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Too Much of a Good Thing

You hate to see someone—and by someone, I mean a big, faceless, corporate bicycle company changing hands more often than Harley-Davidson—dig his own grave, even if he's a gravedigger who makes his living digging graves.

The new Sting-Ray by Schwinn (yes, that Sting-Ray, that Schwinn) came out April Fool's Day, rife with symbolism (see below) and a whole new look. For kids!

Meet the new Sting-Ray: same as the old Sting-Ray. For once, that's a good thing.

Your Sting-Ray—you, white-knuckling the OC Weekly—was the O.G. one. Maybe it was a Fastback, a Pixie, a Tiger, an Orange Krate, a Lemon Peeler. Whatever; it's now the one selling for $1,500 on eBay.

It was a design geek's daydream from day one, its graceful, cantilever-arched Cruiser-style frame available in a giddy array of lickable, candy metallic hues—festooned with speed equipment that included a slick dragster rear tire, a sissy bar, a banana seat, high ape-hanger handlebars, a gear shift, a disc brake.

After-market, you could buy wheelie bars and a drag chute. Or just hyperventilate at the bike shop.

Your dreams had become reality. It was as if Schwinn had looked inside the brain of Renwal's 1959 Visible Man model kit (remember him? He knocked up the 1960 Visible Woman?) and found out everything he was thinking about the surf, hot rod and motorcycle culture marinating on the West Coast.

Schwinn was on fire, and it knew it, releasing the first Sting-Ray in 1963—halfway through the model year, exactly what Ford did that year with the souped-up V-8 Falcon Sprint hardtop.

Like Sting-Rays, Falcon Sprints flew out the door that year. And they were doomed. Like the new Sting-Ray, but for different reasons. Stay with us.

The Falcon Sprint was a Trojan Horse with the Ford Mustang inside. Its success prompted Ford to release the first "pony car," the Mustang, exactly a year later in March 1964—dooming the Falcon. I've talked to dozens of baby boomers whose dads bought Falcons on JFK time, then spent Johnson's entire administration kicking themselves for not waiting till the Mustang dropped.

The new Sting-Ray is exactly what kids today want, Sting-Ray zealots tell me, their socket wrenches clicking quietly in the background. It's Schwinn's version—virtually verbatim—of what Jesse James builds at West Coast Choppers in Long Beach when he's not transforming the Monkee Mobile into a cement mixer.

Best of all, history has repeated itself: just like in '63, when kids were adding springer front forks; skinny, banana-shaped "bike polo" seats (someone's idea to market polo for the lawn darts set); and high handlebars to their steeds, kids today are modifying their bikes—adding custom-treaded tires and assorted gewgaws to their DynoCruisers.

Schwinn's answer: the new 'Ray, which comes standard with a widened rear wheel and tire, just like Jesse James (read this in your Cher voice); a tank molded into the frame and short, little, low handlebars like choppers today have; solid chrome front forks like modern choppers; a low saddle seat adorned with chrome studs; and a "taillight" reflector directly behind.

Designed by New York-based Orange County Choppers (former fence builders, a bicycle collector sneered through the phone at me), it's a rare example of something they—and Schwinn—have done right.

Schwinn, you may remember, missed the nascent BMX craze that erupted around '74 and rested on its Sting-Ray laurels through a series of ownership changes that took it into the 1990s. The new Sting-Ray has put it back on top. People, its press releases crow, are buying the bikes 10 and 11 at a time.

At around $180 retail, they can afford to—and here, finally, is the rub. Falcon Sprints are collectible 'cause they only made around five or 10,000 of them. Same with Mustangs and old Sting-Rays: though their numbers are far higher, some of them die each day in car crushers and landfills.

They're not making them anymore—and when they were new, they were ridden hard, used, abused. Today, all that tough love makes them tough to find in good shape, which isn't the case with the new Sting-Ray.

"Nowadays, everybody collects everything," a Sting-Ray collector sobbed to me over the blower from Arizona. "You find a box of raisins, you gotta collect it."

In other words, the new Sting-Ray's success guarantees it'll always run second to the original—'cause somewhere, someone will always have five of them, unridden, in the original boxes. An original Sting-Ray in that condition will fetch $15,000, but that's how it goes.

"Who would have thought," the man cried, that "you could get $50 for a Vegomatic?"


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