After moving into our little Mar Vista home back in 1997, I noticed an old mini bike sitting in our neighbor’s yard. It turned out to belong to the homeowner’s live-in son-in-law, who had it when he was a kid back in the late 1960’s. In fact, I myself owned one very similar as a 7 year old boy in the early 1970’s and learned the basics on how to rebuild small engines using my mini bike as a tutor, so to speak. When running (though highly illegal), I remember not only the absolute joy of riding it, but the satisfaction that came from building it myself (they came in kits back in those days). Unfortunately, for the next 15 years my neighbor wouldn’t allow me to restore his mini bike despite multiple requests to do so, his stance finally changing after a divorce and subsequent move. Suddenly, without a place to store the mini bike, and with his ex demanding that he empty the house of all his stuff, he found himself presented with a storage problem, which I of course offered to remedy.
Thus I’d finally, after 15 years of patience, come into possession of a 1969 Azusa mini bike frame, complete with wheels and an old Briggs and Stratton motor and plenty of rust. I was giddy just having it in my yard for the first time and quickly grabbed our son and got down to work on its restoration. We first dismantled it completely, removing the engine and discarding the old, frozen chain, then pulling off the clutch. Though almost over 40 years since it had been started, the motor, remarkably, still turned over and had no oil leakage. This meant, at least in theory, that if spark and gas were present, it might actually start. Most of the rest of the bike came apart with the assistance of WD-40 and basic sockets and wrenches. Once apart, I took the frame, forks, and wheels to a sandblasting shop to have all the old paint and corrosion stripped off, then applied a coat of primer before giving it a fresh coat of shiny blue Rustoleum spray paint. I left the wheel hubs and sprocket bare as I liked the unfinished metal look.
At this point, it was time to take inventory of what I’d need to order new to get the project to completion. The tires and tubes were definitely shot, cracked from years exposed to the elements, as were the chain, clutch, grips, and seat. A quick Google search turned up MFG Supply, a reputable supplier of parts for mini bikes, go-karts, and all manner of small engine equipment. Almost $110.00 later, I had all the parts I needed (outside the engine, which I’d not touched yet) to get the mini bike to ride able condition. Everything bolted on easily and I christened the project with the installation of the ratty old seat as an homage to its original owner.
Once the frame was bolted back together, I turned my attention to the original engine. I swapped out the spark plug, ordered a new magnetron (which included points) and gap’d it over the flywheel, bolting the pull cover back on and giving it a firm tug. To my absolute surprise, the engine started! After decades of sitting in a backyard exposed to the LA Westside elements, the American made Briggs and Stratton fired up and idled like it had just been taken out of its box. I was now salivating at the prospect of cruising down the street on my project for the first time and installed the engine into the frame, popped on a clutch, attached my throttle cable, and gave it some gas.
Unfortunately, my thrill was short lived as the clutch refused to engage; it turned out that the engine was not only made for a pump, meaning its drive shaft was too short to accommodate the new clutch, but it was only TWO horsepower and would not be powerful enough to pull my fat, 200 pound adult self more than five mph. Disappointed in the short term, but undaunted, I found another engine (a three horsepower Tecumsah) via a second running mini bike on Craigslist, purchased it, and swapped out the working engine to my waiting project. Once tightened down and inspected, I fired up the new motor and took my first ride down the block.
I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of riding that piece of history for the first time; it was both exhilarating and scary, yet fun and simultaneously melancholy. My childhood came rushing back in a way I hadn’t felt since, well, I was actually a child. I let my wife and son take a few turns and the smiles on their faces showed how much the effort and expense was worth it. I even now had a second functioning mini bike frame and managed to talk the Secondhand Answerman out of his brand-new 6.5 horsepower Predator engine, which I quickly installed to give me a second mini bike. My wife and I have had a few fun rides after dark (less cops to worry about), her on the three horsepower Azusa bike and myself on the more powerful of the two. I now have a third mini bike restoration underway and will be unveiling it at the Buelton Vintage Trailer Rally in late September. I will now be hunting down more frames, parts, and engines to bring as many of these cherished pieces of history to the world as I can and I’ll continue posting each as they happen. Check out some YouTube videos below of our mini bikes in action: