I'm Going To Build A Steampunk Cyclekart Because I Might Be A Nerd Having An Early Mid-Life Crisis

I’m running a little behind on my goal of doing a monthly “Bringing It Back” design, which I debuted a while back to little fanfare, but whatever. I’m still going to do them because I like drawing and designing cars and related things in my spare time. However, I’m beginning to head into my annual Q4-crunch, when my regular job ramps up (I design art stencils, home decor, and personalized gifts for a living - the holiday season is our jam), plus I’ve actually got some side-hustle happening. So less time to spend drawing for fun. But more money coming in also means I can hopefully switch gears to another project I have going on, which hey, I’m going talk about now.

Which is, I’m going to build a steampunk cyclekart.

Now, first off, I’m going to assume you know what “steampunk” is. If not, it’s basically a fantasy-version of late-1800's technology and style. Lots of brass gears and top hats and goggles and vacuum tubes in the cosplay. Google it.

Cyclekarts might need more of an explanation. Meant as an homage to the early racecars of the Edwardian Era (the time from the beginning of the 19th century through WWI, sometimes considered to end at the start of WWII), they are basically home-built 3/4-ish scale go karts that look like old Alfas and Bentleys and Millers. The vast majority of them use the same basic formula - steel square-tube frame with a few old motorcycle wheels bolted to go kart axles and chain-driven by a small two-stroke engine in the back. The body work is usually plywood or sheet metal over a wood frame, designed and painted to, occasionally successfully, mimic a hundred-year-old race car. Those original racecars, often using the wheels and engines from motorcycles of the era, were often referred to as “cyclecars”. Therefore, these new gokart-like replicas earned the name “cyclekarts”.

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Photo by Brian Diggs from petrolicious.com
Photo: Brian Diggs

I discovered the world of cyclekarting when I decided about a year ago that I wanted to build a go kart. I started researching everything involved. One of the things I knew would be a big problem was welding. I don’t really know how to weld that well, which, frankly, wouldn’t be that big of deal, it would just be something I would have to learn, and I’ve always wanted to learn. However, my current home has some pretty piss-poor wiring in the garage area, and until I can fix that, any major metal project isn’t happening anytime soon.

What I do have tools and talent in is working with wood. I’m not the best carpenter, but I’ve built plenty of shelves, sheds, and the like. I also have access to a 10'x5' CNC router, laser cutters, and lots of cool materials, like high-end wood at wholesale prices. So I searched the interwebs for anyone who’d built a kart out of wood. Most of the wooded karts I found looked pretty stupid - and horribly unsafe - but then I stumbled across a few cyclekarts made mostly from wood that looked amazing, and thus was born the idea to make a cyclekart.

At the same time my research led me from go kart to cyclekart, the design I had in my head to make it unique went from a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland design to a more mature steampunk aesthetic, which I felt fit the style of a 1900's racecar a little better. And that’s when I found this:

Photo: Stefan Marjoram
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My God is that not a beautiful car. I immediately fell in love with the proportions, the patina, everything about it. It’s called the GN JAP, and hales from England circa 1908. It uses an air-cooled V8 and complicated chain drive, and sits on a chassis made of oiled ash timbers. It is perfect. And so, I decided, I must build it, in 3:4 scale.

Now, obviously, I wasn’t going to build a car that was exactly like this, but smaller. I simplified and tweaked a lot of the design elements and mechanicals to fit closer to the standard cyclekart formula. I found the original measurements online and discovered that the 3:4 scaled yielded a 14-inch wheel and tire, so cheap dirt bike wheels will work nicely and proportionally. I designed a wood frame that uses sandwiched baltic birch plywood. Why not solid lumber. Well, for one, it’s stupid expensive. Also, I can easily cut 3/4" birch on the CNC to the exact size I need, and with all the holes, grooves, etc. that I need already created and in the perfect places. Wheels are mounted to 1.25" go kart axles and hubs. Steering is also from a go kart. The body will be mostly plywood, and made in three sections, with the middle cockpit section sitting in between the frame rails to add stiffness. It will have hydraulic brakes on the rear. A crude quarter-elliptical leaf spring with radius arms will suspend the front axle; the rear axle will have no suspension other than the flex of the steel subframe two which it and the engine will be mounted.

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Now, traditionally, those who are into cyclekarts stick to a tried-and-true “formula” for their creations, and almost all use a Honda GX200 single-cylinder, two-stroke engine or Chinese clone. However, I kinda hate the sound of a lawn mower engine, and I feel like something with a little more character is called for in this build. Enter the pit bike engine.

A pit bike is basically a mini dirt bike, and are powered by an engine usually between 50 and 150cc. 125cc seems to be the sweet spot. These are high-revving four-stroke motors, most with a choice of a manual, semi-auto, or full automatic transmission (most of the cyclekart guys run a belt-driven torque converter automatic setup). I’m shooting for a 125cc semi-auto, which will 1.) give me plenty of horsepower, around 12-15 depending on tune, 2.) sound amazing with dual mufflers sticking out of the back, and 3.) allow me to sequentially shift for that real racecar feel. Also, it will be nice to have reverse.

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Here’s some images of the build that I’ve come up with so far:

Illustration: dbeach84
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Illustration: dbeach84

Notice the fake engine up front that will be a mix of painted plastic pipe, conduit, and laser-cut wood bits. There’s also the big shift lever on the left side, and I plan to have a set of working gauges and lights. Did I mention I’m going to run the gauges with Arduino? Did I also mention I have to learn Arduino? I am insane.

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So when do I plan to have this build completed? Honestly...I have no idea. Right now, I’m busy and money is tight. I have a few of the parts already - some wood, lights, the frame for the seat and the rear “gas tank” - actually an old helium tank cut in half to hide and protect the jackshafts. I won’t actually start building the frame until I can get the engine and axles in my possession, because I’m not so confident as to assume I have all my measurements correct. Total build cost will be anywhere from $1500 to well over $2000, depending on where I source parts. I would love to have this completed within a year, but I have other pesky priorities like a job, a family, a mortage, etc. (just kidding, I love my life and family more than anything).

So tell me what you think (be gentle), and if you have any ideas, shoot them my way. I will try to post updates on this build as they happen, and hopefully I’ll have a new car design by the end of this month (hint: it will be a Dodge). 

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