In the early 1960s, young boys on the West Coast attempted to mimic the customization that their older brothers were doing to their hot-rod cars and motorcycles on their bicycles with custom seats, fenders, tires and handlebars. This trend did not go unnoticed by bicycle manufacturers. At the time, there were many bike manufacturers in the country, including Schwinn, Huffy, Murray, Ross and AMF.
Part of the customization trend with motorcycles at that time was to chop the front fork and angle it to accommodate a smaller front wheel, with added custom handlebars and extended seats. These motorcycles — “bikes” in the vernacular — were called “choppers” or “boppers.” The style would be immortalized years later in the classic movie, Easy Rider (1969).
A man working for John T. Bill & Company had an idea for a bike that incorporated some of these styles into it. John T. Bill & Company was a distributor for Huffy bikes, among others, and the employee’s name was Peter Mole. Mr. Mole’s bicycle interpretation had an long seat — nicknamed a banana seat for its elongated shape — and taller handlebars, called ape hanger handlebars. Unlike the standard “adult” bike, which was a 26-inch height, Mr. Mole’s bicycle was child-proportioned at a 20-inch height. He called his creation High Rise, and pitched the idea to Huffy in 1962.
Huffy was hesitant to manufacture a new model, and held back an answer for several months. Eventually the company agreed to produce a limited number of Mr. Mole’s bikes under the stipulation that if it didn’t sell well, he would buy back any unsold inventory, including parts and bikes. Huffy’s version was called the Penguin, and arrived in stores in March of 1963, the first of these styles mass-produced for boomer youth.
A designer at Schwinn, Al Fritz, heard about the California trend, too. He designed his version for Schwinn, which was introduced as the Sting-Ray in 1963. Many boomers recall the Sting-Ray’s distinctive handlebars and banana seat as the quintessential style of this type of bike, but the Schwinn wasn’t the first, or the last. Though sales were slow at first, by 1965 several other U.S. and foreign bicycle manufacturers had their version of the model, for both boys and girls.
Boys quickly discovered that grabbing the handlebars and scooching back on the banana seat placed their center of gravity over the back wheel. A tug on the handlebars while applying a strong forward-motion push to the pedals would launched the front end of the bike off the ground. Continued pedaling would enable the bike to be ridden only on the back wheel. Like the action that muscle cars were performing at raceways, kids called this procedure “popping a wheelie.”
Mister Boomer’s neighborhood generally didn’t possess the “high-priced” brands of things, though an occasional Radio Flyer appeared. Only one kid had a Schwinn Sting-Ray, but soon several kids — boys and girls — had other brand versions. The street was alive with activity all summer as boys perfected their skill at popping wheelies and attempting to pedal their bikes as far as possible. Girls felt content to have streamers flying from the ends of their handlebars, and custom white baskets attached to the front of their bikes. None of them joined in the wheelie attempts. The boys continued their trial-and-error stunts, thinking, what were a few bruises, a little blood and some minor concussions from heads hitting the concrete street when you were learning to perform such a cool maneuver?
Some of the neighborhood boys, such as Mister B, had regular 26-inch bike models, which made wheelies that much more difficult. Nonetheless, attempts were made, though seldom as successfully as the boys with the 20-inch banana-seat bikes.
A couple of years after the trend was underway, Mister B’s father surprised him with a version of the bike as a Christmas gift. It was an off-brand model, painted a bright yellow-orange and had a Tiger-striped banana seat. Mister B, unaccustomed to such a lavish gift, felt especially bad about receiving it when, to his dismay, he discovered the pedal mechanism was tighter than what he was used to on his chipped-paint-and-rust, used 26-inch bike, which he kept. This tightness made pedaling more difficult, which seemed incongruous on the smaller model. Though some bikes by that point had multiple gears, this wasn’t one of them.
Mister B was not able to get the hang of sustained pedaling with the front wheel in the air — a wheelie — whether on his 26-inch bike or the tiger bike, as it came to be known. A couple of the neighborhood kids, however, could ride their bikes on the back wheel for a full half-block. Mister B never felt comfortable riding the tiger bike over the following years, and the summer after receiving his drivers’ license at age 16, he sold it to a kid who was thrilled with its in-your-face styling.
By 1970 the trend began to fade, though some models are still sold today, and boomers’ bikes from back in the day are being sold at collector’s prices.
How about you, boomers? Did you have a bike with a banana seat?