When I think of Briggs & Stratton, I think lawn mower. A 3-or 4-horsepower Briggs & Stratton was one of the first small engines I took apart as a kid. Those engines were known, then as now, for their simplicity, durability and reliability. Today I still prefer mowers with a Briggs and Stratton engine.
But, what I never knew about the company, was it manufactured go-kart type vehicles in the 1920s.
I saw my first (and only) Flyer two-seat vehicle in the Wayne County Indiana Historical Museum in Richmond. The museum, which has an eclectic assortment of items — from a horse treadmill to a bona fide Egyptian mummy — houses about 15-20 early 20th century vehicles in a climate-controlled building behind the main exhibit area. This building alone is worth the $7 admission price. The building showcases vehicles, like the Davis automobile, that were manufactured in the region. They have two large electric vehicles from the early 1900s, but the gem for me is the first item you see when you walk in the door — the Briggs and Stratton Flyer Buckboard.
The vehicle has the look and feel of an old wooden sled with wheels. Two very small bucket seats sit on top of the wooden slats. The vehicle is barebones — no doors or windshields — just five wheels, two seats, a steering wheel and a gear stick (which is actually a lever to lower the fifth wheel).
When the automobile industry was in its infancy, lots of approaches were used to propel a vehicle forward. The one used by Briggs and Stratton was the Motor Wheel. Just like the name suggests, it was a wheel that included the motor. Sitting on top of the Motor Wheel was a half-gallon gas tank. Advertisements from that era said the vehicle could travel up to 25 mph and would get 80-100 mpg.
They accomplished those numbers with a 2hp motor. As Farm Collector notes,
At the peak of its popularity, the Motor Wheel was a versatile unit used to power bicycles, scooters, “flyers” (a small, two-seat, low-slung wooden buckboard with steering wheel and four wheels) and railway inspection cars. A photograph in the Briggs & Stratton archives even shows an ice skater using a Motor Wheel to tow her around the rink.
But, little did I know, that after a couple of failed ventures, it was the Motor Wheel that launched Briggs & Stratton into American history as the largest producer of small gasoline engines. The motor used in the Motor Wheel would eventually serve as the base model for their stationary gasoline engines.
And That’s Not All
When I began researching information about the vehicle, I stumbled upon another gem concerning Briggs and Stratton. They manufactured a hybrid vehicle — one that used an electric motor and a 18hp Briggs and Stratton engine in the late 1970s. Although the vehicle was not the first hybrid, it was ahead of its time.
But, unfortunately for the company, the prototype received poor reviews — mostly due to its lack of power. The vehicle could travel 300 miles on a tank of gas, had a fiberglass body and, (whether good or bad, you decide) looked a little like an AMC Pacer.
It also had six wheels. The extra wheels were a support feature — the car had 1000 pounds of batteries. Lithium Ion batteries were not invented until the 1990s so the vehicle used lead-acid batteries — like the ones used to start vehicles.
For a short history of Briggs & Stratton download the company’s publication (pdf).