It's fall 1973.
October in Michigan is a beautiful time of year, the leaves are changing color and there’s a crisp chill to the air. The year’s first snow will come soon but for now the sunlight warms my face as I ride my bike in my yard. I am riding my bright orange Huffy with black banana seat and ape hanger handle bars. I had a motorcycle to ride yesterday but today I am back riding my Huffy. I am 9 years old and the future stretches out before me like an endless highway. The dreams and fantasies of a 9-year-old are many and varied and one of mine is to be a motorcycle racer.
I had a motorcycle — past tense — it was a 106 Sears. What’s that you say? You didn’t know Sears made motorcycles? Well actually they didn’t; they just sold motorcycles made by other companies. In this particular case I found out years later that this bike was built by Gilera. But I digress. The reason I HAD a motorcycle at this point in my life is a sort of funny story. Well, it is now. We had a neighbor and this neighbor had a son about my age. Of course we were friends, and his name was John. John had a go-cart, and I wanted a go-cart, so I bugged my Dad about getting a go-cart. In some sort of trade long forgotten my Dad acquired the 106 Sears motorcycle. I was 9 and I was not large for my age. It was a full-sized bike and this presented a problem. Dad said I could have it if I could ride it without help. That meant starting it, riding it, stopping it and getting off it without killing myself or destroying the bike.
I began the quest to ride the Sears by starting it. This wasn’t too difficult as I could leave it on the kickstand and it would fire up after 2 or 3 kicks. One condition down. The next condition would prove more challenging. I couldn’t reach the ground while straddling the bike, so I got creative and the search began for some sort of stand or elevated platform from which I would be able to get on the bike easily. Then I'd just have to get the kickstand up and then finally put it in gear and ease away with the fluid grace of Dick Mann or Steve McQueen. More on that later …
I hunted high and low for something to stand on. I wasn’t having much luck until I “borrowed” my dad's ice chest (read: portable beer cooler). Anyway this was the ticket! I would climb on the ice chest and then get on the bike and start it. Then I would lean it to the right, and with no small amount of effort I would put up the kickstand. Then, still balancing the bike with my right foot, I would then pull in the clutch and put it in first gear. Finally! I could ride my new bike and race my neighbor John on his go-cart.
First though I decided I could probably use a little practice since I had never ridden a bike this big. (I did have a 60 Yamaha on a Maverick minibike frame before but that’s another story.) I go get Dad to witness the maiden voyage of the Sears and he came out, took one look at his beer cooler and realized what I had planned and … well let’s just say this is a family-oriented story and I can’t repeat the colorful and creative ways he used all the expletives in his extensive vocabulary. Eventually he acquiesced to let me use it just this once and he would find me something more appropriate to use in the future. So I climb aboard the magnificent motorcycle and kick it to life. (I could see Dad was at once impressed that I could start it and at the same time feared for the future, mine mostly but also the motorcycle.) I was grinning ear to ear as I pulled in the clutch and shifted it into first gear with a slight clunk. Remember that part earlier about being smooth like Dick Mann and Steve McQueen? Yeah this wasn’t that time! I slowly let the clutch out about halfway and as the bike eased forward I thought to myself, this is pretty easy. Other than being taller, it’s about the same as the Maverick. But then I dumped the clutch the rest of the way out and gave it some gas and as the bike lurched forward I held on for dear life and in the process twisted the throttle even more. Thankfully it wasn’t very fast in first gear and soon I had righted myself and putted down the next door neighbor's 1/4-mile-long driveway. Then I turned around slowly and a bit wobbly and proceeded back up the driveway to our house and up our driveway. Then nearing the road, I turned around again using our front lawn, making a slow sweeping U-turn. Dad all the while was watching my progress, and as I came back to the ice chest and hit the brake and forgot to shift out of gear or pull in the clutch, the bike lurched to a very ungraceful stop. I got off the bike grinning like I had just won the Isle of Mann TT and asked Dad what he thought. He said he was glad I didn’t kill myself, questioned his sanity, and then he gave me a hug and took back his ice chest.
The next day Dad came home with a couple of milk crates — the launch pad was now complete!
Over the course of the next few weeks I practiced taking off and stopping and just getting used to the bike. I had made a good deal of progress and was feeling pretty confident about my “advanced” riding skills. One day John is out riding his go-cart and challenges me to a race with the Sears. Of course I couldn’t say no. We decided on a rolling start sort of thing where we would run side by side until a predetermined point, then the race was on. We both did a couple of practice laps up and down John’s driveway and we were ready. We rolled up to the predetermined point and took off.
I was gaining speed quickly against John's Briggs-powered cart when I looked back (bad idea) to see that I was about 25 feet ahead of John. When I looked forward to where I was going, there was a block garage rapidly approaching my position! I hit the back brakes a little too hard and the rear wheel locked up and slid the bike sideways just a little, lining me up with the concrete slab beside John's garage. I let off the back brake and the bike righted itself pretty well until the front tire connected with the 3-or-so-inch ledge that was the beginning of the concrete slab. The front tire popped up a bit and I slid back on the seat while simultaneously twisting the throttle as I slid back. This popped the front wheel even higher and it then ran into the block wall at an extreme angle. I was just holding on to the handle bars with my eyes closed (probably not the best strategy in retrospect) with the throttle still twisted and me still trying to slide off the back of the bike. We skidded along about 10 feet or so until the front tire connected with the screen door on the side of John’s garage. This brought everything to a screeching halt, front tire sticking through the screen door of the garage.
John's dad wasn’t happy and my dad wasn’t happy. I could see the handwriting on the wall … well actually it was the skid mark from the tire.
Well, needless to say, that ended my association with the Sears/Gilera 106. Dad paid to fix the neighbor's door and clean off the skid marks on the wall, and it would be 2 more years before the next motorcycle came along. Until then it was back to my old orange Huffy.
I would love to find another old Sears or Gilera 106 or 126 just for old time's sake, maybe something I could fix up. I promise to look where I’m going with the next one …