Al Fritz, Inventor of the Sting-Ray Bike, Dies at 88
by DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Mr. Fritz, who died on Tuesday at 88 in Barrington, Ill., designed the Sting-Ray, the rugged, compact bicycle — instantly recognizable by its banana seat and high handlebars that curved like longhorns — that Schwinn sold in the millions, initially to baby boomers increasingly obsessed with souped-up vehicles of all kinds.
Mr. Fritz was Schwinn’s vice president for engineering, research and development in 1962 when he flew to Southern California to investigate an interesting new fad: children were buying used 20-inch bicycle frames and refitting them with long handlebars and banana seats. Mr. Fritz recognized the design’s appeal and built a mass-market prototype. Many Schwinn employees were skeptical, but Mr. Fritz prevailed and the first run of Sting-Rays was produced in 1963.
The Sting-Ray was a child’s chopper, available in brilliant colors like Flamboyant Lime and Radiant Coppertone. The low-slung cruisers gave the unlicensed access to a children’s version of 1960s car culture: some bicycles came equipped with automobile accents like stick shifts and drum brakes. More than 25 different versions were made, including the Krate, which was styled like a dragster with a smaller front wheel, and the Slik Chik, a girl’s model. The bikes were promoted for years on “Captain Kangaroo,” and other bicycle manufacturers, including Huffy and Raleigh, quickly released similar models.
Sting-Ray frames were often modified into precursors of modern BMX racing bikes. (Mr. Fritz was inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame in 2010 for his unintended contribution to the sport.) More than two million were sold before the model was discontinued in the late 1970s. Vintage models now sell for thousands of dollars.
Albert John Fritz was born in Chicago on Oct. 8, 1924, to Marie and Louis Fritz. He attended stenography school after graduating from the eighth grade and planned to become a court reporter.
He served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines during World War II and was wounded when a Japanese mortar exploded next to his foxhole. He returned to Chicago after he was discharged and began working at Schwinn in 1945, first as a grinder and then as a welder.
He met Mary Monks on the factory floor. They married on May 7, 1949. She died last year.
Mr. Fritz’s stenographic skills landed him a job as Frank W. Schwinn’s secretary, and he quickly climbed the ranks. He helped develop Schwinn’s global supply chain, forming a close relationship with the Japanese component manufacturer Shimano; and helped commercialize the Airdyne, a stationary bike that turns a fan and has moving handlebars like an elliptical machine, in 1978. Schwinn currently sells three versions.
Mr. Fritz retired in 1985 after heading Schwinn’s exercise division, Excelsior, for about five years.
His son Michael said Mr. Fritz died of complications of a stroke.
In addition to Michael, he is survived by another son, Steven; a daughter, Julie Kurasek; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
The Sting-Ray has been reissued several times since it was discontinued, selling out every time. A 50th-anniversary version will be released this year.