Happen by Tully's on Market Street in Ballard on most (nonrainy) afternoons, and you're bound to spot whichever old-school Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle Gary John has decided to ride over and park in front of the coffee shop that day. Perhaps it's the green "Pea Picker" or the yellow "Lemon Peeler," or one of his J-38s, in Flamboyant Lime, Opal Violet, or Radiant Coppertone, tricked out with a Mattel Vroom motor, Wham-O wheelie bar, curb feeler, towering sissy bar, Exxon tiger tail, and a color-coordinated Rat Fink charm dangling from the handlebars.
The gregarious, fortysomething John, an illustrator/collage artist and lifelong Ballardite, can usually be found sitting at one of the tables a few yards away, sporting a gray-flecked beard and wraparound shades, keeping an eye on his two-wheeled baby. Passersby stop to gawk at John's bike, maybe even snap a photo.
"People are astounded—they tell me they haven't seen one of these things in 30 years," says John, who, over the past several years, has become one of the nation's premiere collectors and restorers of vintage '60s and '70s bikes. "I love seeing all the reactions and hearing all the experiences—the guy who flew over the handlebars and broke all his teeth out, or the lady who told me that her brother had posed on these bikes for Schwinn ads in the late '60s."
John's passion and obsession for bikes was born from one of his biggest childhood disappointments—growing up in a family of limited means, he had to settle for a Sears Spyder, a Sting-Ray knockoff. "Every kid wanted the Sting-Ray, but . . . they were like a hundred dollars, and then the accessories you had to put on 'em jacked the cost up even more." So when in 2000, as a financially secure adult, he stumbled across a '68 Orange Krate Sting-Ray that was for sale, he immediately snatched it up. "I couldn't have one when I was a kid, and it was a chance to redeem that. Obviously you can't go back, but one time not that long ago I pedaled up to 7-Eleven and got a Slurpee, and I was sitting on the curb with my Sting-Ray bicycle behind me, and right there, at that moment, I was 12 years old again."
Since then, John's amassed an impressive fleet of rare bikes—nearly 180 of them, he estimates—that includes numerous Sting-Rays (most from between 1963 and 1971), a '69 Murray Eliminator, a '67 Columbia Playbike, a '69 Huffy Slingshot, and a redonkulously cool '62 Schwinn Corvette that he's rigged with a small propane tank so that huge flames can shoot out of rear "exhaust pipes." One of his bikes even deploys a parachute. Along with partner Brian Legresley (the duo refer to themselves as the "Classic Bicycle Club"), John restores the bikes to their original glory in a secret Seattle warehouse; lately, they've also been building small wooden hydroplanes to be dragged behind the bikes, re-creating a Pacific Northwest fad of the '50s and '60s. Though John is coy about revealing how much his bikes are worth, a poke around the Internet finds the going price for some of the same vintage models—in less pristine shape than John's—stretching into the several thousands.
John, accompanied by his Siamese cat, drives around the country hunting for bikes and accessories (he's deathly afraid to fly); a three-year quest for orange sparkle brake grips for his Orange Krate recently came to an end when he discovered a set at a Florida swap meet.
John's bikes have been featured in numerous hot rod and retro-themed magazines, and they often steal the show when he puts them on display at big annual auto and bicycle expos (his next big show is the Hot Rod-A-Rama in Tacoma on Aug. 4).
John exhibits and rides his bikes but he won't sell them, no matter how much cash he's offered or whatever story he's approached with—such as the guy who came up to John at one show nearly in tears, explaining that he'd had the same Apple Krate Sting-Ray as a kid but it'd been stolen from his yard, and for decades he'd dreamed of replacing it.
"I just have to tell them 'No.' I can relate to how they feel, but selling's never an option. Once I get them in my grasp, I just never wanna let them go. When I say I love these bikes with every beat of my heart, I truly mean it."