One beautiful fall morning a few years ago I was driving out to my parent’s house for brunch with my brothers. As the leaves were turning, I decided that my normal route through the city would not do, and instead opted for the scenic route, taking me north of the city, through the hills, valleys and forests that make up northern Kalamazoo County.
Shortly after passing through the tiny village of Alamo, I drove past a home having a yard sale. The yard was filled with hundreds of items for sale. Everything from a set of golf clubs that was probably missing an iron or two, to a treadmill someone probably ran about a half mile on, to a table full of cookbooks and Agatha Christie novels. I hardly ever stop at sales like these, because I don’t need any of those things, but I do always quickly scan as I’m driving by, looking for some completely ratty and likely un-restorable old car or motorcycle that has been put out to pasture years ago. Hope springs eternal that I’ll stumble upon a worn out Ducati or ratty 914 Porsche offered for pennies on the dollar. If there is an old car or motorcycle there, I’m compelled to stop; to do anything else would cause an unacceptable amount of anxiety and perhaps a severe facial tic for the rest of the day. I always have to confirm my suspicions, ensuring that the motor is stuck, the rockers have holes big enough to accommodate a family of squirrels, and the trunk is full of water. Once I confirm these things, I can pat myself on the back for having saved myself countless hours and thousands of dollars, and be on my way.
At this sale though, something different. Sitting under a tree was an old go kart. You see these at sales from time to time as well, and they don’t usually capture my attention as they are generally something like a Yard Dog, bought at a hardware store. Always painted bright red with a black padded roll bar, these were usually birthday or Christmas presents for kids. The story generally goes like this; Junior gets a new go kart, and spends a year beating the bejesus out of it. If the kart is still running after a year it is considered a miracle. Most of these cheap karts were not built to withstand the abuse pre-pubescent teens can inflict upon them, and it’s always some broken or worn part that takes them out. A burned up centrifugal clutch, snapped chain, broken brake band, plugged up carburetor or flat tire. By the time the kart breaks, Mom and Dad are fed up with the noise, torn up lawn and disapproving looks from the neighbors, so Dad tells junior he’ll get around to getting it fixed while shoving the kart into the darkest corner of the garage. Toy broken and soon forgotten, Junior sets his heart on a quad or dirt bike or takes up Xbox. After a few years collecting dust, the kart will show up in a garage sale for a hundred bucks.
This kart was a little different. It was a Rupp Dart A-bone from the 1960’s. A complete basket case, it was surface rusted, with a non running, grease caked Briggs 5hp motor, sitting on 4 flat racing slicks. Two brand new Bridgestone slicks, still in the wrappers sat next to the kart. One of the steering rods was bent, and the drum brake had been removed. The padded seat was in remarkably good condition, with no rips, and the frame had been customized; stretched in the front about 8 inches with the pedals relocated to accommodate a taller driver.
Dart karts could be hopped up to be serious racing carts in their day, with a huge array of engine choices from suppliers like McCullock, West Bend and Homelite. I knew of a Dart in town that had been restored by a guy who was running twin West Bend 820’s- a serious vintage kart.
I saw the kart and kept driving, but with unease. In the span of a few miles driving down the road, a trip down memory lane unrolled in my mind, recalling the karts of my youth.
I’d had two karts as a kid. The first was a completely hand built kart built for my friend Jeff Jenny and his older brother Tim, as a gift from their grandfather. Living just a couple doors down from us, Jeff and I grew up together and were good friends. The kart was a two seater with a heavy steel frame, and a full custom laid fiberglass body, which had been painted red. There was a padded black bench seat with black astro-turf carpeting. No pedals; the throttle was controlled by a lever mounted on the inside of the interior to the drivers
left, just behind the dash mounted kill switch. Brakes were controlled via a hand brake lever mounted in the middle of the floor. The engine was a 3.5 horse Briggs. I think Jeff’s older brother Tim had gotten the best years out of the kart, and when the Jennys moved to Kansas, the tired old kart was deemed not worth the cost to move, and was given to me. On flat ground, with only a driver, the kart was probably no faster than 20 mph, and it required constant tinkering to keep running. Probably the closest I’ve ever come to being killed was while driving that kart. We lived in a quiet residential neighborhood and I was driving flat out through a cul-de-sac. Only a few minutes before, I had left a friend’s house, and like the forgetful 10 year old I was, I had forgotten to put on the helmet my parents insisted I wear. The law had been laid down; that helmet was my drivers license, and failure to wear it would keep me grounded. The helmet was sitting on the floor of the passenger side of the kart. Rather than stop, I tried to grab the helmet while driving, but it had become wedged between the seat cushion and the bottom of the dash. Distracted, I focused on wedging the helmet free. When I looked up, I was headed right for the back end of a Chevy pickup, closing in very fast. Helmet forgotten, I grabbed at the wheel and jerked the kart hard left, sending it up over the 6” concrete curb and into someone’s front lawn. The impact sent my chest into the steering wheel and the kart stalled. Shaken and pride wounded, I had missed the back of the truck by only a few feet, and the low slung kart would have easily driven under the truck until it hit the rear axle, leaving my head and upper body exposed to the trucks rear bumper. This near miss was a formative experience.
Eventually I outgrew the kart becoming too tall to make driving it remotely comfortable or practical. I was nearly too big for it when it was given to us. I think it was given away to another family and an ambitious dad who planned to replace the engine with something more reliable that the Briggs, which by then would only start with about a half a can of ether sprayed into the carb.
My next kart was a monster. A single passenger homebuilt frame with a huge lump of an old 8 horse Briggs motor on the back. Loud, obnoxious and very primitive, I bought it from the son of a minister of a nearby church, I was probably 12 or 13 at the time. The predominate color of the frame was rust. The engine, which ran very strong, had a galvanized steel straight pipe for an exhaust- no muffler. A friction brake had been cobbled together with a cut section of old car tire screwed to a steel plate, which was actuated through a complex and fragile series of rods which were supposed to (in theory) cause the rubber pad to rub on one of the rear tires, stopping the kart when the brake pedal was pressed. This kart was truly fast, with plenty of power, and very tall rear wheels taken (I think) off a small garden tractor. The front wheels were standard kit kart tires, so the kart had the appearance to being “jacked up” in the rear. I can’t remember how I convinced my folks to let me bring it home, but it was the scourge of the neighborhood. I got it cheap because it had a burned up clutch. With the oversize rear wheels, I burned up the new clutch I’d bought for it too, in short order. I didn’t have that kart long; with its blistering top speed and make-believe brake, my parents were rightfully concerned I was going to kill myself or someone else. They wouldn’t let me sell it, they hauled the frame away to the dump, but I convinced them to let me keep the engine, certain that I’d find another frame to someday put it into.
A couple years later I was 16, driving real cars with real brakes, and so the luster of karting faded a bit. I sold the kart motor to someone, and got into motorcycles instead.
All that came rushing back to me, and I was compelled to turn around and go back for a look. A post it note on the seat said $100. It would be fun, I thought, to spend the winter restoring this thing, build the kart I’d always wanted as a kid, and have something I could start my daughter (who was not quite a year old at the time) racing in someday. I offered them $50 and the kart was mine. I paid for it and told them I’d be back. With a pickup borrowed from my brother, I came back later that afternoon and took it home.
For a few weeks it sat on jack stands in the garage, in between my workbench and my TR-6. I took a little time to think about what I wanted to do with it, and slowly a plan began to form. I thought, with the shape of the nose, that this would make an excellent tribute kart of the 1967 Lotus 49 raced by Jim Clark. And so a paint scheme of British Racing Green with a yellow nose was devised. The frame was completely disassembled and sand blasted and all the necessary parts ordered. A hydraulic rear disc brake replaced the old drum, all new steering components and fittings were ordered, and the frame and wheels were refinished. After careful consideration I decided to break with traditional power plants,
opting for a proven and durable modern Honda GX160 5.5 hp with a belt driven CVT and chain final drive. A hop up kit purchased from NR Racing with stronger valve springs, lighter cooling fan, bigger carb, straight pipe, race air filter, slim head gasket and advanced timing key brought the power up to about 12 hp with the governor removed. An XT racing Ultra Lap timer was installed above the steering wheel to keep tabs on lap times.
If the kart sounds like a beast, it is. With the exceptionally wide rear slicks, even with the power, grip is no problem; in fact it’s difficult to bring the rear out on dry pavement under most circumstances. Once the front tires warm up, the kart sticks like glue and becomes very easy to drive fast. Like most karts, it’s a great tool for learning lines, plenty fast to be entertaining, but with more than enough grip to keep you from getting into too much trouble. With the timing system, it’s easy to see if your laps are getting faster or slower and adjust accordingly.
Driving it in the wet, which I’ve only done a couple times, is an entirely different story, with
instant oversteer wanting to spin you out as soon as those rear slicks let go. With the CVT it is naturally difficult to throttle steer, as your inputs are dampened by the transmission trying to do its work. The problems are compounded by a lack of grip from the front tires and the solid rear axle which just wants to push the whole kart forward.
I didn’t build the kart to race competitively; I just wanted to build what I would have as a kid if I’d had the money and skills. After I finished building it, I’ve enjoyed racing time trials around road courses comprised of cones in a few parking lots against friends who come out to drive it as well. Just like when I was 12, it’s too loud for me to run in my neighborhood without disrupting peace and tranquility, although I may be guilty of a blast up and down my street once in a very great while.
My oldest daughter, who’s now seven, will hopefully in the next few years be tall enough to reach the pedals and attend Dad’s racing school, since I justified the project as “for her” anyway. I may have to find an old 5 horse Briggs motor to put back into it first, lest she turn faster lap times than her old man!
John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
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