A fond childhood account of the Whizzer, a bike motor that started a new transportation trend in the late 1940s.
By the time I was 13 or 14, after owning a battered used bike or two, I’d managed to buy a fancy new bicycle, a red Monarch with a headlight, horn and sprung front fork, which I rode everywhere and of which I was quite proud.
At about the same time, in 1946 or ’47, ads began to appear in Popular Mechanics and other magazines that turned me into one great quivering lump of WANT! Even though I loved my Monarch, I was crazy for speed and anything motorized and was sure that the one and only thing necessary to make my bike perfect was a Whizzer engine to lessen the wear and tear on my legs while pedaling around the hills of western Pennsylvania.
One ad from 1946 told me: “Here’s new, personal transportation for everyone. The new Whizzer bike motor, a compact, dependable unit that’s packed with power and pep, makes any balloon-tired bike a motor bike!”
The ad featured an illustration of a pretty young lady in shorts enjoying a ride on a Schwinn bike equipped with a Whizzer, over the caption: “Ride one and you’ll buy one.” The ad went on to list the advantages of the Whizzer: “(It) will take you where the fish are waiting. A woods trail is as good as a highway for this sturdy 2-1/2 hp motor. The economical, comfortable way to ride to work. 125 or more miles per gallon of gas. And no parking problems to worry about.” And finally, the argument I was sure would sway my father: “Grand transportation for the farm family (of course that meant me). Downright practical for trips to town, to farm fields, and from farm home to school.”
A later ad assured me, “… get a Whizzer Bike Motor and travel for pennies! America’s finest bike motor takes you 125 miles on a gallon of gas, at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Whizzer users say it’s the most fun on wheels … and the best way to keep the budget in line!”
Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t at all impressed by my frequent pleas of, “Dad, buy me a Whizzer.” The price of a Whizzer engine, F.O.B. from the factory in Pontiac, Michigan, “complete with gas tank, oversize rear stand, and all the attachments necessary to motorize your bike,” was $89.50 ($97.55 in 1947; $1,020 today) and there was no way he was going to blow a hundred bucks just so I could speed around and probably kill myself. As far as he was concerned, I was doing fine with leg power, and it was free.
So, I never got a Whizzer, although I did get to ride one a little. I was friends with three brothers about my age who lived a couple of miles down our dirt road and I often visited them. Their father had polio as a youngster and his left leg was badly crippled, although he could limp around on it. The boys all had bicycles and the father loved to ride as well, but couldn’t really pedal a bike. One day I went over there and he’d bought a used Whizzer so he could ride with his sons. I managed to wrangle a few short rides up and down the dirt road, and once took it 6 or 7 miles out on a nearby concrete highway and back. Man, it felt like flying, with the wind hitting me in the face at a wide-open 40 mph; I’d never experienced such freedom!
The Whizzer was on a 26-inch bike that was just too tall for my friend, who was rather short and, with his bad leg, had trouble when he stopped. Then, in 1948, Whizzer came out with the Pacemaker, a complete motorbike with a heavy-duty, purpose-built frame and 24-inch wheels, making it a lot lower. The new Pacemaker cost $199.50 but my friend scraped together the money and got one, which fit him to a T, and he and his boys rode many happy hours, with the oldest son on the original Whizzer, and the two younger boys, and sometimes me, pedaling like crazy to keep up.
During the lean days of the 1930s, everyone was looking for cheap transportation and a motor scooter craze took off. Eventually, a few entrepreneurs thought to add a small engine to a bicycle and make a cheaper item than a Cushman, Salsbury or Powell scooter. One of these was Breen-Taylor Engineering, Los Angeles, which introduced the Whizzer Model D in 1939, with a 1-3/8 hp engine and roller drive. The kit cost $54.95, a hefty enough sum in 1939, although still about one-sixth of the cost of a new Cushman scooter. But the Whizzer wasn’t very reliable with a reported tendency for the engine to disintegrate at around 100 miles.
Not many were sold. The business was bought by new owners who improved the engine somewhat just before the intervention of World War II and its resulting material shortages. The Whizzer was improved still further to 2-1/2 hp and a more reliable belt drive replaced the friction roller. Not only that, but Whizzer convinced the U.S. government that the Whizzer, as transportation for defense workers, was the cheapest and most economical of scarce resources. During the war no new automobiles were available but if you could prove you were a defense worker, you could buy a new Whizzer.
Even after the war new cars were scarce. Whizzer moved to Pontiac, Michigan, and during 1946 and ’47 sold nearly 140,000 units. In 1948, besides the Pacemaker already mentioned, Whizzer introduced twist-type handle-grip controls and the improved Model “J” engine, selling more than 50,000 that year.
New releases in 1949 included the 3 hp Model “300” engine, which sold for $109.97, and a new “Sportsman,” a complete bike with a kick-starter and no pedals. The Sportsman was available with a clutch for $224.50, or (for $15 more) a “Bi-Matic” automatic transmission. The “Ambassador,” a larger, fancier and more expensive ($249.50) version of the Sportsman, came out in 1951, and the next year the improved and final engine, the “700,” was introduced.
By 1955 the market for motorbikes had dropped way off and Whizzer began making other products, discontinuing the engine kits and bikes. It was the end of another era, at least until 1997. That year a new company was formed that bought rights to the brand and brought back the famous Whizzer, which enjoyed some success until 2009, when “a temporary hiatus from bike production” was announced.
There are still some new Whizzers for sale by bike dealers for less than $2,000, but you can multiply that price by three or four to buy a well-restored example of the 1940s and 1950s Whizzers.
I’m sure Dad would never buy me one now! FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.