October 21, 2014
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LIFESTYLE
The size of their toys
Collectors of a certain age love mini-bikes

People used to say, “The difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.” Nowadays we are not so sure. The last decade or so has seen the rise of a new kind of collector who thinks that the size of boy’s toys are perfectly all right with him.

Peter Sacchetti should know. He’s been dealing in toys of the automotive variety for years and, even as you acknowledge there are women who collect mini-bikes, the overwhelming variety of the collectors are men of a certain age, and that age being someone who was born between 1960 and 1970 and longed for, but never got, that dangerously fun mini-bike.

Sacchetti and his father, Richard, have made a specialty of insuring collector automobiles for years. It fits well with their passion for old cars. The business gives them a legitimate reason for hanging around with vintage automobiles and the people who own them.

“It may seem strange to some people but sometimes, when I am showing one of my cars to someone, their eyes keep going toward one of my mini-bikes. Eventually, we are talking about them as much as the cars,” he said. “I think that’s because, like me, it was mini-bikes that first got them interested in motoring.”

Sacchetti’s theory states that, as a rule, people love to collect the cars they couldn’t afford when they were younger. That’s why you see so many auctions and television shows that feature Mustangs and Camaros and other muscle cars from the ’60s and ’70s. In the realm of cars, it was the price that kept many people from buying muscle cars when they first came out. In the case of mini-bikes, it was their parents who wouldn’t allow them to ride the obviously dangerous mini-bikes.

As all of those delayed gratifications from our childhood suddenly come within our means to buy, they start to accumulate in garages and basements. As men, in particular, begin to succeed in their careers around mid-life, they pine to satisfy those adolescent longings at last. The girl who drove you to distraction in junior high school may have lost some of her allure, but the HPE Muskin Cat Eliminator with the 4-horsepower Briggs & Stratton and the high rise handlebars remains as fresh and hard to get as ever.

What Sacchetti is talking about is not the little 50cc Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis, which are usually just smaller versions of their larger bikes. He’s talking about the mini-bikes that came straight out of the go-cart culture of the 1960s and 1970s. The first mini-bikes were made from parts scavenged from lawnmowers and tubular steel bent into a rudimentary but sturdy frame. They had the same 2- or 3-horsepower Briggs & Stratton, or Tecumseh, engines that were fitted to lawnmowers and go-carts. What they ended up with was a bare-bones mini-bike with a low center of gravity, knobby wheels and an engine with more than enough torque to race up sand dunes and forest trails and enough speed to turn a supermarket parking lot into a race track, at least until the police arrived and sent the young daredevils back to territory where police and parents couldn’t see how recklessly they threw their pocket rocket mini-bikes around the landscape.

“The transition of mini-bikes from novelty toys to standardized and accepted vehicles has taken place overnight,” according to a HPE Muskin advertisement in 1970. “The emergence of the remarkable little bikes (that seem to have sprung straight from the dreams of sub-teens) is actually the result of manufacturing ingenuity and deep faith in the product.”

The ad goes on to outline all of the virtues of their mini-bikes, including “accurate assembly and assured vehicle operability” but says little about safety features, other than boasting of a hand-operated disc brake and a “full protection chrome steel clutch guard.” Even the most ardent advocate for mini-bikes would have to concede the exposed chain between the engine and the rear axle posed a clear and present danger to the bell-bottom jeans and other loose clothing of the era.

All of the dangers inherent in the machines would have been outlined to any kid who asked for one. Parents only had to look at the mini-bike to envision multiple trips to emergency rooms and kids wrapped in plaster and sipping lunch through straws.

With models named Slingshot and Eliminator, it’s hard to believe that HPE Muskin was looking for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. They were after the hearts and minds of reckless children. It’s probably just as well that not many kids had the money or the parents to allow them mini-bikes, which is part of their allure today.

Those kids have grown up and enjoyed enough success to pay the $2,500 or so for a good example of an Eliminator, a top of the line model you could have picked up for less than $150 in 1970.

HPE Muskin was probably the biggest mini-bike maker, but they were far from the only one.

“I have found that you find mini-bikes pretty close to where they were made, within about 50 miles,” said Sacchetti. “I had a 1967 Power Dyne chopper. Power Dyne was right here in Pawtucket and you still find them around here.”

Sacchetti said the cheap prices and the relatively simple design of mini-bikes have made getting original parts for them difficult and expensive.

“One of the most common repairs made on mini-bikes was replacing the chain,” said Sacchetti. “To fix the chain, you had to take the clutch cover off and once it’s off the bike and you don’t bother to put it back on, it gets lost. One of the consequences of that is that they are hard to find. Sometimes a collector can pay more for a clutch cover for certain models than for a complete bike.”

Most families would not tolerate a grown man who has taken to hoarding mini-bikes from long-ago decades, but Peter’s wife Shannon has become accustomed to it, mostly because he tends to spread his collection of about 30 bikes over a number of locations. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to get around in Sacchetti’s basement without banging a shin on a mini-bike.

“I knew she was getting a little worried about all the mini-bikes, but I came home one day and told her I sold a couple of them and gave her $1,000 and said she could do whatever she wanted with it,” said Sacchetti, with a grin. “Besides, it’s better than me going out to bars and drinking all night … I sometimes get home around 4 p.m. and stay in the basement until 11 working on the bikes.”

Peter’s father Richard became aware of Peter’s knack for turning his hobbies into money at an early age.

“I, too, didn’t like the idea of him riding mini-bikes,” said Richard. “But he bought a broken bike and fixed it and took it to school to show it off. When he came home, I asked him ‘Where’s the bike?’ and he reached into his pocket and pulled out $300.”


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