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Any time you get a group of old bikers together and ask them about their first rides on a motor powered bike, there are three names that almost always surface, Whizzer, Cushman and Mustang. Mine was on a Whizzer motorbike. I had two Whizzers and a Cushman.
I was recently thrilled when my friend and riding companion Art White asked me if I would like to see his Whizzer Sportsman motor bike that he has owned since he was a kid. My reply was “do bears poop in the woods? You bet I would.”
My interest level jumped up to 100 percent. I, like so many others of my generation got my first thrill of twisting a throttle and feeling the power as the bike surged forward on a Whizzer powered motorbike. Yes, the Whizzer for me was the start down a long path of motorcycling that has lasted for over 63 years.
Whizzers were very popular in the late 1940’s and 50’s. It was every young boy’s dream to own one. The Whizzer Motor Company offered the motors in a kit that you could bolt on to about any bicycle of the time. The motor was a single cylinder four stroke that displaced 138cc and developed 3 brake horsepower. The gas tank was teardrop shaped and held five quarts. Whizzer gas tanks became very popular with the chopper builders in the 60’s and early 70’s. Power was transferred to the rear wheel by the use of two V belts.
The factory also offered the motor already mounted on a specially built Schwinn bicycle with over sized spokes and a drum brake on the front wheel. This model was called the Pacemaker. In addition to the Pacemaker, they built the Ambassador. The Ambassador was built around a special frame that was produced in-house. The Ambassador didn’t have pedals and was equipped with a kick-starter. This model also featured an automatic clutch and a two-speed transmission. However, the star of the show turned out to be the Sportsman; this is the one most red-blooded American boys dreamed of owning.
Arriving at Art’s home, he led me to the shop behind his house and flipped on the lights as we approached the covered treasure that occupied a corner of the shop. When he whipped off the cover, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There before me sat one of the most pristine Whizzer Sportsman I have ever had the privilege of laying eyes on.
As the story of this bike and Art’s relationship with the Whizzer began to unfold, I knew that I had to write this article.
It starts around 1947 when Art was only 7 years old. At that time, Art’s father, Donald White, was the production manager for the Whizzer Motor Company in Pontiac, Mich. Don attended many motorcycle races and young Art would accompany him on these outings. Seven-year-old Art was always getting into mischief at these events. Don knew he had to think of some way to occupy the kids time while at the races. Don came up with the idea of building a one of a kind Whizzer powered bike that was small enough for Art to ride. He designed and built a special frame, then stuffed a Whizzer motor in it with a kick-starter and a two speed Bi-Matic transmission. The little bike rolled on 20-inch wheels.
After hearing this, I realized that I was looking at the prototype of the Whizzer Sportsman. Well, part of the prototype. Art said, “It had gone through many motors and various other parts since its birth.”
The factory began to get inquiries about the little Whizzer from people that had seen Art buzzing around the pits at the various racetracks. These inquiries prompted the company owners, Henry Schurich, Dietrich Kohlsaat and Martin Goldman, to have their engineers take a close look at Art’s bike. After the factory engineers had studied the little bike, they convinced the factory owners that they should put it into production. This resulted in the birth of the Whizzer Sportsman and Donald White was its father. Without his genius, there would never have been a Sportsman. The following years saw a total of over 6,000 of these lightweights produced. The last Sportsman rolled off the assembly line in 1953.
The 1949 Sportsman had a long wheelbase of 45-1/2 inches, an overall length of 69 inches with a saddle height of 26-1/2 inches. The factory claimed a cruising speed of 30 mph and a top speed of 40 mph. The Sportsman sold for $239.50, about the same price as a nice used car at the time. The early Sportsman could be difficult to start. The kick-starter didn’t spin the engine fast enough for the built-in magneto/alternator to create enough spark to fire the engine. This problem was solved with the introduction of the 1951 model; it came equipped with a 6-volt battery and a selenium rectifier that converted alternating current to direct current. This allowed the alternator to charge the battery. This arrangement also stabilized the lights; they no longer dimmed when the engine was running slow.
Art said, “In 1998 I brought the bike down from storage in my garage attic and began a rebuild project to prepare it for its trip to the 1999 Daytona Bike Week. Dad was living in Florida at the time; he was going to meet us there, along with a group of Whizzer enthusiasts who had been corresponding with Dad and wanted to meet him. I had some special help restoring the bike from Jay Leno’s bike mechanic, Homer Knapp. While Knapp rebuilt the two-speed transmission, Jim Bailey created the custom leather seat. John Koehnke crafted the exhaust pipes; I did the painting, and reassembling. Dad loved seeing the bike at Daytona, and was thrilled to be able to ride it and some of the other beautiful Sportsmans that were on display that year. At that time, Dad was in his 80’s.”
Art’s bike sports some other special parts that no other Sportsman can claim. The cylinder on his engine is made of aluminum; this was a cylinder that the factory experimented with, but was never put into production. Art’s bike also has the flywheel that was used at the factory for testing engines on the dynamometer.
Art went on to say, “When I was 14 or 15 I spent my summers working at the Whizzer factory with Dad, and was able to watch the assembly line as the bikes were built and see the motors being tested. The owners gave me small jobs to keep me out of the way. These were the days before OSHA! Dad built up two chain driven Sportsman bikes with a transmission. Dick Shaffer, the test rider, put the bikes through their normal paces. I somehow talked my Dad into letting me ride one. I took it up to Opdyke Hills, not far from the Whizzer plant, riding the back roads. There was a scrambles track setup, and I ran it there and it was great. One of my friends on a Triumph Tiger Cub was there and the little Sportsman Dad built surprised him. Later that day I returned the Whizzer back to the plant. When Dad saw, it he was ready to shoot me! I’d broken the seat and the fender braces. I had done the damage that I thought a normal track day would do to a bike. Dad informed me that the test rider had ridden the bike for a month without any problems, and wanted to know what in hell I had done! I told him that I had just tried to pass the Tiger Cub at Opdyke Hills. Dad just looked at me with a grin and walked away telling me to fix it.”
Art’s memories were flowing as he continued. “I spent another summer at Whizzer working on a blueprint machine. I would ride my Sportsman from our home in Cass Lake to the Whizzer plant that was located on Sanford Ave in Pontiac, Michigan, a trip of 30 miles each way. I really had it made, because if I had a problem with the bike, Dad would send me to talk with Jesse who was in charge of engine rebuilds. I would tell Jesse the problems each morning, and by days end my bike would be ready to roll. Sometimes, he would go through the whole motor, so I always had the best running Whizzer in town, except for Dad’s.”
With a chuckle, Art continued. “Dad laid out a flat track in our backyard. The track worked well all summer long, but that fall things took a drastic change. We had a picnic at our home. My uncle and older cousin took turns riding my Sportsman and Dad would time them on their laps. I didn’t want to be outdone on my own course, so when it was my turn I poured on the power and lost it, piling my bike into the only tree in the yard. I folded up the forks and knocked myself out. Dad proclaimed that I was through riding for the year.”
“During that winter, I convinced Dad that I had learned my lesson, so he rebuilt my bike. Once the Michigan lakes froze over, the gang from Whizzer would gather at our place on the weekends and we would ice race on the frozen lake. These guys were called the Whizzer Gang, and consisted of Dick Shaffer (factory rider), Evan Webb, who was the local Whizzer dealer, his son Mike, and Dad and I. We’d sand the corners of the track and race on regular tires. It was a blast! My Mom even got into it, but fell and broke her ankle, so that slowed us all down a bit.” Art said, “Many years later he taught his lovely wife Nancy how to ride on this bike.”
Art had many more great memories of the days of his youth spent riding his Whizzer, but there just isn’t enough space to list them all. Art was lucky to have had a father like Donald White, and he will always cherish the wonderful memories he has of the time they spent together riding. Donald White left this earth in year in June of 2002 at the age of 90 years; he will long be remembered by all of us who were fortunate enough to have enjoyed the fruits of his labor.