I’ve wanted to drive ever since my dad let me sit on his lap behind the wheel of his 1952 Edsel. The automobile was our passport to get out of the city and discover new lands. Growing up in a relatively small town, the routine sites and sounds got to be rather boring, even for a kid. Owning a car meant you could escape your normal surroundings and explore. Even Chevrolet hired Dinah Shore to sing their jingle, “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” I don’t know about Elon Musk, but my first ride was a go-kart.
My dad built the first hybrid
When I was 5 years of age, my dad bought me a push pedal car. It was a great little car, even though my little legs gave out trying to pedal it through the grass in our small yard. I guess my dad saw me struggling to pedal it and got to thinking.
He had an old self propelled reel style lawn mower that he was tired of sharpening the blades on. The motor on it still worked. What if I could make a go-kart out of the self propelled mower and the pedal cart. My dad didn’t own a lot of tools but he did own a hack saw and bailing wire. With those two things in hand, he sawed the pedal cart in half where the rear wheels were. He then sawed the handles of the self propelled mower off. Taking the two parts, he wired them together to make my first go kart.
Skip ahead 10 years
Skipping ahead 10 years to my teenage years, being able to legally drive a car was still a few years away, not that this kept me from driving! Somehow, I had to find a way to be able to drive. I needed something that I could drive legally. What I needed was a real go-kart. My dad still had that old engine from the reel lawn mower that he had converted into a motorized scooter. All I needed was a go-kart frame. My job at the chicken farm didn’t pay much. At $1 per hour, all I could afford was $25 for an old dilapidated go-kart frame. The right front wheel didn’t touch the ground due to someone running the go-kart into a tree which had bent the frame. The front tire was about 1 inch off the ground, but it was a beauty to me, even painted baby blue.
As if tying a pedal cart and a lawnmower wasn’t bad enough, my dad was able to attach the old mower engine to the back of the go-kart and somehow rigged it up so that I had a real gas pedal and brakes. To me, this wasn’t a Frankenstein, this was a car worthy of the Indy 500. By then, we had moved to the country with gravel roads and a field next to our new home. I sped up and down the gravel roads and in a big loop in the field to head back down the road in front of our house. We lived in a sleepy town, so there really wasn’t any traffic. Everything was great until word got out that Gill owned a go-kart.
A free attraction
A number of the neighbor kids came over and asked if they could ride my go-kart. Hesitantly I let them ride it a few times, but gasoline wasn’t free and this was MY go-kart. After a couple of days, I put that to a stop telling them to go build their own go-kart. My dad got word that I had closed up shop, not allowing other kids to ride it and I was told that I must share and let them have turns.
There, stood a line 4 to 5 kids deep with me maintaining this free attraction and having to give driving instructions to the kids. It wasn’t long before I was out of gas. I told the kids, “Hey, you supply the gas and you can ride.” Amazingly, they all left and none of them returned with gas cans. I guess as long as the ride was free, they didn’t mind riding.
The need for speed
After a couple of weeks, it seemed that my go-kart had gotten slower and slower. In all actuality, it was going the same speed. I was just ready for more speed. Noticing that there was this wire near the carburetor that if I pulled it, the engine revved up like crazy. I wondered why it didn’t sound like that when I use the gas pedal. I found a way to take the throttle cable and attach it to this wire and then to my gas pedal. Now, I was able to increase my speed by almost 33%.
I was zooming up and down the road. This was great! Why didn’t the manufacturer of the motor done that originally? What I didn’t realize was that this was the engine governor. It kept the engine at a normal rpm while the engine was under load. To me, it was free power, to the manufacturer, it was a way to keep the engine from blowing up when not under load.
Back to the drawing board
Now that my engine was an anchor, I was back to the drawing board. I had a go-kart frame that was engineless. I needed to be able to save up enough money to buy another engine, but making only $1 per hour, I couldn’t afford a new engine.
By now I was in high school, still with no drivers license. There was a kid who was a senior that raced go-karts. I found out his name and went and located him during lunch one school day. I explained my dilemma. I’m thinking that he felt sorry for me. He was from a family of mechanics and racing was their middle name. He said that he had a used 2 stroke racing engine that he could part with for $20. I was exuberant. After a couple of weeks, I could afford that. I promised to buy the motor as soon as I could earn the money for it. After a few weeks of working, the day arrived that the transaction would occur. He delivered the engine to my house explaining that a 2 stroke motor required oil to be mixed with the gasoline as well as other tips.
Getting hooked up
My dad was busy with his barbershop quartet singing and didn’t have the time to help me with my go-kart any longer. He told me that this time, it was up to me to get the engine hooked up to the frame. This was when I realized that I would need actual tools. A hammer, screwdriver and a pair of pliers wasn’t going to cut it.
I bought my first set of wrenches and ratchets on sale for $10 and felt like a real mechanic. My dad had a power drill which was needed to drill new holes in the go-kart frame to be able to mount the engine to the rear frame. This I was able to do as well as attach the chain to the sprocket. What I couldn’t figure out was how to connect the throttle control to the gas pedal. Knowing the shortest distance between 2 points was a straight line, a piece of wire from an old picture frame did the trick. I was ready to roll!
Let’s wake up the neighbors
It was Saturday morning. My go-kart was ready. All I needed was 2 cycle oil to mix with the gasoline in the gas can. My buddy had given me a partial bottle of 2 cycle oil when he sold me the motor. I carefully added the correct amount as he had informed me. Pouring that mixture into the small gas tank on the 2 stroke motor and I was just about finished. I pushed the go-kart to the top of the driveway, took the pull rope and gave it a tug. Nothing happened. I gave it a little gas and pulled again. Suddenly the 2 stroke motor sprung to life. It made this loud raspy rat-a-tat sound like a chain saw. I didn’t realize that chain saws also used 2 stroke motors, I just knew that chain saws were loud.
I positioned myself in the metal seat of the go-kart, using an old cushion for a little padding on the metal seat frame. Carefully, I pulled the wire that I had connected to the 2 stroke motor throttle control and the rear wheel of the go-kart spun like crazy. Gravel was spinning high into the air behind the go-kart. I finally pulled it just a wee bit to get it to finally grab the gravel road and head down the lane.
I had only pulled the wire a little bit and I was going faster than the old lawn mower engine at it’s top ungoverned speed. What would happen if I pulled it all the way? With one hand I held the steering wheel, with the other hand I pulled the wire. The go-kart took off. The wind was blowing against my face. Water was starting to stream from the corners of my eyes due to the speed of the go-kart. Three wheels were on the ground with the 4th wheel touching only when I would head around corners. I was in go-kart heaven.
Part of the chain gang
Due to my limited amount of tools and how I had attached the motor to the go-kart, whenever I hit a big pump, the chain would pop off. This would leave the engine revving wildly high with the go-kart slowing to a stop. I limped the go-kart back home to realize that the L bracket that the engine was mounted on wasn’t really strong enough and that this was going to be a regular problem. What was needed was a thick gauge bracket, a welder and more tools than I had. I figured out how to reattach the chain and settled to just live with the chain popping off on every ride.
I was the talk of the neighborhood, but not in a good way. It seems that my early morning weekend drives around the neighborhood was too loud for the neighbors. They complained to my parents that it was bad enough to have to listen to the wind of a chain saw when neighbors would use their chain saw to fell a tree, but to listen to one running up and down the street day in and day out was enough to drive them crazy. The complaint department told me that my go-kart was grounded and my days of running unfettered through the neighborhood was over. I put the go-kart under the front porch where it sat for months and months.
During this time, I had turned 16 and acquired my drivers license. One of my first jobs working at a gas station, I had my eyes on a Chevy Belair Station Wagon which an older fellow employee owned. He saw the stars in my eyes and it didn’t take much for him to convince me to purchase it from him. That was a quick $300 he pocketed.
All good things must come to an end
By now, I had a car, a girlfriend and a job that paid $3.25 per hour. It was time to grow up. After several years, I found someone to take the old go-kart off my hands. He had a son that was around 14 and he wanted to go through this rite of passage as I did. I think I sold it for $25.
I will always remember my old baby blue go-kart. From riding in my dad’s Edsel, riding in a pedal cart/mower hybrid all the way up to my current ride, a Tesla. Hmm, I wonder if Elon Musk ever had a go-kart? For me, the go-kart holds fond memories of learning how to drive the way that most kids do not. I learned a lot of lessons along the way, the most important…….buy a quiet muffler!