1950-1966 Cushman Eagle Scooter
- Claimed power: 8hp (Husky M8 engine), 9hp (OMC M9 engine)
- Top speed: 50-55mph
- Engine: Husky M8, fan-cooled, side-valve single, 318cc (76.2mm x 69.85mm), OMC M9 fan-cooled OHV single, 354cc (89mm x 57mm)
Which among us gearheads didn’t hanker after a powered two-wheeler in our early teens? Many resorted to lashing any available internal combustion engine (like from a chainsaw) to a bicycle. The concept was so good it was embraced in the Whizzer power bike.
But often the only powerplant available to an enterprising and constructive farm kid would have been a utility engine designed to power log splitters, sawmills, cherry pickers, pumps and so on. These were sturdy, heavy units designed for reliability and ease of maintenance rather than performance, and therefore less suitable for clipping to a bicycle frame. One such motor was the Husky.
Cousins Everett and Clinton Cushman began making Husky-brand proprietary engines in Omaha, Nebraska, around 1902, though both quit the company within 20 years. The Cushman company was then acquired by Charles Ammon of the Easy Manufacturing company, moving the headquarters to Lincoln. The first Cushman scooter was introduced in 1936, much as a way of boosting Husky sales. It was a relatively crude assembly of parts, while its step-through ergonomics and steam-punk styling echoed the contemporary, California-built Salsbury scooter. It featured a single-cylinder flathead Husky engine and Auto Glide single-speed transmission with centrifugal clutch. It was fitted with only one brake, in the rear drum, and eschewed any lighting equipment.
During World War II, the models 32 and 34 arrived, the 32 with Auto Glide and the 34 with a 2-speed gearbox, hand shift and foot clutch. Cushman also built close to 5,000 Military Airborne models, which were designed to be dropped into the battlefield by parachute. During the late 1940s, Cushman produced the Highlander trail-oriented model and later built scooters to be sold under the Sears Allstate brand.
The company offered a bewildering variety of models of increasing sophistication through the ’40s and ’50s, with transmission options including the Auto Glide, hand shift 2-speed, and Variomatic-type CVT drive. They were also available in both 8 horsepower and 5 horsepower versions. The latter option was intended for those States that applied a horsepower limit for young riders. Although many States permitted riders of 14 years on the street, their machines were required to be under 5 horsepower. Cushman produced compliant models right up to 1964.
For 1950, Cushman revised its Model 50 to produce the Eagle, which became the company’s most popular and best-selling model. And while the earlier step-through machines were prosaically functional, the Eagle added glamour and glitz. Strongly influenced by the full-size American motorcycles of the time like H-D’s Hydra-Glide and Indian’s Chief, the Eagle’s extravagant styling included a large sprung seat, trailing-link front fork, and a teardrop gas tank joining the seat to the handlebar. A rear luggage rack was also included. It was joined in 1952 by the economy single-speed “Springer Eagle.”
The first Eagles were known as “barrel spring” because of the profile of their fork springs. Power came from the Husky M8 8 horsepower engine paired to a 2-speed transmission with centrifugal clutch. Primary drive was by belt with chain final drive.
1955 saw the introduction of tubular telescopic front fork legs with the headlight mounted on a fork shroud. 1959 brought the substantially revamped Super Eagle, still with the 8 horsepower engine, but now with the engine and transmission fully enclosed. The fork shroud also housed the headlight from 1959 on.
In 1957, Cushman had been sold to Outboard Marine Corp., and 1961 saw the introduction of the 9 horsepower overhead valve OMC engine, the new model being the Super Silver Eagle with 12-volt electrics and available electric start. However, vibration problems with the engine saw the re-introduction of the Husky iron engine for 1961-1962, though the OMC engine was re-fitted from 1962-on. The final Super Silver Eagles also had a speedometer, turn signals, mirrors and a buddy seat. But by this time, the cosmetics could no longer disguise the antique contraption underneath. Cushman assembled its last consumer scooter in 1966. It’s reported that the company made around 15,000 scooters to 1958.
And while Cushman scooters look bizarrely comical to modern eyes, they have a passionate following reflected in prices gained at auction in recent years. No doubt, fond childhood recollections of that first motorcycle ride and the exhilaration that it burned into memory are a huge factor in their popularity. Around 2014, it was also possible to order an all-new, street-ready Cushman II Eagle loosely modeled on the original but with modern components, though the website is no longer active. Data and time line from Hobby Tech. MC
Contenders: Two more American scooters
1960-1964 Mustang Thoroughbred
- Claimed power: 12.5hp @ 3,600rpm
- Top speed: 71mph (period test)
- Engine: Air-cooled, side-valve single, 319cc (69.85mm x 76.2mm), 4-speed transmission
- Weight (curb): 220lbs
- Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.4gal/73mpg
- Price then/now: $539/$3,000-$10,000
If Cushman had started with a clean sheet in 1960, they might have come up with something like the Mustang Thoroughbred, which was essentially a standard motorcycle with scooter-sized wheels. The 319cc iron-barrel, alloy flathead single was fed by an Amal Concentric or Dell’Orto carburetor and drove a 4-speed Burman gearbox.
The chassis employed a duplex tubular frame, telescopic fork and swinging-arm rear suspension. The 12-inch wheels were built around full width hubs with unusually short spokes. A dual seat (covering a huge toolbox), teardrop gas tank and downswept exhaust completed the package
Aside from its role as a utility or beginner bike, the Mustang proved to be an unlikely competitive weapon on short, tight racetracks thanks to its scant weight and low center of gravity — so successful that the AMA Class C rules were changed to require wheels of at least 16 inches!
Said Cycle World in 1963, “We recommend the Thoroughbred … Its performance is satisfactory, it rides and handles like larger machines, it could hardly be simpler to operate, its appearance and finish are first rate, and it is priced right.”
1960-1965 Harley-Davidson Topper
- Claimed power: 9hp
- Top speed: 46mph
- Engine: Air-cooled, 2-stroke single, 164cc (60.3mm x 57.9mm), 8:1 compression
- Weight: 237lb
- Fuel capacity/MPG: 1.7gal/80mpg
- Price then/now: $450/$2,000-$7,000
Harley’s offering in this trio was much closer to the European concept of a scooter. Like a Lambretta, the drivetrain and suspension were mounted to a tubular spine frame with encompassing bodywork attached.
The Topper’s power came from an updated version of the 165cc 2-stroke engine used in the Model 165 motorcycle, but with reed valve induction. The engine sat horizontally below the bodywork and was started by a recoil rope, just like a lawn mower. Drive to the rear wheel was by a continuously variable transmission (CVT) known as the “Scootaway Drive.” Suspension consisted of a leading link front fork with hydraulic damping, and a swinging arm at the rear. Brakes were 5-inch drums front and rear.
With the Topper lacking the fan cooling common to most European scooters, and with its engine buried under the bodywork, overheating problems quickly arose. A new alloy cylinder head was fitted to improve heat dispersal. And the exposed CVT also proved vulnerable to road debris which would cause it to malfunction. This was fixed by enclosing it in an oil bath.
But by the time the Topper was fully ready for market, the scooter craze was winding down, and the influx of reliable, small-capacity motorcycles from Japan sealed its fate. It’s reported that fewer than 3,000 Toppers were sold.