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That Vintage Bicycle: The 1970's Sting-Ray

As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the '60s and '70s, finishing up college in the '80s. Occasionally, I like to share some nostalgia.

The Old Bike You Loved, Isn't Around Anymore

Things change over time. We all know this but sometimes it sneaks up on you. You think back and say, not that much has changed since I was a kid in school. Well, except for computers and the internet. And maybe smartphones and tablets. But the standard things, like kitchen appliances, cars, bicycles, and so forth were around and basically the same as they are now. Then you look back at pictures and realize you've been living with your eyes closed.

You look back and say, it was like that? But the pictures don't lie. That was you with the funny haircut, wearing those clothes that make you cringe and standing there surrounded by stuff that looks like it belongs in a museum. Then you look closer and you remember all of the great things you left behind. The toys and games from the 70's. The things that were so much fun before they changed.

As a kid, you had a number of prized belongings but probably one of the items kids remember most fondly is their bicycle. That symbol of autonomy. That empowering machine of speed, stealth, and freedom. If you were a kid during the 1970s, you know that bicycles were different than they are today. If you weren't a kid during the 70's you may ask how, well I can tell you.

If You Had a Retro Bicycle What Would It Look Like?

Not all bicycles were the same in the 1970's. It's not like there was only one style of bike. Certainly, there were adults who had moved to 10-speed bikes by the mid-seventies. Heck, there was an oil embargo going on and adults were looking to bicycles and other modes of transportation to get around. Gasoline was being rationed.

Some kids had the more traditional style bikes. They looked more like the cruiser bikes of today. They were carry-overs from the 50's and 60's partially. They had fenders, front and back. On the back fender, there was often a metal tandem in case you wanted to bring a friend along. Not exactly a cushy ride for them. Most of them didn't have handlebar brakes, you gave a sharp pedal backward to stop.

For a while, I had a Schwinn with headlights and a horn built-in; all battery operated. Kids always customized their bikes. Didn't matter if you were a girl or guy. Your bike was a statement about you. I added on a speedometer/odometer. It was a contest with my siblings to see who could rack up the most miles. To be cool, I added streamers to the handlebars and small hollow fluorescent colored, plastic tubes on the spokes to make noise as I rode. In all honesty, they only seemed to work at low speeds. I also remember adding a license plate; no number, no registration, just my name stamped in metal.

All of this was great, but for most young kids there was only one style of bike that really said "cool". Just as kids later wanted BMX bikes and then mountain bikes with their big knobby tires, young kids in the 1970s wanted the Sting-Ray bike or a close facsimile. Schwinn made the Sting-Ray, but the generic term for a bike with a similar style was "muscle bikes". Now, if you long for the quintessential bike of the 70's, your retro bicycle should resemble one of these.

Sting-Ray Style for a Real 70's Retro Bicycle

Sting-Ray bicycles first became popular in the 60's, but by the 70's most younger kids couldn't imagine riding anything else. Today, anyone really into vintage bicycles would covet a Sting-Ray but at the time, kids were pretty happy even with a knockoff. It was a style, a look, a feeling. Doing a wheelie on a traditional full-sized bike was almost unthinkable. Other bikes were like station wagons but muscle bikes were like a sports coupe.

If you asked a kid from the 1970s what a retro bicycle should look like, they would tell you that it must have a banana seat. The elongated saddle could fit a friend on the back if you wanted and even had a "sissy bar" in the rear. The other defining characteristic was monkey handlebars. These let you sit without leaning over, they were great for just tooling around, looking very nonchalant.

Even the shape of these bikes was different. They were rather streamlined with a curved frame. Even better, they were kid-sized with only 20" wheels most of the time; there was nothing clunky, slow, or lumbering about them. Unlike the bikes of today, they had a matching chain guard. Of course, you have to realize we had bell bottom pants and such to worry about getting stuck in the chains, so, yes a chain guard could be really functional. Of course, everything wasn't black and silver either, there were various colors to choose from. Green was popular in my crowd. They also had fenders in most cases, but they were scaled down from earlier bikes. Many of these bikes were single speed, but there was a number that had gears and a single shifter stick in the middle of the frame.

Of course, if you really want to be true to the time period, you have to customize. For girls, there were baskets and streamers as well as flowered seats. Probably the most popular addition though was an extended sissy bar. The bar on most bikes was only a few inches high, so adding a 36 or 48" high sissy bar; often with a reflector attached, was common.

Ah, yes, this would be my retro bicycle. It wouldn't be a chopper, a low rider, or have knobby tires. It would be a fondly remembered Sting-Ray style bike that I could spend summer days tooling around the neighborhood on, without a care in the world.

The History/Background on Schwinn's Sting-Ray Bike (start at 14:30)

© 2009 Christine Mulberry