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mongoosedrummer

The First Schwinn "Sting Ray" had an Older Brother

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I found it very interesting to have recently discovered that the Schwinn Stingray wasn't actually the first 20" "Muscle Bike"/"High Rise" factory production bicycle in America... It was actually the Huffy "Penguin" that was first out of the gate.

 

There is no doubt that Al Fritz and Schwinn are usually credited for paving the way into early BMX bicycle production through their historical offering of the first Sting Ray design, which certainly revolutionized the bicycle industry in 1963 and into the 1970's. However, it now seems that they may have only been better positioned to cash in on a new phase/design of 20" bicycles that was already in production by at least a few months earlier... The largely unknown and now legendary "Penguin" by Huffy.

 

Essentially, if we make the connection between the origins of American BMX and the first 20" Muscle bikes, then Huffy has to be respected for being the first to offer a complete, factory produced, 20" High Rise/Muscle bike, not Schwinn.

 

I've posted some of the story and a few pictures below to help illustrate this little known fact. Interesting stuff...

 

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I N T E R V I E W : Peter Mole

 

Conducted by John Brain, July 2009

 

BR&K: Pete, what's the long and short of it? There has been a lot of debate over the years about who brought out and marketed the first factory hi-rise bike. You were right in the middle of the action in California during the early 1960's, is it true that your company was the first off the line?

 

Peter Mole: My company, John T. Bill, was the first company to market a factory-produced model of the hi-riser bike. Before that, they were hand-built by kids or bike shops.

 

BRK: Pete, how did your position in the John T. Bill Company connect you with the growth of the high-rise bike movement in Southern California?"

 

PM: As the buyer for John T. Bill, my salesman for the San Diego area hounded me to buy Polo seats, hi-hiser bars, and knobby tires, he said the kids were building up these funny bikes and it was gaining in popularity.

 

BRK: This must have had you wondering about what was going on down there with the kids and all those bike parts; how did you respond to your salesman's request?

 

PM: I took a trip with my salesman to the San Diego area to see what it was all about; and it was an eye-opener.

 

BRK: Did the demand for the hi-rise parts level off after a while, or did orders continue to increase?

 

PM: I bought as many polo seat and hi-riser bars as I could get, and the popularity was still growing.

 

BRK: Was your supply of the high-riser parts enough to meet the need during the summer of 1962?

 

PM: The high-riser craze caused a shortage of Polo seats, we could sell all we could get from Persons.

 

BRK: I would have thought that Bob Persons would have been glad to hear about the seats' renewed popularity; how did he feel about your sudden request for large numbers of his Solo Polo seats?

 

PM: I tried to convince Bob to increase production; but he was a little gun-shy about the popularity of this new bike style, as were many others.

 

BRK: Pete, How fast did the craze spread beyond San Diego after the initial breakout? I'm sure you recognized the incredible sales potential if the hi-rise style became widespread in California?

 

PM: The biggest job was convincing dealers outside of the San Diego area that it was a hot new trend; and that they should place an order for this new wave of bike components. However, it did not take long for the wave to move northward; and you know the rest.

 

BRK: I understand that the popularity of the new bike style become so great in mid-'62 that you decided to go one step further, and made the decision to have a run of hi-rise bikes manufactured. What was the first step you took?

 

PM: I was on friendly terms with Huffy at the time, and we arranged a meeting about building a production model of this type of bike. We had a difficult time convincing Huffy to make the bike for us; we had to guarantee that we would buy any unused parts not assembled on the bikes- parts like the seats, handlebars and tires.

 

BR&K: Did it take long to work out a deal with Huffy? It sounds like you wanted those bikes as soon as possible.

 

PM: it took many months of convincing. Huffy's legal department said it could be a liability issue; we finally accepted all the responsibility and got the go-ahead.

 

BRK: This must have been a very frustrating time for you, what with all the roadblocks being put in your way?

 

PM: Yes, we were very disappointed with the delays from Huffy. It wasn't fun to watch our efforts being put aside by short-sighted engineers.

 

BRK: Pete, you decided to call your bike the 'Penguin' I think everyone is curious about the name and how it came about.

 

PM: The Penguin name came about after choosing the color black for the frame, and using a white polo seat on it. It looked like a Penguin, and everyone agreed. We kicked around many other names, but this one stuck out above all the others.

 

BRK: I was under the impression that some of the Huffy Penguins were available in red, is there any truth to this?

 

PM: We never made a Huffy Penguin in a red color, we only offered it in the black and white combination, we used the K.I.S.S. method when planning the production model.

 

BRK: I understand that you didn't get delivery of the Huffy Penguin bikes 'til about a month into 1963; which meant that you missed out on the '62 Christmas shopping season. I can only imagine how you must have felt in that situation.

 

PM: We at John T. Bill were growing very angry at Huffy's procrastination on this project, as we had become aware that Al Fritz at Schwinn had been told about the growing popularity of the bike style. Schwinn, having their own factory, could move very rapidly. We, as a distributor with no factory capabilities had to rely on others; it was very frustrating.

 

BRK: Your hunch was right about Schwinn; you only had the Penguin on the market for about 4 months when they introduced their own version of the California hi-rise bike.

 

PM: Yes, after we introduced the Penguin to the bike industry it only took a few months for Schwinn to come out with their version, the "Sting-Ray"; and the rest is history.

 

BRK: Pete, In doing my research I came across advertisements from 1963 for two other hi-rise bikes, one called the Monark "Avanti" and the other called the Huffy "Brodie" . The photos used to illustrate these two bikes look exactly like your Huffy Penguin. Did your company, John T. Bill, sell these bikes as a variant of the Penguin, or, if not, do you know anything about them?

 

PM: I will try and clear up the Monark Avanti and Huffy Brodie bike situation. No, we did not sell these two models; they were sold directly by Huffy to their discount-store customers. The story goes like this- we approached Huffy to build this bike for us- and you know that story. When we started to deliver these bikes, the trend started to snowball. Our big mistake was that we did not have an exclusive contract on the design of this bike from Huffy; and when the discount stores became aware of this bike, they pushed Huffy to sell them this new model. This happened at the end of 1963.

 

BRK: Pete, you and your company "John T. Bill" were responsible for bringing the first commercially-made hi- rise bikes to the market place, by contracting with Huffman Manufacturing to make an exclusive run of these bikes. It seems like Huffy's introduction of the Avanti and Brodie bikes suddenly left you out of the loop, and you weren't included in their new plans?

 

PM: Huffy did not sell this type of bike before we convinced them to build the Penguin model for us. They cashed in on our promotional work. Again, our biggest mistake was not demanding an exclusive contract; we were just too trusting.

 

BRK: So, in the beginning, Huffy didn't want to make your bike and put up roadblocks to its production. When the Penguin and Sting Ray bikes became successful "Huffy" didn't include you in their new plans to market a bike of their own. So, you again had to look for a new company to produce your Penguin bikes?

 

PM: As a result of Huffy's selling to discount stores we changed our supplier; and our new bike became the Dayton "Deluxe Penguin". The discount stores began to grab most of the business, with the Huffy knockoffs; this did not affect Schwinn because they sold only to Schwinn retail stores, with heavy corporate advertising.

 

BRK: As a final thought, Pete, what do you think the bike industry people of 1963 would have thought about what kids are doing today with 20" bicycles?

 

PM: If some of those folks could see what the kids are doing with 20" bikes today, they would pop out of their graves!

 

BRK: Pete, on the behalf of BikeRod&Kustom and all its loyal readers we want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us about your incredibly important contribution to bicycle history.

 

PM: John, I am amazed that you found all this information about the Huffy Penguin. There are not many people around who still remember this period in bicycle history. Everything you mention in the story is correct. Good luck on the article and enjoy your trip to Amsterdam. Keep me posted on the timetable, and if you have any other questions, give me jingle.

 

Regards,

 

Pete

_01__Penguin_huffy016.sepB.jpg

_02__1963PeterMole003_copyret.sepD.jpg

_04__Huffy_Azuza004.sepC.jpg

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_06a__1963_Huffy_Penguin_good.CroB.jpg

_19__1963_Penguin_bicycle.sepB.jpg

_20__Penguin_huffy015.sepD.jpg

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Most of us hard core bike collectors have known this for some time, but the Stingray collectors will try and deny the Penguin ever existed, especially those that think Al Fritz is god.

 

I collect all kinds of Musclebikes and early BMX, and I have about 40 +/- Stingrays, but I actually think the "off brand" Musclebikes have always been ahead of Schwinn and have more to offer when it comes to style and coolness, look at the Sears Screamer, Murray Eliminator, Huffy Rails, Slingshots, The Wheel, etc. they just had way more thought put into their designs than the Stingray did, I think this is why the Stingray collectors are so defensive when it comes to the Huffy Penguin.

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Being from Australia we only ever saw local copies or variants of the Stingray style frame. Malvern Star and the like.

 

Good to read a bit more about the origins of the design.

 

Just out of interest, what was the comparative retail price of a Schwinn at the time of the second last ad?

 

A 64 week payment plan for a bicycle seems like fairly big commitment ...

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This is from 1964 Ben, so they were pretty much the same price.

 

It's interesting to note, that adjusted for inflation, $50.00 back then would be the equivalent of a little over $350.00 today.

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Interesting thread, I like knowledge and will be the first to admit I always thought the Stingray was the one being copied. Total mind opener. I have to agree with Ken, the off-brand muscle bikes were far cooler.

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I'm glad you found the article on the Huffy Penguin bike. Until recently most everyone in the collector bike world thought the Schwinn Sting-Ray pioneered the hi-rise style, and that Al Fritz had come up with the design. Stylistically the Sting-Ray is almost identical to the earlier "Penguin" bike, and both bikes shared a number of components. Both the Penguin and the Sting-Ray had a cantilever frame, Persons "Solo Polo" seats, Wald handlebars, Bendix brakes, 20x2.125 knobby tires in the back with 20x1.75 up front.

 

Schwinn and Al Fritz didn't invent or design the high-riser (banana seat bike) style. They merely capitalized on the pre-existing concept. I am very much interested in giving creators and innovators their just do, and in this case it looks like Pete Mole is the one who deserves the credit for marketing these kind of bikes first. Thanks for posting the interview with Him.

 

 

The complete Huffy "Penguin" article is here: My link

 

 

A related article on the creation of the Schwinn "Sting-Ray" is here: My link

 

 

Cheers

 

John B.

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I'm glad you found the article on the Huffy Penguin bike. Until recently most everyone in the collector bike world thought the Schwinn Sting-Ray pioneered the hi-rise style, and that Al Fritz had come up with the design. Stylistically the Sting-Ray is almost identical to the earlier "Penguin" bike, and both bikes shared a number of components. Both the Penguin and the Sting-Ray had a cantilever frame, Persons "Solo Polo" seats, Wald handlebars, Bendix brakes, 20x2.125 knobby tires in the back with 20x1.75 up front.

 

Schwinn and Al Fritz didn't invent or design the high-riser (banana seat bike) style. They merely capitalized on the pre-existing concept. I am very much interested in giving creators and innovators their just do, and in this case it looks like Pete Mole is the one who deserves the credit for marketing these kind of bikes first. Thanks for posting the interview with Him.

 

 

The complete Huffy "Penguin" article is here: My link

 

 

A related article on the creation of the Schwinn "Sting-Ray" is here: My link

 

 

Cheers

 

John B.

 

This is great stuff! just the sort of info being put out there that I for one like to see.

 

In my own opinion though I think it is the unknown kids from southern California that first thought this design up. All Mr. Mole and Mr. Fritz did was listen to their dealers in California and see the potential in the design. After that it was a race to see who could cash in first on this preexisting though local fad. But only Schwinn had the corporate juice to fully market their version on a truly national level.

 

Both stories seem to follow the same arc. Both men Were made aware of a trend in a regional market then moved to capitalize on it. both had teething problems along the way that were overcome.

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"in fact, if you're good, you can ride it for a stretch on the rear wheel only"

 

 

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This is great stuff! just the sort of info being put out there that I for one like to see.

 

In my own opinion though I think it is the unknown kids from southern California that first thought this design up. All Mr. Mole and Mr. Fritz did was listen to their dealers in California and see the potential in the design. After that it was a race to see who could cash in first on this preexisting though local fad. But only Schwinn had the corporate juice to fully market their version on a truly national level.

 

Both stories seem to follow the same arc. Both men Were made aware of a trend in a regional market then moved to capitalize on it. both had teething problems along the way that were overcome.

 

 

 

 

The kids in California were definitely the ones who came up with the high riser bike style. The difference with Pete Mole and Schwinn was that Pete Mole and his company "John T. Bill" played an active part in promoting the style from the very beginning, actively supplying kids in California with the parts needed to convert bikes to the new style. Schwinn only got involved after the trend was established by guys like Pete Mole. Schwinn (as a company) did nothing to foster the early growth of the movement, by the time Schwinn released the Sting-Ray in June of 1963 the style was already spreading on its own. Schwinn got in at the perfect time for marketing ,but the Sting-Ray brought nothing new to the market.

 

 

Schwinn was first to sell this style of bike on a national level. But Schwinn being the #3 bicycle company behind Murray Ohio (#1) and the Huffman Corporation (#2) merely held on to reasonably good sales, and did not dominate the market for these type of bikes. In 1969 Schwinn held about 12% of the overall industry market share for bicycles, next to Huffy with 22% and Murray with around 28%. Interest in the high rise style would have happened on a national level without Schwinn - maybe not quite as quickly - but it would have within a short time. Just as the style spread throughout the world in places where American bikes were not sold.

 

 

Schwinn had the most durable frames in the 60's, and this is why they were popular with the early BMX crowd, including me and the bike I pieced together back in 1974. Schwinn was hardly the dominant bike company though, 85 to 90% of the bikes sold in 1960's America were made by companies other than Schwinn. Schwinn's frames made the difference for the early racers, and this is why they are remembered fondly.

 

John B.

 

I love bike history too, but so much B.S. has been circulating on the 'NET for the last decade that its sometimes hard to know fact from fiction. I figure you have to go back to the original media material, created at the time these bikes were originally made. Vintage bicycle trade journals are a good source for accurate information, but boy are they hard to find.

 

Here is a cool page about what was going on in 1963: My link

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Funny that you mention the misinformation floating around out there John. (Oh and welcome to the site by the way.) I think you'll find that we like history and things historic here. And when it comes to the telling of that history I say the more accurate the better. Your work on early Kustom bike trends is first rate stuff, and very well done I might add. There are some of us here that are somewhat research nuts and believe me we eat this stuff up! And thanks to Pete as well for posting up your stuff!

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