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Sting-Ray inventor Al Fritz remembered

Published May 9, 2013

CHICAGO, IL (BRAIN) — Al Fritz, one of the legends of the U.S. bicycle industry, died Tuesday in Chicago at 88.

Fritz's long career at Schwinn was most notable for his invention of the iconic Sting-Ray 20-inch muscle bike in the early 1960s. Schwinn sold millions of the influential bikes, which later were converted into BMX race bikes, leading to Fritz's induction into the BMX Hall of Fame in 2010.

He retired from Schwinn in 1985. He died from complications from a stroke he suffered several weeks ago, his son Michael told BRAIN.

Fritz served as executive vice president of Schwinn Bicycles and also was president and general manager of Schwinn's Excelsior Fitness Equipment division. Besides the Sting-Ray, he was instrumental in developing Schwinn's ten-speeds and the Air Dyne exercise machine, and in offering Schwinn bike dealers an off-season product line of fitness products.

"Dad is one of the most respected and admired men in the bicycle industry. He was an even better father and mentor. Our family is now trying to cope with this incredible loss," Michael Fritz said.

Fritz, the son of Austrian immigrants, was born and raised in Chicago near Schwinn's headquarters and factories. He was trained as a stenographer and served on General MacArthur's staff in World War II. After the war, he went to work at the Schwinn factory, grinding frame welds and then welding. Later a job opened as secretary to the company's then-president, Frank W. Schwinn.

Fritz later told Jay Townley about how he moved from the welding department to the president's office.

"If you cut my arm, little Schwinn bicycles will flow out" — Al Fritz

"Frank W. Schwinn was the son of Ignaz, the company founder, and besides being a genius, he had a volatile temper and he went through secretaries like water," recalled Townley, a long-time Schwinn executive and industry consultant. "Al heard that the latest secretary had taken off. 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 times was right off the factory floor — and he said he was there to apply for the secretary job. So the old man had him take a letter and it was flawless, so he said, 'you're hired.'"

Fritz had no problems with Frank W.'s temper or colorful language, and he rose to run the company's product development and other departments. Prior to inventing the Sting-Ray, he was instrumental in creating the Varsity and Continental ten-speeds, which were the first U.S.-made lightweight derailleur bikes. He was also instrumental in developing a worldwide network of suppliers, pushing companies like Shimano, SunTour and Giant to modernize and cooperate as they supplied "Schwinn-approved" products. At the time, Schwinn's sales were so large that it took the whole industry's capacity to supply it.

"Schwinn was the first to go to Taiwan, the first to Japan and China. Schwinn was the first to do a lot of things, and that was mostly Al's doing," Townley said. "He was really the leader in globalizing the industry."

Townley remembers Fritz as a brilliant product developer, a talented public speaker and an outgoing personality. "Dealers loved him," Townley said.

Industry veteran Howie Cohen remembers Fritz as a sharp but fair competitor. Cohen was a partner in West Coast Cycles and an early distributor of BMX bikes. He said the Sting-Ray had an "enormous" influence on the creation of BMX.

"The Sting-Ray wasn't the first high-riser bike, but when Schwinn made it, they made it much better looking than the models that were already out, and Al was the pusher behind Schwinn making it. And it just had an enormous effect on the industry and on youth cycling," Cohen said. 

"Schwinn was the first to do a lot of things, and that was mostly Al's doing,"  — Jay Townley

In the late 1970s, as a new generation of Schwinn family members took over leadership of the company, Fritz was moved to the fitness division, which was based outside Chicago and was for many years the most profitable area of the company. He was only about 60 when he retired, but remained passionate about Schwinn for the rest of his life, Michael said. 

"He said, 'if you cut my arm, little Schwinn bicycles will flow out,' " Michael told BRAIN Thursday. Michael worked with his father at Schwinn from 1973 until his father's retirement, and remains in the bike industry as a consultant to the electric bike industry. 

The Fritz and Shimano families were especially close, Michael Fritz remembered, and still keep in touch.  

After leaving Schwinn, Fritz ran an import/export business for several years before retiring to Florida. He moved back to Chicago several years ago and passed away at a nearby extended care facility.

The family plans to hold a memorial service in the Chicago area in mid-June. 

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