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|10-01-2015, 10:10 AM||#1|
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Rupp Roarin' Minibikes | ROOTS
The story of Japan’s entry and rapid rise to dominance in America’s minibike sector is well chronicled and understood by every enthusiast who was there at the time. Honda’s Z50 Mini Trail of 1968 (see the Honda Z50 Mini Trail ROOTS feature here), really got things rolling, and it was all downhill (or uphill, perhaps) from there, with SLs and Trail 70s, Mini Enduros, Trailhoppers, and others following in its diminutive knobby tracks. From curiosities to powersports staples, minibikes helped feed our sport and give youngsters longing for motorized, two-wheeled freedom something to dream about.
But another company, one hailing from Mansfield, Ohio, of all places, was somehow able to match Honda and the other Japanese manufacturers step for step in the minibike scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The on- or off-road Roadster/2 was top of the Rupp line in 1971.
That company was Rupp Manufacturing, launched in 1959 by Herbert E. “Mick” Rupp, an unemployed construction worker and mechanical guru who’d become interested in go-karts, a rising phenomenon out of California. Rupp ordered a couple of kits, built (and improved) them, and soon began getting orders from friends, filling them with his own kart designs built in his garage. Rupp persevered, quickly adding minibikes and, later, snowmobiles to his quiver when kart sales slowed.
THROWBACK – “Go big or go home!” seemed to be Rupp’s mantra in the early ’70s, as it built larger minis for kids and adults alike. Slick marketing materials helped make Rupps competitive with a slew of new Japanese mini offerings too. Pictured here is the wheelie fun Black Widow.
By 1970, just a decade later, Rupp Manufacturing employed more than 400 people, was selling nearly 70,000 minibikes and 35,000 snowmobiles per year, and generating gross sales of $30 million—quite an accomplishment for a 34-year-old gearhead.
“At 33,” wrote legendary motorsports journalist Brock Yates in 1969, “Mick Rupp is a rising tycoon—a man they talk about in Cleveland and Columbus as one of the hottest young industrialists in the state of Ohio, and a powerful trend-setter in the booming [powersports] business.”
Rupp credits much of his rise from garage builder to entrepreneurial icon to two words: curiosity and innovation. “Be curious of how that works, or why this exists, or what makes it happen,” Rupp told the Mansfield News Journal in 2013. “Then ask, how can I make that better?”
Rupp followed the curious/innovate mantra early on with his go-kart enterprise and a year or so later with his minibike business, which got its start when he built a foldable motorized scooter for a buddy and used a second one he’d built for himself as a pitbike at nearby and then-new Mid Ohio Sports Car Course. (Rupp was an active USAC racecar driver during the mid-1960s, once finishing sixth in the Indy 500.) “I rode the thing around the pits all weekend,” Rupp told us recently, “and people were all over it! I had 25 or so orders by the end of the weekend, and that’s when I figured I should get into the minibike business.”
One of Rupp’s first production minis was the Dart-CYCLE, a takeoff from his then-famous Dart-KART go-kart, which was selling briskly across the country at the time. The Dart-CYCLE’s design was typical of the minis available then: a steel-tube hardtail frame wrapped around a four-stroke pull-start engine—from Lauson, in this case—and rolling on small wheels with knobby tires.
“The all-NEW Dart-CYCLE,” says an ad from 1962, “is rugged yet beautifully designed. For fun, sport or any handy-economical transportation. Weighs just 69 lbs. Carry it in your car, plane or boat…use it anywhere. 2.25 HP, 4-cycle Lauson engine gets you away and keeps you going. Fairbanks-Morse clutch gives you perfect control and 5” Internal Expanding brake assures maximum safety. Only $199.50.”
Amazingly, the ad doesn’t mention the Dart’s admittedly crude telescopic fork, a rarity for minis in those days. But the use of actual front suspension in that early machine set the tone for Rupp’s later mini offerings, as over the next several years the Rupp lineup would feature some serious innovation. In 1963, for instance, came the unique Ridge Runner, which featured belt drive and dual fuel tanks. In 1965, Rupp’s Continental Custom machine featured rear suspension and full lighting and was, according to Rupp advertising, “Larger than a minibike, smaller than a motorcycle.”
The Sprint, a more budget-oriented mini that featured smaller wheels and size, still included front and rear suspension.
This trend of slightly increased size and additional features would continue in 1968, the year of the Honda Mini Trail’s launch, with Rupp’s auto-clutch, two-speed TT-500. The TT boasted a 5-hp engine, front and rear suspension, full lighting, disc brakes on both wheels, and, according to ads, “lots of other groovy subtleties that make it a real winner.” By this point, Rupp’s top-of-the-line models were being called minicycles, not just minibikes. And it was a moniker they’d earned.
Sales were brisk and Rupp’s reputation for performance and innovation continued to grow, but Mickey and his engineers kept their hands on the throttle for 1969, revamping the entire lineup. The top-of-the-line machine was the new Roadster, upon which the similar Scrambler and Goat were based. They did it again in ’70, blessing the Roadster, Scrambler, and Enduro models with a new-generation, single-downtube steel frame, 10-inch spoke wheels, and a modern TC-1 torque converter setup. “We’d always find ourselves in the R&D shop late at night,” Rupp said recently, “thinking, ‘What else can we do to make this machine better?’”
Machines like the Roadster/2 topped the line with larger wheels and a roaring 5-hp, 172cc engine. Good times.
But the mechanical and aesthetic upgrades that would firmly stamp Rupp with legendary status in the decades that followed would come in ’71, the year the Roadster became the Roadster/2 and the year the competition-oriented Black Widow—based on the Roadster/2—debuted. There were other models that year, including the Enduro, Scrambler, and Hustler, also based on the Roadster/2, along with a couple of budget models. But it was the Roadster/2’s foundational goodness—the stronger chrome-moly frame, 5-horse, 172cc engine, torque-converter setup, handsome body and frame paintwork (purple, red, blue, or green), larger 12-inch wheels, full suspension, and superb dependability, all for about $300—that made them crazy popular with buyers.
“The Roadster/2 really was the Cadillac of minibikes,” says Jim Kise, co-owner of blackwidowmotorsports.net, a Rupp parts and restoration outlet. “And Rupp sold many thousands of them. They were pretty advanced, and Rupp did a good job marketing them too. The company sold them through a variety of outlets—snowmobile dealers, hardware stores, tractor lots, et cetera. And you could get parts anywhere. Folks knew and trusted the Tecumseh brand, and that rubbed off. Guys our age—45 to 70—are way into the nostalgia thing these days, and these bikes bring it all back.”
Fifty-something Paul Zisser, who runs a Facebook page dedicated to Rupps and owns a nicely restored metallic-purple Roadster/2 just like the one he rode as a kid, agrees. “I love the things,” he says. “When I was 11 I just fell in love with it, right up until I got my first car. Then, for the next 25 years, nothing—until I found an old Roadster and restored it. Today I love looking at it, riding it, being near it. The look and sound have a powerful hold on me!”
Buddy Baker, whose father worked for Rupp from ’67 until the company closed for good in ’78, remembers those heady, early ’70s years well. “We lived close to the plant in Mansfield,” Baker says, “and I’d visit with my dad. I recall the smells of the factory so clearly. My dad said they were doing everything they could to get bikes out the door, and that demand was huge—‘ crazy’ is how he described it. With all the advertising and magazine stories, and all the word of mouth from owners along with the excitement around motorcycling at the time, Rupp sold everything it could build. It was crazy, for sure; it just took off.”
From the Dart Cycle, Rupp’s first mini effort, to the Fuji-engined two-strokes of the mid 1970s, Rupp covered a lot minibike territory and powered many kids’ fantasies in very little time.
In 1971, arguably a peak year for Rupp, the company did astoundingly well, selling more than 75,000 minis, and doing so in the face of a blitz of cute and high-quality minis from the Japanese, Honda’s SL70 and CT70 being just two examples.
But a year later, things began to slide. A very mild winter piled up snowmobile inventory at the factory and at dealers, which caused revenue shortfalls. A ban on snowmobile use on public lands hurt too, as did an import duty on snowmobile engines Rupp was importing from Asia. Rupp shrank its minicycle product line in ’72 and ’73 to help save some money, but a bigger blow came when Rupp himself was forced out of the company (which had gone public in 1970) by the banks and financiers, who quickly sold it to Joe Hrudka of Mr. Gasket fame. Feeling it needed to compete with the Japanese in terms of larger bikes (the Japanese were flooding the market with superb dirt bikes and streetbikes at the time) but not realizing it was completely outclassed from financial, design, engineering, distribution, and marketing standpoints, Rupp’s new owners teamed with Fuji and built a range of two-stroke dirt and dual-sport machines, all of which failed badly in the marketplace.
“Those guys had no clue about the powersports business,” Rupp told us recently. “And once my great R&D, marketing, and factory people left, which only took a few months, the new owners were left with nothing.”
The new guys tried to keep things going, but the bad product decisions put the writing clearly on the wall: Rupp was in its death throes, which would last until 1978, when it closed its doors for good.
Mansfield’s own Mickey Rupp, shown in the company’s heyday with a dual-engined kart he played with...
Whether it was too much growth too soon, onerous debt, Japanese competition, or financial mismanagement, it doesn’t really matter now. All that’s left is the emotional sweet spot that Rupp minicycles generate in many thousands of American and Canadian baby boomers—and the thousands of bikes that still survive, such as Zisser’s purple Roadster/2. “They’re gonna have to bury the thing with me when I go,” he says only half jokingly.
...and here's Rupp more recently at home in Florida with his trio of Spaniels.
Mickey Rupp, now nearing 80, is retired in Florida, where he built a successful fishing-boat rigging company called Rupp Marine that he sold to his son and son-in-law several years ago. Today he spends time with his wife and his dogs in a nice house on a golf course, and he has slowed down considerably from the days when he raced Indy cars, flew P-51 airplanes competitively, and built and ran successful motorsport companies.
“What’s most surprising,” Rupp says, “is what some people will pay for a nicely restored Rupp minibike. It’s amazing. The whole Rupp experience flew by. It was fast and furious…great years. The Japanese were good. Gotta give them credit. We took our success for granted, thinking it would always continue. It didn’t, of course, but that’s how life is. What kept us going was the great crew of people we assembled. In the beginning, I ran the company with a few trusted colleagues. But once we took it public, the company ran me!
“But in the end,” he adds, “those were great years. It makes me smile when I think about them.” Amazing what curiosity and innovation can achieve.
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