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Off to see the Whizzer

Enthusiast revives antique two-wheeled hybrid

Staff writer

Hovering somewhere between a bicycle and a motorcycle, Joe Bartel’s late 1940s Whizzer motorbike is a rustic relic of a bygone era.

“The amazing thing about it is that it still exists,” Bartle said. “It survived a whole lot of kids tearing it up.

“It’s just a bicycle frame with a motor on it and it has a crude transmission, but to me there is just something interesting about primitive technology. It’s not really terribly primitive, but it is as primitive as you can get and still be within the modern era.”

About three years ago Bartel became curious when he it on an auction bill. He bought it, and wheeled the Whizzer into his barn, where it sat dormant for a couple of years.

“I finally decided to work on it before too many other projects piled up,” he said. “It was in pretty rough condition but it didn’t take much to get it going.”

His Whizzer’s frame is worn from age, but Bartel speculated that a farm boy might have used “International red paint” to put a fresh coat on it at some point.

Its carburetor, valves, and exhaust needed cleaning, and the seat needed to be re-cut, but luckily its 70-year-old engine was not rusted tight.

“Whoever had it had evaporated a full tank of gas through the carburetor and gummed everything up,” he said. “It was full of varnish and tar from old gas. It just was a nasty mess trying to clean the jets and air bleed hole.”

While working on the Whizzer, he also realized that very little of it was original.

“What it had was nothing,” Bartel said. “I would assume it is a scrap heap Whizzer. Someone before me just found it, pulled it out, and made it work.”

The original motorcycle-style gas tank was replaced at some point. It also was missing a twist-grip throttle, and motorcycle-style clutch, which he replaced with a garden tiller’s throttle and a clutch lever similar to “something you might see on a multiple-speed bike with someone wearing too much spandex on it.”

He also replaced a weltch plug by filing down a quarter to fit the hole, and he attached a unique sign to the Whizzer’s handlebars: “ALL TIGERS MUST BE LEASHED.”

Pieced together a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, it soon was alive. However, once he got it running, the magneto coil malfunctioned, and he had to convert it to a battery ignition, which he housed inside of a military turbine-grade oil canister.

“You can ride it like a bike if you really want to pedal something with a 40- pound engine on it,” Bartel said. “You also start it by peddling.”

In theory, riders just pop the clutch and away they go. Bartel’s Whizzer tops out at 30 mph on flat ground, but he doesn’t like to travel that fast for very long, favoring 20 mph for optimum speed.

“It’s really just for fun,” he said. “If you’re used to peddling a bike, it’s nice, but if you’re used to riding a motorcycle, you’ll be disappointed. I like to think back to what it would have been like to be the first guy to have it, when all you had before was a bicycle.”

With no shock absorbers and no spring in the front, it is a rough ride, he said, especially going through ditches or on rough pavement. Nevertheless, in its day, he said, Whizzer’s bragging points were “5 miles on a penny” or about 125 miles to the gallon.

“They were an inexpensive form of equipment that kids could get money for by mowing a neighbor’s lawn or shoveling snow,” he said. “I tried to treat it just like the kids would do when they had them back then; I didn’t spend a whole lot of money to get it or really fix it up. I just got it running.”

His father, Wilbert Bartel, provided some context.

““Kids got tired of peddling their bicycles.” Wilbert said. “Western Auto sold Whizzers. You could buy the whole thing; the frame was heavier than a normal bicycle, or the poor boys could just buy the engine and put in on a bike.”

Bartel said that his dad’s uncles trapped muskrats at creeks near Hillsboro to earn money to buy Whizzers.

“They rode those Whizzers everywhere,” Bartel said. “I guess they once rode them all the way to Newton and back.”

Last modified July 12, 2017

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