T H E B I R T H O F T H E F A C T O R Y M U S C L E B I K E : 1 9 6 3
~ P A R T T W O ~
Al Fritz and the
America's second commercially-
produced Muscle Bike
Al Fritz was already familiar with the Persons "Polo saddles" as the seat company had already sent him a few samples; but he hadn't had any contact with the tall handlebars up to that point. Fritz was intrigued by what Mork had told him about the bike fad's growing popularity, and requested that he send him a few of the tall handlebars for assessment.
Fritz makes a crucial decision
Shortly after his initial conversation with Sig Mork "Fritz" did further investigation on the bike fad through his other contacts in California, and with the suppliers of the bike parts in question (Wald Manufacturing and Persons Majestic). Fritz was given more details about the situation, and came to the conclusion that this new bike fad had commercial potential for the Schwinn Company. Almost immediately he decided to move forward with a plan to have "Schwinn" market a California-style sport bike of its own.
Sigurd (Sig) Mork
Western States Sales Manager of the Schwinn Bicycle Company.
The initial reactions from Al's business colleagues were less than enthusiastic, they thought that his bike plan was crazy. But Fritz was undaunted, and with the help of Schwinn's chief engineer - Frank Brilando had a solid working prototype ready by the first week of April 1963. This prototype came together quickly, and was built around a 20-inch cantilever frame used by Schwinn on its "Typhoon" children's bike.
Schwinn Chief Engineer.
Frank W. Passes
The ailing president of the company, Frank W. Schwinn, died of prostate cancer on April 19.1963. Frank W. was a popular and well-respected leader in the bicycle industry. His funeral took place in Chicago, and some of the biggest names in the bike world arrived to mourn his passing. On the morning of the funeral, Al Fritz took three of the company's top national distributors over to the Chicago factory. Al wanted these men to come out to the Schwinn plant to see his new sport bike prototype.
The prototype was nearing the production stage and Al wanted some feedback on it. These distributors were rarely in Chicago together even for business, and Al seized upon the opportunity to get their collective opinion on his new project. Al respected these men, and knew they would be honest with him.
Frank W. Schwinn President of the Schwinn Bicycle Company until his death in April 1963.
At first they laughed
Fritz and the men arrived at the factory, and once inside the distributors were presented with Al's prototype - Al asked them to take it for a spin. The men looked at each other for a moment - and then started to laugh. They asked Fritz if he was playing a joke on them - Al smiled, and reassured them that he wasn't. After some gentle prodding each man in turn took hold of the tall handlebars and sat on the polo seat. This was a new feel and experience for the veteran businessmen. They were initially unsteady and wobbly as they rode it up and down the isles, but they actually seemed to be enjoying the experience. They all laughed, before, during, and after their test rides. Still smiling, the three men expressed cautious enthusiasm. Al knew they still had questions, but one thing was clear, they all had a blast when they rode the bike, and Al saw this as a very positive sign. This experience gave Fritz some needed reassurance that the bike's forthcoming release would be a success.
True, the three men had a great time riding Al's crazy bike; however, to quickly move it forward from "prototype" to full-on production would require some large distributor pre-orders. Getting a positive response from these men was a step in the right direction; but the rest of Schwinn's upper management still wanted some reassurance about the project's commercial viability, and pre-order commitments from major distributors was what they wanted to see. There was no doubt that production would begin - Fritz was high enough in Schwinn management to make it happen, but long-term success would hinge on sales and public acceptance.
Frank V. Schwinn
Son of Frank W. Schwinn. Became President of Schwinn after the death of Frank W. Schwinn.
Edward R. Schwinn Vice-President of Operations at the Schwinn Bicycle company; Son of Frank W. Schwinn
Would Al's bike find a receptive audience, and could he count on distributors and his own marketing people to support his plan? This was the big unknown. His bike proposal was meeting resistance at all levels, and at times Al felt like he was on his own.
Upper management skeptical
The late president had two sons: Frank V. Schwinn (Schwinn's new President) and Edward R. Schwinn. They were both initially hesitant on the question of Al's bike proposal, but listened. Although, in the beginning, when Ed Schwinn first saw the prototype at company headquarters in Chicago he looked at it with real skepticism. He asked Fritz what it was all about, and when Fritz told him that the bike was going to be Schwinn's hottest selling new model Ed looked at him and said bluntly "Al, you must be out of your goddamned mind!" Frank V. Schwinn had a similar position. He initially thought that Fritz's bike idea was a "waste of time", and told him so. He even bet Al $5 that his venture wouldn't go anywhere, believing the company would be hard-pressed to sell even 500 of them. But Frank V. didn't try to quash Al's plan; instead he stood back and let Al pursue the project.
The name game
The bike needed a name, and according to Fritz he got it by leafing through the "S" section of a dictionary until he came across the word "Sting-Ray". Fritz thought that the words "Schwinn" and "Sting-Ray" went well together vocally, and (intentional or not) the name worked well for another reason, as the "Sting Ray" moniker was also being used by the General Motors Corporation- for its popular new line of Corvette sports cars. Later in '63 the Sting-Ray bike and the Sting-Ray Corvette were even seen together in advertising. Schwinn's Sting-Ray would be offered up as the bike with "sports car styling".
Schwinn Brass finally reassured
Fritz' Plan to get the Sting-Ray into production had moved quickly ahead since that day when the distributors rode his prototype. Schwinn's upper management gave an encouraging nod for Al's "Sting-Ray" to move into assembly-line mode.
The original Sting-Ray logo, with the "S" sporting little wheels
The go-ahead was nudged along by a large pre-order for 500 of the new bikes placed by California's largest Schwinn distributor "Harry Wilson Sales" - headed by Bob Wilson. Wilson believed in Al Fritz' concept and his large order for Sting-Rays was probably the main reason why Schwinn brass gave a "thumbs up" for full production.
Bob Wilson owner of the "Harry Wilson Sales Agency" - California's largest distributor of Schwinn bicycles. Wilson pre-ordered 500 Stingrays, which helped kick-start the bike's production.
During the last week of April 1963, letters started pouring out of Schwinn's sales order department to dealers throughout the country, announcing the mid-year release of the "Sting-Ray" model - J38, a new style of bike - which was touted to dealers as "a real attention getter". The summer of 1963 would see Schwinn distribute its California-style sport bike on a national level. Would Schwinn's sales people, bike dealers, and the buying public accept it? Or, would Al's "Sting-Ray" turn out to be a retail bomb? As many thought it would.
Skepticism turns to smiles
Orders for the new J38 model started to trickle in after that first production announcement of late April, and by the beginning of May the first actual production Sting-Rays started rolling off the company's Chicago line in very small numbers (possibly test runs), guaranteeing at least some availability for the official June release which was only a month away. The clock was ticking down.
The hi-riser style of the Schwinn Sting-Ray was an alien concept to many dealers outside of California, and sales of the Sting-Ray were initially sluggish - as many bike shop owners were very skeptical of the unusual-looking bicycle.
Some dealers would only order a single Sting-Ray at first, that is, until they learned that the bikes often sold before they even hit the showroom floor. And soon - to everyone's amazement - interest in the bikes spread like wildfire, and "Sting-Ray fever" quickly snowballed into a monumental nationwide craze. It was the undisputed smash hit of the summer in 1963.
From its official market entry in June of '63 to the end of that first year, production of Sting-Rays topped out at just over 45,000 units. And that number would have been even higher, except for the fact that not enough rear tires were available to meet production needs. The high volume of Sting-Ray orders overwhelmed the tire supplier's ability to make enough of them - with the limited number of molds they had on hand. No one could have predicted the amazing sales numbers of Schwinn's new Sting-Ray, and soon the race was on to prepare for the coming 1964 retail season, which was expected to be phenomenal.
Fritz brought it to the nation
California teens had created a unique bike style that spoke to their generation, and Al Fritz used his position in the bicycle industry to make it available to buyers throughout the country. Although the Schwinn Sting-Ray was not the first factory-made bike to sport high-rise handlebars and a "Solo Polo" banana seat, it was the first bike of its type to be marketed on a nationwide basis. Schwinn quality and its national distribution network helped make commercially- produced "high-rise" bicycles a true American institution. John Brain
One of the first advertisements for the 1963-1/2 Schwinn Sting-Ray. Sting-Rays were already rolling off the line by June 1st 1963.
The inside of a Schwinn bike shop during the summer of 1963. Many skeptical dealers would only order one Sting-Ray at first.
of Schwinn dealers
in 1963 always
A bike dealer organization in Michigan having a picnic on June 19th 1963, the new Sting-Ray was a surprise hit with everyone.
A young model riding a new Sting-Ray at a summer convention of Schwinn dealers.
1963 advertisement for Sting-Ray components.
Great marketing! What better way to advertise the new Schwinn Sting-Ray than to show it next to a "Stingray" sports car?
The ad states: "Here's sports car styling and performance that is fabulous fun on wheels!" The perfect family vehicle combination.
A Schwinn distributor reminding dealers to get in their Sting-Ray orders for Christmas, before supplies run out.
Long distance from California
On a weekend morning early in 1963 Al Fritz (assistant to the president of Schwinn) received a phone call from friend and Schwinn business associate Sig Mork- who lived in California. Mork wanted to talk to Al about a crazy bike fad that was becoming wildly popular with teenagers in Southern California. Sig thought that Al might be interested in what these kids were doing, especially since Fritz was basically in charge of research and development for Schwinn's new model lines.
Mork was excited about what he had seen. He told Fritz that a large number of California youngsters had taken old 20-inch bicycles (or frames) and had transformed them into unique-looking sport bikes. He said they were doing it by pulling off the factory seats and handlebars and replacing them with Persons "Solo Polo" seats and tall "butterfly" type bars.