The Schwinn Sting-Ray, The world’s first mass produced Chopper Bike

The Schwinn Sting-Ray is the Chopper Bike archetype. It is a Chopper Bike in its purist form, and is the first of its kind. It is the earliest known example of a commercially produced Chopper Bike, hitting the market in 1963, and is the most widely recognized brand even today, decades after its heyday. Like tissues and Kleenex, Chopper Bikes are best known by their most popular brand name—the Schwinn Sting-Ray.

The term “Chopper Bike” originated with the word “Chopper,” and refers to a Chopper-style motorcycle, which got its name through the process of customization, wherein a stock motorcycle would be chopped up, parts added, and welded back together in a new shape. The 1969 film “Easy Rider” exposed the masses to the cool subculture of Choppers with extended front forks, and marked the high point of popularity for both Chopper Motorcycles and Chopper Bikes in the US.

In southern California in the late 1950s the Chopper Motorcycle and Kustom Kar countercultures were popular and growing. Frankenstein-esque T-Bucket hot rods carved from the welded carcasses and entrails of old Model T Fords were decked out in flashy paint jobs and psychedelic custom chassis by popular and eccentric artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Norm Grabowski brought Kustom Kars to the masses in a 1957 issue of LIFE which photographed him working on his T-Bucket.  In the iconic image his child, no more than a year old, is strapped into a car seat on the passenger side next to Grabowski’s signature hand carved skull-shaped gear shifter knob. The scene was a shocking and cool presentation of Grabowski’s Hot Rod lifestyle and it got America hooked. Kustom Kars, Hot Rods, and T-Buckets were swiftly assimilated into the iconography of 1950s pop culture.

Kids in southern California were inspired by these cool cars and motorcycles, and desiring to partake in this badass counterculture themselves began to modify the only vehicles they could get their hands on—bicycles. Kids used traditional middleweight bikes they had outgrown or took from younger siblings, and modified them with scavenged or bought bike parts and other household items. The bikes typically had small 21” wheels and were modified with long seats that extended out over the rear wheel to accommodate the body of a bigger kid than the bike was originally intended for. This new configuration changed the center of gravity and allowed for easy wheelie popping, mimicking both the form and function of chopper motorcycles. High butterfly handle bars were also added to imitate the laid back cruising posture of the motorcycles, and in some cases guide bars made from scrap materials and skateboard wheels were added to the back of the bike—like wheelie popping training wheels.

In addition to building their bikes the kids also built ramps to ride their custom bikes off of, much like the emerging southern California skateboard culture, hammering together scraps of wood and challenging each other to perform dare-devilish stunts. And if you are sensing undertones of the contemporary BMX (“Bicycle Motocross”) bicycle movement you wouldn’t be mistaken – chopper bikes are the precursor to BMX and are the source of the bicycle design, daredevil riding techniques and target youth market that we are familiar with today.

The archetypical Schwinn Sting-Ray was directly inspired by DIY hacked together southern California mini-bikes. In 1963 Al Fritz, an engineer at Schwinn in Chicago got a tip from one of the company’s west coast sales managers about the chopper bike craze and, and according to Schwinn, went to check it out in person. He thought it was a fantastic idea and returned to Chicago to build a prototype in the “high-rise” fashion (as adults at the time referred to the chopper bikes by their “high-rise” handle bars. They are also known as “ape bars” because the rider appears to be hanging from them like a primate). Fritz wanted kids who owned one of these new bikes to be able to carry on the practice of customization that was so integral the chopper concept. In addition to the bicycle, accessories like special seats, lights, tassels, and hand grips that could be bought separately and added on were also developed and sold by Schwinn. The result was the world’s first mass produced chopper bike. The new bikes sacrificed the act of chopping, but maintained the essential concept of customization.

However the Schwinn Stingrays that we consider icons worthy of appreciation and large price tags today were not originally accepted with such open arms, and open wallets. The prototype that established this new form of bicycle was initially met with resistance from the Schwinn’s management. They felt that it was such an incredibly ugly bicycle that putting it into production would be a huge financial risk. Fritz, the Sting-Ray’s designer, was confident that it was the next big thing, and showing his prototype to customers he was able to collect enough orders (an astounding 50,000 the first year) to convince Schwinn to put the bike into production. It was expensive in comparison to other bikes on the market, but despite it’s large price tag the Sting-Ray was wildly popular among children, and it grew to become the dominant bicycle type in the US in the 1960s.

Fritz named the new bike the Sting-Ray most likely after the Corvette Sing Ray that was released the same year in 1963, and the bike came in two versions: the Sting-Ray, and the Sting-Ray Deluxe. Five colors were produced, Flamboyant Red, Flamboyant Lime, Coppertone, Violet and Sky Blue, which were inspired by the eye-catching metal flecked Kustom Kar automotive paint of the era. Each paint job was finished with white lettering that looked hand written, and pinstripes and chrome accents reminiscent of a hot rod. The bikes also had what was called the “Solo Polo” seat, which is a long saddle in white vinyl that is today called a “banana seat” because of its shape. The deluxe version of the saddle had more padding than the standard, and other deluxe features on the bike included front and rear chrome fenders and optional tassels.In this first most basic line of Sting-Rays the type form was set and the four defining characteristics of a chopper bike were established:

  1. The most noticeable trait is that both wheels are smaller than the standard 26” diameter, they are typically 21” or less as derived from children’s bike wheels.
  2. The second characteristic is that the bicycle must have a Sissy Bar. This is not in fact an assault on anyone’s manhood, but a term derived from motorcycles. “Sissy Bar” refers to a biker’s “sister” or girl that sits behind him, and the metal bars behind the seat are there for her to hold and lean on. They also serve as a post for strapping gear onto a motorcycle and stabilizing the long banana seat that hangs out over the rear wheel on Schwinn Sting-Ray chopper bicycles .
  3. The banana seat is a crucial part of every chopper bike because it is an immediately recognizable form that identifies the typology, and because it made the bike accessible to a larger number of people. It allowed children of varying sizes to fit on the same bicycle, adjusting their position on the saddle as they grew larger. This allowed Schwinn and other manufacturers to produce mainly one size of bicycle (and cut costs while increasing profit), rather than the industry standard, which was to manufacture two or three sizes of children’s bicycles to fit their growing bodies. After the introduction of the Sting-Ray the market for traditional kids bikes of varying sizes diminished as kids and their parents preferred to purchase the uber-cool Sting-Ray that their child could grow into.
  4. The last defining characteristic of any chopper bike are Ape handle bars, which combined with the seat and small wheels cause the rider to adopt a unique posture that mimics a chopper motorcyclist. Schwinn even went so far as to angle the kick stand in such a way that when the Sting-Ray is parked it imitates the stance of a motorcycle. While Schwinn produced Ape-style handlebars in many forms over the years, such as Butterfly, and Rams Horns, the main high-rise form remained the same, with the handlebars extending vertically rather than horizontally.

In its first year, 1963, the Sting-Ray exceeded Schwinn’s sales expectations and the following year, 1964, a girls version was introduced, called the “Fair Lady” probably after the popular movie “My Fair Lady” which came out the same year. The new Sting-Ray model captured a larger part of the bicycle market by enticing girls to buy chopper bikes with standard perks like a pink paint job, a flowery white woven basket and tassels.

In 1965 an update to the Sting-Ray was added, the “Sting-Ray Super Deluxe” which came in the same colors available for the past two years with a few new details like the Quilted Super Solo Polo saddle seat in the newly introduced material, “Tufted Glow.” It was a white plastic material with silver sparkles and backed with extra padding for comfort. White wall tires reminiscent of a car, and a larger rear reflector and chrome fenders were also added to the new model. However the biggest innovation was the front suspension system reminiscent of the exposed workings of a T-Bucket hot rod. The Super Deluxe’s chrome spiral shock became a signature element of the Schwinn Sting-Ray range going forward.

In 1966 The Fastback Sting-Ray was introduced in a new color – black, and it was the first year for the iconic, Kustom Kar derived stick shifter. A new sleeker frame shape was introduced, thinner tires were added and two new handle bar shapes – a variation on the ape bar that came standard, and an upgrade, the new “Rams Horn” style were added to the line. The Stick shifter really stole the show for this model, and was a direct derivation from the “8 Ball” gear shifter knobs found on Kustom Kars, and in Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s famous illustrations. Schwinn adapted the stick shifter with the number “5” for the five gear speeds of the bike, adding a new feature irresistible to the public, and sealing the Schwinn Sting-Ray’s status as a souped-up icon of the 1960s.

By 1968 Schwinn had dominated the American bicycle market; over 70% of all children’s bikes sold were Schwinn Sting-Rays, or a knockoff by another brand. In five years they had changed the shape of American children’s bicycles from their traditional form (known as “middle weight”) to the chopper bike. After capturing most of the market with the Sting-Ray, Schwinn had to try a new strategy to keep their business rolling, and they picked two directions. The first idea was to combine the most iconic details from different Sting-Ray models into one bike. They combined the Fastback with the Super Deluxe to create the most iconic, and beloved Schwinn Sting-Ray of all time: The Krate. It had the best of all worlds—the Fastback’s gear shifter, and the Super Deluxe’s front suspension all on the original Sting-Ray frame. It had ape handlebars, chrome fenders, and for the first time, an even smaller front tire, smaller than 21” which made the bike feel more like a hot rod or chopper motorcycle than ever before. The bikes came with adorable color names emblazoned on the chain guards in faux hand written decals. They had names like “Apple Krate,” “Orange Krate,” “Lemon Peeler,” and “Pea-Picker,” and eye-catchingly bright paint jobs to match.
The Krate series was the high point of the Schwinn Sting-Ray line, and the most memorable.

It continued to be manufactured with only slight variations in overall quality and construction until 1974, when the American Consumer Product Safety Commission, in the wake of automotive safety reform, deemed the shifter too dangerous for children. The denuded bike lost one of it’s most exciting and defining elements, and though the bike had been declining in popularity in the early 1970s due to a market saturated with imitations, it was likely this change that sealed its fate and caused it to fall completely out of popularity. What took it’s place in the market were BMX bikes, another motorcycle inspired design that, in the case of Schwinn, was just a Sting-Ray frame with a new BMX-style paint job, drabber than it’s predecessor.

But before the Sting-Ray, and all other brands of chopper bikes succumbed to the BMX trend they experienced an astronomical jump in popularity fueled by the 1969 hit movie “Easy Rider.” The movie features two chopper motorcycles and it encouraged every manufacturer the world over that had not already jumped on the chopper bike band wagon to do so. Manufacturers created thousands of variations that looked more like literal interpretations of a motorcycle than Schwinn’s candy-colored icon. Schwinn’s largest competitor, The English brand Raleigh even went so far as to trade mark the word “Chopper” as the name of their most popular chopper bike during the craze.

In the face of competition Schwinn decided to stick to its guns and original notion of customization, keeping all of its older models of the Sting-Ray in line, and offering new motorcycle-inspired accessories that kids could add on. Schwinn and other accessory dealers offered windshields, headlights, taller sissy bars, new types of fenders, an upgrade to motorcycle-style disk brakes and car-inspired chrome steering wheels as replacements to earlier ape-bars.

In 1968 Schwinn also responded to its competitor Raleigh, who was successfully selling a collapsible bike throughout the 1960s. Schwinn introduced an awkward looking scaled-down collapsible version of the Sting-Ray called the “Sting-Ray Run-About” aimed at adults who wanted a folding bike to fit into the trunk of their car – it was not a success and was even more oddly proportioned than the other Sting-Rays, making for an incredibly ugly bike. Schwinn’s other unpopular diversification of the line that year was the “Sting-Ray Mini-Twin,” a tandem bike derived from the original Sting-Ray with bare bones features like coaster brakes. It was another awkward looking design, morphing the long and low banana seat chopper bike into an even longer tandem chopper.

Though some rather unmemorable styles were introduced in 1968, it was still the most profitable year to date for the Schwinn Sting-Ray due to the wildly successful and iconic Sting-Ray Krate series. The following year, in 1969 they did not introduce any new styles, but did introduce one new color, the racially offensive “Cotton Picker Krate,” an all white version that hit the market only months after one of the Civil Rights Movement’s figureheads, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

After 1979 the Chopper Bike trend had reached its peak and began to decline. Schwinn continued to produce the Sting-Ray Series, rolling-out the “Grey-Ghost Krate” in 1971, and selling smaller and smaller quantities of the other Sting-Ray styles that were still in production. In 1976, after 13 years of Sting-Ray success Schwinn introduced the future of bicycles, the “Scrambler,” a new BMX style bike that used the same frame, banana seat, and sissy bar as the Sting-Ray.

The Scrambler’s new features that differed from the Sting-Ray were BMX style handlebars, hand grips, and a new paint job with dark matte finishes reminiscent of a Motocross Motorcycle. The new bikes were used much like the Sting-Ray was originally intended—as a customizable bike for rough riding and jumps—but it lost the colorful flamboyance and chrome of the Sting-Ray. The Kustom Kar and Chopper Motorcycle countercultures that were once the Sting-Ray’s inspiration were replaced by a growing American interest in Bicycle Motocross Racing. It was the beginning of the BMX era, and a new breed of children’s bikes began to evolve, though not without the benefit of America’s most popular chopper bike, the Schwinn Sting-Ray.

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