LOS ANGELES – For much of the 1960s and the early 1970s, no suburban streetscape would have been complete without them: a squadron of kids clutching sky-high handlebars on low-slung bikes in eye-popping, hot-rod colors.
Equipped with a curved banana seat, the Schwinn Sting-Ray was America’s most popular bicycle. Its godfather, Schwinn executive Al Fritz, became known as an industry visionary for transforming a Southern California street fad into a national phenomenon.
“It looked incredibly sporty,” said his son Mike Fritz, a bicycle industry consultant who lives in Newbury Park, Calif. “It gave kids too young to have a driver’s license the opportunity to have the Corvette of bicycles.”
Fritz, the Chicago-based Schwinn manager who heeded a salesman’s tip that “something goofy is happening in California,” died Tuesday in Barrington, Ill., of complications caused by a stroke, family members said. He was 88.
In addition to the Sting-Ray and Schwinn’s 10-speeds, he is credited with developing the Airdyne, a stationary exercise bike with moving arms that powered a giant fan.
“It helped bike dealers who had only a seasonal business to stay open year round,” said John Barous, a former bike retailer who now edits Bicycle Dealer magazine. “It carried these guys through many a winter.”
Born to Austrian immigrants in Chicago on Oct. 8, 1924, Albert John Fritz graduated from eighth grade and went to stenography school, hoping to become a court reporter. During World War II, he served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in the Philippines, where he was wounded.
After the war, he signed on at Schwinn, the booming bicycle company whose factories and offices dominated his old neighborhood. He stayed for 40 years, rising from the factory floor to the top ranks of management.
When, early in his career, Fritz heard that Frank W. Schwinn, the company’s volatile boss, had fired yet another secretary, he didn’t hesitate to trot out his shorthand and typing skills, recounted Jay Townley, a former Schwinn executive, in Bicycle Retailing and Industry News.
“So Al was still in his welding outfit with a leather apron and steel-toed shoes, and he washed his hands and went into the old man’s office — which, in those days was right off the factory floor — and said he was there to apply for the secretary job,” Townley said. “The old man had him take a letter and it was flawless, so he said, ‘You’re hired.’ “
When Fritz was research and development director in the early 1960s, he heard from one of his salesmen about teenagers around Los Angeles customizing short-frame bikes to look a little Harley, a little hot rod — a little something exciting on the quietest suburban cul-de-sacs.
“Dad flew to California and immediately saw the potential,” said his son, who followed him into the bicycle industry. “The people who looked at his prototypes thought it was a stupid idea, but he pushed it on through. There were 60 different permutations on the theme and each was more successful than the last.”
From 1963 to 1968, Schwinn sold nearly 2 million Sting-Rays. At one point, bikes in the Sting-Ray style — competitors were quick to pick up its success — accounted for more than 60 percent of all bike sales in the United States. Some Sting-Rays came equipped with “stick-shift” gizmos, “overdrives” and other features designed for car-hungry kids.
With Fritz taking the lead, the company peddled Sting-Rays for girls, offering the Fair Lady as well as the smooth-tired Slik Chik.
Fritz and the Sting-Ray paved the way for the more recent BMX bicycle craze, Barous said, and in 2010 he was inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame.
Fritz was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2009. The following year, his granddaughter Caitlin Kurasek, then 27, participated in a 20-mile fundraising bike ride in his honor — on one of the original Sting-Rays.