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PALM LATITUDES

PLAYTHINGS : Hot Wheels

July 17, 1994|Anne Colby

Thirty years ago, the Schwinn Bicycle Co. caught the imagination of American youth with the Sting-Ray--a style revolution on wheels with a banana seat, sissy bar and ape-hanger handlebars. Sales dwindled in the '70s and Schwinn stopped producing the bikes in 1983.

But in the last few years, the Sting-Ray has once again become a hot item at flea markets, garage sales and on the streets of Southern California. Their buyers--mostly Latinos, but increasingly other ethnic groups, too--trick the bikes up to create their own two-wheeled lowrider fantasies, complete with chrome plating, fancy paint jobs and whitewall tires.

Bill Blake, owner of Dennison Cyclery in East L.A., says, "Their older brothers have lowrider cars, and they can't have a car, so they say, 'Hey, I'll have a bike instead.' "

Frank Tula, 14, of Bassett, started building his lowrider bicycle about three years ago. His prize-winning bike looks like a '50s chopper with gold-plated handlebars, tall sissy bar, customized frame and murals of the

Mexican flag and an Aztec Indian. "I got the idea from my dad's Harley," he says.

Frank's father, Paul Tula, 37, says he encourages the hobby because it keeps his son off the streets, teaches him responsibility and gives him something to be proud of. Father and son work on the bike together, and weekend exhibitions are a family affair. Frank earns money to pay for the bike by working at his father's battery shop after school.

Lowrider magazine editors noticed the trend at auto shows a few years ago, when they saw customized lowrider bicycles on display alongside the lowrider cars. The magazine started publishing photos of the bikes and in December launched a separate publication called Lowrider Bicycle, which sold out its first run of 60,000 copies.

What started in East L.A. appears to be spreading. Lowrider bikes are now being seen at car shows in Florida, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, Hawaii and Tokyo. European MTV was on location at a recent lowrider show at Garfield High School. And a Dana Point surfer came into Dennison's looking for a "cool" lowrider bike the other day. Shop owner Blake says, "We're getting calls from Iowa."

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