzi doesn’t remember the brand of the Sting-Ray knock-off he rode as a kid growing up in northern California. But the musician, who now lives in southern California, does recall that when he was 11, a neighborhood boy got a 1970 Schwinn Pea Picker.

“I rode it once or twice,” Pascuzzi says.

By serendipitous circumstance, he now owns that bike. Years after he had moved out of his parents’ house, his younger brother inherited the well-worn Krate from the neighbour. But it sat under a tarp for 30 years until Pascuzzi took it home in 2012.

“I’m a little handy but had never restored a bike,” Pascuzzi says.

He found ample support in the online Sting-Ray community, sourcing a recovered seat and other pieces from Pete Aronsen, whose Hyper-Formance company in Arizona supplies Schwinn Sting-Ray and Krate parts. New fenders, the front tire and handgrips came from one of the Chinese-built Schwinn Krate models re-issued in 1998, 2004, 2008 and 2011. Those have also become feedstock for building counterfeit Krates, collectors caution.

Pascuzzi restored the Pea Picker for riding, not merely for show , but it nevertheless draws a crowd wherever it rolls.

“Kids have no idea what it is,” he says.

Due to an editing error, a pictured Mercury Cougar was misidentified as a Pontiac GTO. The issue has been fixed.

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