Each year, the University of Vermont’s (UVM) College of Engineering in Burlington, Vermont, provides an opportunity for business leaders to partner with students in the SEED program: Senior Engineering Experience in Design.
Retired aerospace engineers turned vintage motorcycle repair shop owners Jack Manning and Nick Woodbury of The Classic Bike Experience in nearby Essex, Vermont, had years of connections and interaction with UVM faculty and grads.
They also had five years of sales and installation experience with the popular Alton electric starter manufactured for Nortons, and one summer evening in 2016, while savoring a cold Corona, Nick commented to Jack that “nobody has found a good solution to the vintage Triumph starter challenge. We need to do that before we are done with all of this,” Nick recalls saying.
Looking for ideas
Age has its benefits. Four decades each of professional engineering and manufacturing experience (Lockheed Martin, GE Aerospace and General Dynamics, among others), has provided Jack and Nick with field-tested knowledge — plus a collection of retired techy friends, many with time on their hands, ideas in their heads and a shared love of motorcycles.
Previous attempts to develop an electric, automotive-type starter for Triumph twins had showed limited success owing to issues of cost and complexity, so the pair started thinking along other lines. Interestingly, they found their inspiration in the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix, in which Jimmy Stewart earns his wings for ingenuity by starting the stranded crew’s 1940s cargo plane engine with a Coffman starter — essentially a shotgun shell impulse device.
That scene inspired the partners to begin exploring their own version of a direct air-injection, pneumatic starting system. Their first attempt involved putting a second set of spark plug holes into the head of Jack’s 1973 Triumph TR7 750 and installing a pair of air injectors, essentially mimicking a diesel engine air starter. And it worked … sort of. While viable, it required permanent engine modifications and would have been expensive, and wouldn’t package well.
But one piece of their prototype survived, the air supply they pirated from paintball players. In searching for a portable air source, they stumbled across paintball tanks and regulators. There are more than 10 million paintballers in the U.S. alone. Paintball air tanks are Department of Transportation (DOT) rated and used in all sorts of non-paintball applications, from racing to special military operations. Plus, the tanks are cheap and re-fillable at places like scuba shops and big box stores.
When the annual UVM SEED program came to mind, the partners began to draft a formal bid for collaboration, hoping for a possible source of new ideas and greater access to technical resources. Out of approximately 30 proposals submitted in 2017 by New England companies, ranging from IBM to Ben & Jerry’s, their Triumph starter project — which eventually came to be known as “KickMagic” — was rated No. 1 by the UVM students. In September 2017, five young engineers, Brianna, Bryan, John, Noah and Zach, showed up for their premiere “wrench night” at CBE. Their first task? Take apart Jack’s beloved ’73 TR7 to learn how all the engine bits fit and functioned together.
The team was formally challenged with generating 10 different ideas on how to start the Triumph. Their only limitation was that they could not include the original injection idea Nick and Jack had conceived. A further course requirement included the need to employ the “voice of the customer” in their solution, and CBE provided ready access to a cadre of vintage Triumph owners willing to voice their opinions and desires.
A vintage Triumph rider’s comments summed it up for them. “I’d just about given up on my T140 Silver Jubilee. We’ve been great mates since buying it new in the U.K. in 1977,” lamented Graham Parker of Ludlow, Vermont. “I have ridden that bike over the Alps and ridden it every year since I brought it to the States in the early 1980s. But at 67, my ‘kicking’ knee has deteriorated to the point where I now bump start the Jube, only parking it on hills. I came to realize the end of my riding days was looming on the horizon.”
Interestingly, one of the team’s takeaways from their talks with owners was that kickstarting was actually a desirable part of the experience of owning an old bike. Furthermore, anything installed on the bike had to look like it belonged there and not detract from the classic lines of a Triumph. There could be no permanent modifications, it must be installable by a home mechanic, and be affordable and easy to maintain.
The UVM team did an extensive patent search as a first step. While time consuming, their study showed there was little to nothing in the way of starting solutions for kickstart motorcycles. The few that were out there were repeat attempts at installing an electric starter.
With the top-level requirements in hand and a patent-free green field to explore, brainstorming led to concepts, mock-ups, and finally proof-of-concept working models. By early November, a pneumatic kick-assist was agreed upon as the basic approach, and it scored well against all the declared requirements. Just before the holiday season in 2017, they had a working prototype, and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, they put it to the test on Jack’s bike.
The real challenge was still to come: turning that initial concept into a working production system, and packaging the mechanical and electrical controls into a discreet system that would fit on the bike, look like it belonged there, and not cost a fortune.
Pick up the pieces
Enter Pearse-Bertram, a Connecticut-based contract manufacturer of industrial systems. They had supplied pneumatic and control components used in prototyping the unit, and were well-suited to do contract manufacturing if KickMagic, as the design was now being called, ever went into production. Their sales rep, Josh Baptiste, worked side-by-side with the design team on component selection, providing technical advice from Pearse-Bertram’s engineering team and suppliers. Coupled with local machining houses and Bill Nicolay, a retired electrical and software engineer who perfected the controls, the SEED team got full immersion into the concept of concurrent engineering: designing in parallel with manufacturing requirements. Just because you can make a prototype work does not ensure it can be built in production.
The bill of materials, loaded into a spreadsheet, was the drumbeat of progress both for a properly detailed design release as well as an accounting of the all-important design-to-cost estimate. Like Jack and Nick, the team members had to learn to scrap pet ideas and start over, or ask for help, or combine bits and pieces from other ideas — all great life skills, to boot. Everyone involved knew that if and when they all finally agreed it was good, it had to be exceptional.
To ensure a smooth transition to production, a pilot set of three systems were built for evaluation. The first was installed on John Shook’s 1976 Bonneville, and within two weeks the team had installed a second system on Graham Parker’s 1977 Silver Jubilee. After sorting out a few issues associated with the unique features of his bike, the KickMagic system worked perfectly.
The third pre-production unit was installed on Lenny Bisceglia’s 1970 Bonneville. “I’m a longtime CBE customer and I loved the whole idea of the starter. When they asked me if I’d be the third test pilot, so they could have a chance to demo a pre-oil-in-frame model, I jumped at the chance.”
As with any retrofitted device, if the subject bike has been modified in some unanticipated way, headaches can ensue — and they did on all three bikes. Yet that was what the pilot program was intended to address and accomplish. Subtle design changes, highlighting steps in the manual, keeping an eye out for “gotchas” and applying user experience feedback allowed the team a much higher level of confidence to segue into full production.
For Jack and Nick, part of being “good enough” was ensuring a high-quality manufactured product built with qualified partners. But was it good enough for consumers? That was really the question once the path for production was laid out. The end solution for KickMagic featured the following attributes, all of which had been developed and verified with test data:
- A 70 percent reduction in kickstart effort (impulse).
- Safety: A time-delay holds the kickstart lever in the down position for five seconds. Any kickback works against a resilient pneumatic cylinder — not the rider’s foot, ankle or leg.
- Engine starting rotational speeds were measured at 35 percent faster than a normal kickstart and 70 percent faster than typical electric starters.
- Depending upon the size of the air tank used, there are 70 to 150-plus stored starts. In some cases, enough for a full riding season.
- While the air tanks are pressurized up to 4,500psi, the actual working pressure of the system is only 80-100psi. Shop air can be used at home to save the tank’s air supply, if desired.
- No special tools or skills are required to install.
- Price: $1,995.
At the chosen price point of $1,995, the basic KickMagic system is less expensive than comparable fully automatic starters available for Norton Commando motorcycles such as those from Alton and Colorado Norton Works, which sell for $2,500. Triumphs equipped with the KickMagic system have been shown at vintage meets including the annual Triumph National Rally in Pennsylvania, and newsletters are being sent out to industry players and owners’ groups looking for feedback, all to garner an answer to the question, “Is it good enough for consumers?”
The results have all been positive, and the first 50 production units, designed for 1971-1979 oil-in-frame 650cc and 750cc Triumphs, became available in June 2018. These will be followed with kits for pre-oil-in-frame 1963-1970 650cc Triumphs, and Jack says they’ll consider developing kits for other bikes as the market demands. To learn more and for product updates, got to the Classic Bike Experience website.
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