Genie in a Bottle: Creating the KickMagic Starter

How The Classic Bike Experience tapped into engineering students to develop the KickMagic pneumatic starter for vintage Triumphs.

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  • Jack Manning (center) discusses design concepts for a Triumph starter with students from the University of Vermont, Burlington. Their collaboration ultimately resulted in the KickMagic pneumatic starter.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • UVM engineering students Briana Weiss (right) and Bryan Dooley studying early computer renderings of the KickMagic starter.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Nick Woodbury and students assessing a prototype kickstart mechanism for the KickMagic pneumatic cylinder.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • John Shook meets with students as they install a prototype KickMagic on his 1976 Triumph Bonneville.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Jack Manning and students testing a KickMagic prototype.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Left to right: UVM engineering students and KickMagic designers Noah Briggs, Brianna Weiss, Zach Centerbar, Bryan Dooley and John Drew.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • A prototype pre-oil-in-frame KickMagic installed on Lenny Bisceglia’s 1970 Bonneville.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Handlebar-mounted control panel for the KickMagic system.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Leather carrying case for the air supply bottle.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • Air supply bottles are sourced from the paintball industry.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner
  • The actuating mechanism for the KickMagic pneumatic starter with the pneumatic cylinder just visible to the rear.
    Photo by Stephen Kastner

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.

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