- Nate Kuhn
You never forget your first
That's me up front, my older sister and my dad - Fall of 1982
I have owned plenty of motorcycles in my life. With each of them comes memories, stories and adventures. I will be the first one to admit that I am very emotional about my vehicles. I usually get quite attached to the ones that I spend time with, and have a ton of memories and stories affixed to each of them and they're all special in their own way.
For example, there is the motorcycle that I had when I got my M-License, the one I got into an accident on, and the one I rode across a small river when a bridge was under construction. Then there is the one that I genuinely hated the first time I rode it but later learned to love it, as well as the one that I went REALLY fast on that one time in the middle of nowhere (allegedly). The list goes on and on.
This list could absolutely go on for days but I’ll spare you the elaborate fables and get right to it. I have never had more pure fun in my life than on my very first motorized vehicle. Calling it a motorcycle would be a straight-up lie. Calling it a hand-me-down would suggest the bike has a true owner. It honestly does not. What it does have is a TON of history.
The conveyance in question is a 1968-ish Bird Manufacturing-Made Sears “Runabout” Mini Bike. Yes, it is VERY similar to the “Hog” ridden so famously from Nebraska to Aspen, CO by the main characters in 1994's Dumb and Dumber. When I saw that movie the first time in the theater, I lost it when something that seemed so much of a unique experience to me became mainstream. The sight-gag just hit me even harder and it made that very funny moment even better.
This fine machine has a 2.5 horsepower Tecumseh engine, Centrifugal clutch single-speed transmission and a primitive foot-lever rear brake that is barely more advanced than Fred Flintstone’s foot in operation. It is slow, it doesn’t stop well and is perfectly-sized for a nine-year old.
How much fun can be had for 120 dollars? TONS!
The bike originally belonged to my dad and his two brothers. The year of acquisition is unclear to me, but his memory would have put my dad in teenage-years with the youngest of his two brothers reaching down to about 8 or 9 years old. I am not sure whose idea it was, but thankfully for me somebody back then decided to drop $119 hard earned 1960’s dollars on this marvel of patent-free engineering. I’m sure plenty of fun was had back in those days, but MY story with it starts a couple of decades later.
The minibike would exchange hands between the three brothers over the first 15 or so years, with each of them presumably just BEATING on it in every way imaginable. Then for a while it just sat and got moved around with the rest of the various items that occupy a garage. I’m not positive if it was in my dad’s possession when I was born in 1981, but I remember it as far back as my personal memories exist. There is photo evidence of me sitting on it as early as age 1 or 2, but it was about age 4 or 5 that it really sunk in with me. I was hooked from the very start.
Most of the time, I remember it just sitting in the corner of the garage with a coating of dust on it. I would often sit on it motionless, mimicking riding it very rapidly for hours on end. Twisting the throttle with vigor, the only sounds emanating were the throttle cable pulling the lever on the tiny carburetor with a solid ‘CLICK’ as I hit the stop and a ‘SNICK’ as the throttle return brought the grip back to its resting position. The slick hard plastic grips would later prove to be a horrible design choice in a gloved or sweaty hand, but the sound they made when the bike was not running in the hands of a child fooled me at the time and were brilliant. I couldn’t quite ride a bicycle yet, but four year old Nate knew every inch of that little green machine like the back of my hand.
OCCASIONALLY as a kid, my dad would get it fired up in the garage, and putt up and down the block with me sitting in front of him on the vinyl seat. My legs dangling, the entire little bike vibrating in a way that seemed absolutely crazy to me. Nothing in my small world felt so raw, alive and exciting. Chalk that up to a four year old being easily wowed, but it definitely left an impression on me.
It's just glorious to my eyes, and somehow looks better every time I see it again.
Throughout the next few years growing up, I got a few chances to ride it myself, but at some point it stopped running and it sat. My dad was an expert at construction and building, but a mechanic he is not (and has no interest in). I knew NOTHING of why it wouldn’t fire up, so it sat for a few years motionless and one day it just disappeared. I feel like behind the scenes, my mother (who notoriously despises motorcycles of ANY type) vetoed any attempt to help get it functional in hopes I would lose interest and stay off it. I don’t blame her, and It mostly worked. I never forgot about the mini bike but I got used to it being out of my grasp.
A few years later, I was at one of my Uncle’s houses, and I saw it in the corner of his garage. I was 12 or so, and my heart skipped a beat just seeing a hint of that tell-tale green paint peeking from under a canvas tarp in a dark corner. I pulled it out and went back to my ritual of sitting on it and pretending to zoom around on it just like I had faint memories of doing. In the past few years I had basically doubled in size, and even as a 12yr old kid, my five and a half foot frame was already bordering on being too big for the tiny little mini bike. I couldn’t have cared less. It felt the same as I always remembered it. Meaning that It felt fantastic.
I don’t know how long I stayed in his garage mimicking riding the green machine, but eventually my Uncle came outside, said “hey, hold on a minute”. He reached down, gave the starter cord a yank or two and it jumped to life! I could barely make sense of what had just happened. It hadn’t started in years, and trust me when I say I spent PLENTY of time trying the last time it was at our house. Unbeknownst to me, Uncle Tom had gotten it fixed at a local small engine shop, and before anybody could say otherwise, I was off. I spent the next couple of hours riding around his block in Madison, WI that evening. I didn’t want to get off. I didn’t want to stop for dinner, I just wanted to RIDE FOREVER. I had a lot of lost time with the little green Mini Bike to make up and the daylight was burning that cool winter afternoon.
It was then that the official torch was passed. I am not sure if it was that day, or the next time he came down to visit, but shortly after that incredible reunion, the minibike was returned to my home, and was at my unbridled discretion for the foreseeable future. I rode it around my neighborhood and the common field areas around it. Maxing out around 25mph makes even a few blocks plenty of room to ride something like that without feeling too reined in. I would occasionally venture out a bit further, but was warned (with great reason) about the lack of humor the local authorities have towards teenagers riding such things. While I was plenty rebellious in my early years, nothing seemed worth having the mini bike taken away if I broke the rules and genuinely got in trouble, so I pretty much stuck to the routine for a while. As I got older and got more involved with sports, friends, etc I didn’t ride the runabout quite as much, and it fell into another wave of ill-repair. Like before, It was probably a secret victory for my mother that it wouldn’t fire up one day and that was all she wrote for the time being.
A couple of years later as a freshman in High School, I met a new friend named Chris. After a bit of conversation we realized that we BOTH had very similar minibikes at home, and the next weekend we were going to get them running and ride. His dad was a bit of a wrench, and through the father-son osmosis, Chris knew enough about small engines to get mine running along with his in a few hours. It was on. That first day we drained the puny gas tanks twice, which adds up to some 70 miles at a max speed of 25. That’s a lot of fun for a dollar or so’s worth of 87 Octane gasoline in 1995.
The following year riding minibikes with Chris brought TONS of mischief. The southern half of the county was fair game in our heads, and we rode all over the place together all while jumping driveway curbs, cutting through lawns and had a permanent giggle going the entire time. I was already pretty tall then, and had to splay out my knees to the sides to turn because their normal resting position was exactly where the handlebars floated. It was all ridiculous but that year I had more fun on two wheels than I ever have in 25 years since.
Shortly after that year, that same uncle’s kids (my younger cousins) were getting close to the age where he could enjoy the mini bike with them. I had just gotten my driver’s license and had very little issue giving it up since I now had car mayhem at my daily disposal and that seemed like a fair trade-off.
Had I known it would be nearly 8 years before I had another 2 wheeled vehicle in my grasp, I may have held onto the Green Machine a BIT more tightly. But honestly, I was getting to the age where the world around me was waiting in anticipation for me to cause some sort of trouble, and perhaps I was better off without it during that time in my life.
A conveyance that is clearly sized for full-sized adults.
Since then, I have owned nearly a dozen ‘real’ motorcycles, and ridden a hundred more. I’ve seen blinding speeds, cleared Motocross table-tops, scraped pegs, lofted wheelies, traveled across the country numerous times - all on two wheels. I have had a MYRIAD of amazing experiences on bikes that I can hopefully keep sharing with you in regular intervals. With so much seat time on real roads comes traffic, close calls, crashes, injury, bad weather, frustration and other dings on the record. But the green mini bike? None of that. It retains a near flawless record in all of it’s seat time.
It is a pure fun factory every moment the tiny engine is running. There are no bad memories, no (real) danger, no jerk car drivers getting in your way, and when it rained, it just sat in the garage waiting for the sun to shine again. The smiles-per-mile I got on the little green mini bike was the most unreal ratio that I can think of. Like it’s cousin the home-kit go-kart, it’s a total riot every second of its use. I mean, who has ever spent time on a go-kart that WASN’T fun?
Someday the green minibike will be in MY garage and I will be the next temporary steward of this legendary machine. I’m excited for that day, but I'm genuinely in no hurry for it to come. For myself just as much as my uncle and father, it’s an instrument of nostalgia more than a truly useful item. As I get older, I see nostalgia getting stronger so I can’t imagine what level theirs must be like towards the Mini Bike at nearly 30yrs my senior. The torch needs to stay with them for now. When they’re not around someday (hopefully a very long time from now), I’ll need it back to jog my OWN memory. Maybe I’ll even take it around the block a few times. When that day does eventually come and the Mini Bike is back in my possession, I fear I’ll need the kind of smiles that only this little Sears Runabout can deliver so consistently to ease the loss of what my "ownership" will really mean.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel - www.thecyclereport.com - The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.