Other People's Minibikes

Tim Cotton

Tim Cotton | Mar 01, 2017

My two-wheeled dreams were fueled by OPM (other people’s minibikes): Arthur’s yellow and black Honda QA-50, Tommy’s purple Rupp, and Alan’s orange Honda CT-70.

Alan never rode his bike; the slowly rusting scoot sat covered by a heavy canvas tarp in his overgrown backyard. He claimed that he had lost the key. He didn’t seem to have any desire to ride. (He apparently had no desire to mow the lawn either.)

Pictured: Two minibikes the author never got to call his own. 

Alan inherited the 70 from his brother who had moved up to a Harley-Davidson Sportster. I don’t think Alan cared much for motorcycles. I would always sneak a peek at the Harley by lifting up a corner of the black bike cover whenever we walked by.  While the dangers of huffing solvents was not something I knew about at that time, I loved the whiff of fuel and oil when the cover was lifted. I could have stayed there all day.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that Alan was so disinterested in riding while his own minibike sat out back just waiting to be ridden. As far as I know, Alan never once went looking for the key.

Another minibike that did not belong to the author. (Theo V. Bresler/Wikipedia)

The other boys rode their minibikes around the neighborhood church parking lot on a regular basis. I did have opportunities to take them for a spin. Arthur would get off from time to time and allow me to make a run around the worn pathways leading to the gravel lot. Nowhere near as much as I wanted, but it fueled the passion for diminutive cycles.

The Honda QA-50 was a strange looking little bike. Yellow, with a wide saddle and tiny wheels and tires. It had no hand clutch but did have a foot shifter which made it so much fun to run up through the gears-- all three of them. His brother Rupp's was more typical of the minibikes of the early 70s. The centrifugal clutch demanded only more throttle to get more speed. It was much faster than the QA-50. I don’t recall the horsepower on the Rupp.

My dad and mom were not motorcycle enthusiasts, nor did they have the money to purchase a minibike. Not even a Roper from the Sears Wishbook. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I took over a newspaper route. This kid needed to ride, and in order to ride I needed an input of cash.  

My steed for the newspaper deed was a single speed, turquoise Western-Flyer. My sister’s former bicycle was built for ladies. She had moved up to a Sears Free-Spirit 10 speed--a boy’s model with English style handlebars. I was not to ride it.

A Western Flyer similar to the one that belonged to the author. Just kidding, it was his sister's.

I added pannier baskets over the rust-speckled back fender in order to carry the newspapers that would be the key to my financial independence and hopefully put me on the road to riding off-road. Since most of my pedaling (and peddling) would be done prior to sunrise, I was not concerned about being seen on a girl’s bike. I was disappointed that it did not have a hand brake in order to build up strength for the clutch that was in my future.

I made about five dollars a week plus tips. I had an an undisclosed addiction to blanched peanuts from the “five and ten cent” store. This cut into my savings. When I had socked away about fifty dollars, Dad suddenly told us that we would be moving to a new town. My career in the newspaper business was cut short. I never came close to raising enough to buy a Honda XR-75.

There was no parking lot or country paths for me to ride a minibike in my new hometown, as we had moved to a much more urban setting. Paper routes for 12-year-old boys were not easy to come by. While the dream did not die, it certainly was put on hold.

Yet another two-wheeled conveyance that the author could not call his own. 

I started hanging out at a downtown bookstore and I spent time reading through the entire humor aisle, sans cash. While I was not buying any books, the clerks were kind and watched me peruse every humor book. From Art Buchwald to Patrick McManus, every joke book and book of insults, and of course I read Erma Bombeck. I would even fold the corner over on the pages where I left off before walking home. Now and then a book would be sold from my personal collection and I would have to find something new until the missing title was restocked. I always wondered how the purchaser felt when they discovered a crease on the corner of a page in the book that was supposedly unread. I left my mark on many.

I also thumbed through every car and motorcycle magazine that I could reach. The clerks did watch me carefully when I was in the magazine aisle. Probably wondering why I wasn’t reaching up for the top shelf materials.

During my high-school years, I rode a Peugeot moped. It was Gary’s. We built a jump and cracked the frame. I also crashed Todd’s 400 Honda Hawk, passing a pickup on the shoulder when the driver was making a right turn. (Todd: Since this is the first time you're hearing this story, please accept my apology.) No damage or injury, but I was still riding OPM (other people’s motorcycles).

While Gary had a Peugeot moped, the author never did. He's not bitter or anything though. 

My first personally owned motorcycle was a 1986 Honda XR600L. Red, white, blue, and kickstart only. A temperamental beast that was overly sensitive to inappropriate throttle input prior to the first kick. If done incorrectly, you were there for a while, kicking. So much kicking.  

It was probably some type of psychological overcompensation when I made sure my son got on two wheels when he was five-years-old. Nothing I have owned or ridden has given me the satisfaction of watching him smile when he swung a leg over the XR-50.

His mother was not pleased with the purchase. I narrated the tale of the boy who never had a minibike. “We” did not want him to leave a trail of two-wheeled disappointment behind him. He needed to ride. She seemed to understand, and even if she didn’t, she went along with my plan.

Five more minibikes not owned by the author. It's fine, really. 

Trading up every two years after that point allowed us to ride through the entire Honda minibike lineup of XRs and CRFs. We skipped the 80cc Honda and went directly from the CRF 70 to the 100.  During his minibike years, I finally owned my first one. I found a sorry sack of a four stroke Honda XR-100 at a hardscrabble farm in central Maine. It appeared to have been recovered from a bog. This bike had spent many nights uncovered. Alan might have never found his key, but at least he had kept his inherited scooter covered up.  We rehabbed the XR and I began to ride with my son.

We rode in snow, ice, rain, mud, and gravel. That bike started on the first kick no matter the temperature or how long it had been sitting.

We raced, we jumped, we hung out together. I relived my youth while he was in the middle of his own. We changed oil, tightened and lubed chains, watched motocross, and perused motorcycle magazines. He still played soccer and basketball, but he dreamed of getting out to the woods and riding his bike.

He learned how to load and unload pickup trucks, safely tie down motorcycles, check air pressure, properly tension spokes, repair, and replace filters and brake pads. He fell down hard only to pick it up and drive it back to camp with bent bars and an inoperable shift lever. Lessons in self-reliance build character.

Fully understanding friction and traction because of riding minibikes, his two- and four-wheel operating skills are excellent. He is observant behind the wheel and can back up a trailer using only mirrors, and he has quick reflexes when other motorists drift into his lane or pull out in front of him--true, life-saving skills.

We'll just assume you know who DIDN’T own this minibike, at this point in the story.

To me, team sports are overrated. (Sorry, hockey fans.) The independence that is taught during the care and feeding of minibikes is just as important as the bonding and friendships that are made on sports teams. While both experiences teach life skills, you will always be better off if one of your team members has tools and knows how to use them.

I believe that with the proper equipment and training, putting your kid on a minibike is also safer than most team sports. You probably won’t be playing competitive basketball or soccer when you are in your thirties, but whether on the trail or on the street, you can relive your youth while astride two wheels.

While I never had the minibike when I wanted it, I made sure that the void in my life was filled to overflowing later, both through my own addiction to motorcycles and the gift of time and conversation with my son. We always have a topic that we can engage in when we spend time together.

Minibikes can be huge, even as an adult.

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