Al Fritz dies at 88; Schwinn exec developed the Sting-Ray bike Fri, 10
May 2013 11:34
By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
May 9, 2013, 7:26 p.m.
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. "It gave kids too young
to have a driver's license the opportunity to have the Corvette of
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 also
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"Dad flew to California and immediately saw the potential," said his
son Mike, 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% 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. The
Sting-Ray's distinctive colors included Flamboyant Lime, Radiant
Coppertone, and Violet. Captain Kangaroo sang their praises on TV.
"Fritz made a lot of changes within the industry," Barous said. "He
never alienated the casual rider or families. Today, a lot of big bike
companies do both."
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
Retiring in 1985 as Schwinn's executive vice president, Fritz moved to
Florida and ran an import-export business. He returned to the Chicago
area several years ago.
PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2013
In addition to his son Mike, he is survived by a daughter, Julie
Kurasek; another son, Steve; five grandchildren and two
Fritz was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2009. The following
year, his granddaughter Caitlin Kurasek, then 27, participated in a
20-mile fund-raising bike ride in his honor.
She rode one of the original Sting-Rays.