Monday, June 14, 2010

A Story of Something Lost and Found

Every now and then, I add something to this blog that comes from the heart. I know - professional decorum should limit me to writing about things only related to my business - but please indulge me a bit and enjoy this story as written by my friend Colleen Kastanek from North Branch, MN. Whether it's a house, a car, a friend, or a motor bike - I think everyone has a similar story in their lives about losing something special to them - and this is a story about a man who was able to get it back. Thank you, Colleen, for capturing these memories so well. Steph

Jimmy's First Motorbike by Colleen Kastanek

When Jim was nine years old he thought that any day spent with his dad was a good day. His parents were living apart, and between Jimmy’s school and the many hours his dad worked, he didn’t see Cliff often. Days that Jimmy rode with his dad to Duluth were really good days.

A year previously, Cliff had bought a 17” black and white TV from the Zenith dealer in Duluth. He felt good to be able to provide his family with one of the first television sets in Two Harbors, but he also had to drive back to the dealer almost every month for a repair. For Jimmy the drive to Duluth with his dad was a treat. The errand took several hours and Jimmy had his dad all to himself.

For at least six months in 1952, it was the same scenario. When Cliff and Jimmy got to the Zenith TV dealership on First Street and First Avenue, Jimmy would ask his dad if he could cross the street and go to the Sander Key and Lock Shop. Mr. Gruver would watch his son run across the busy street, knowing Jimmy would be entertained by Mr. Sander while he talked TV repairs with the Zenith people. Mr. Sander was a small, dark haired man not typically amusing to most folks - but whether Cliff would be at the Zenith store for a few minutes to drop the TV off, or whether he waited for an hour or so while it was fixed, Jimmy and Mr. Sander had plenty to talk about.

In addition to making keys, Mr. Sander sold bicycles and bicycle parts. Anything mechanical interested the ten-year old boy, who had already built more model trains and go-carts than any of his friends, and Mr. Sander had something in his shop that Jimmy could not stop thinking about.

Whizzer began manufacturing kits to motorize 26” bicycles in 1937. The one-cylinder three-horsepower engine conversion was popular with young men who had delivery jobs, and with the sons of wealthier families for just having fun. Several of Jimmy’s older friends had Whizzers. The motor on a bicycle was a great mechanical assist for climbing the hills of Two Harbors, but the Whizzer that Jimmy saw in Mr. Sander’s shop was much more exciting than any he had seen around his hometown.

In the late 1940’s Don White, a California Whizzer employee, wanted to share his motocross racing experiences with his son. On weekends he rode his motocross bike to the track, and so that his son could ride with him, he designed a smaller frame and used 20” rims and fit his design to the Whizzer engines he built at the factory during the week. The father and son became a riding sensation in southern California and Whizzer took advantage of its location to sell to this segment of the motorcycle market. Whizzer used Don’s design plans and manufactured 1100 Whizzer Sportsmans between 1948 and 1964.

The Whizzer Sportsman in Sander’s Key and Bike Repair Shop caught Jimmy Gruver’s eye. He had never seen or read about a bike like that before. The low profile and thunderous stainless steel exhaust made it a sharper ride than the 26” converted bicycles that his friends were riding. Jimmy admired it, studied it, talked about it and dreamed about it with Mr. Sander. After his dad finished his business at Zenith TV and crossed the street to pick Jimmy up, the three of them would admire it, study it and talk about it. On the way home, Jimmy and Cliff would talk about it more. But as much as they talked about it, Jimmy never imagined his father would buy him that bike. His father had never had a bike, didn’t know how ride a bike, and, suffering a back injury, was in no financial position to make such a purchase.

Early in the morning of December 25, 1952, Jimmy’s dad came over to the house and asked Jimmy to come outside. He said he had something in his car for him. Jimmy always enjoyed the presents his father found for him, but Jimmy never expected what he saw wedged between the seats of his Dad’s Chrysler. It was the Whizzer Sportsman that Jimmy had admired at Sander’s shop for so many months. His father had not only bought the basic bike for $239.50, but he had spent an additional twenty dollars and upgraded it with a windshield, speedometer, buddy seat and foot pegs! He had financed it for $18.75 per month for eighteen months.

Jimmy pushed his Sportsman to his older friend’s house. Darrel Rosen owned a full sized Whizzer and shared Jimmy’s interest in engines. He gave Jimmy five ounces of oil and a gallon of gas. They fired up their Whizzers and were off for a day of riding! They even picked up Darrel’s cousin so they could try out Jimmy’s buddy seat.

The fun that Christmas Day was tempered by the Two Harbors winter. The temperature hovered near zero and the icy roads contributed to a wipeout that bent the gooseneck and scratched the windshield of Jimmy’s new Sportsman. Jimmy tried to hide it from his dad, but Cliff noticed it the next morning. Jimmy didn’t know if he admired his father more for understanding that the bike’s state at the end of the day was no reflection of his appreciation for the gift, or the fact that his father simply sat down on the bike seat, grabbed the handle bars and with Herculean strength straightened the gooseneck back to its original configuration.

Jimmy lived on that motor bike for the next four years. It was the last thing he thought about before he fell asleep at night and the first thing he thought about in morning when he awoke. When it broke down he could think of nothing else until it was fixed. He had all the part numbers and prices memorized. A rod bearing was $.90. A set of rings was $1.28, a side cover gasket was $.10, and the side cover screws were $.10 each. Mr. Sander had a loyal customer.

Jimmy kept a maintenance schedule and performance record in his head. He changed the oil ($.35 a quart) every 150 miles. He got five oil changes to a quart. Even though his Dad’s fleet of trucks provided Jimmy’s gasoline, ($.30 a gallon no questions asked as long he kept his homemade siphon clean and secure so no one else used Gruver Trucking gas) Jimmy knew his bike got eighty miles to the gallon.

Jimmy’s first racing modification to a gasoline engine came unexpectedly the first time the head gasket blew on his Whizzer. When he disassembled the head he noticed that there was a burn in the cast of the head and the gasket could not seal. Jimmy thought about it and thought about it. He discussed it with his father. He finally decided the only way he could fix it would be to file the head flush. It turned out that this repair raised the compression and the engine now delivered 3.5 HP instead of 3, but now the 5/32” cast iron oil ring began to leak oil every 1200 miles. Not knowing, at eleven years old, that a steel-segmented oil ring could solve this problem, Jimmy added installing a new oil ring every 1500 miles to his maintenance schedule.

Jimmy’s goal was to visit every classmate and explore every road in the Two Harbors School District. All this riding around greatly irritated a crotchety old ship’s captain who was a neighbor to the Gruver family. Commander Cole did not appreciate the earsplitting roar of Jimmy’s pipes breaking the silence of his North Woods, and he complained to the Lake County Sheriff constantly. Sheriff Falk, who felt a young man could do much worse than tinker with a motorbike, addressed the Commander’s complaints as minimally as possible, but when he could no longer put off Commander Cole’s complaints, he would pull Jimmy over and admonish him for riding without a license. Jimmy responded by sneaking around even more, and this response heightened the degree and number of adventures the young man enjoyed with his Whizzer.

The days of fun on the Whizzer came to a crashing halt in 1956 when Jimmy lent it to a friend on a warm spring day. Roger Johnson hit a downed tree in a ditch and wrecked the bike. At fourteen, Jimmy decided it was time to move on to four wheels, so he stored the bike in his dad’s office and dedicated his summer to fixing up a 1935 Ford coupe he had bought from his brother. By fall he had the car running, people started calling him Jim, but he still didn’t have a driver’s license.

Jim didn’t want his father to sell his Whizzer, but his father needed money. Cliff tried to soften the loss by explaining to Jim that every young man deserves a bike, and one of the county commissioners had a son who would enjoy and cherish his Whizzer. Still, Jim always regretted that sale. Years later, while struggling to raise his own family on working man’s wages, long after his father had repaid the “loan” for selling the Whizzer, Jim scoured the country for a Whizzer Sportsman as he travelled the United States as a sales representative for Barko. He never found one.

On a Saturday evening in 1972, Jim looked at his wife Susie and family sitting with him at the supper table. Jeff was ten, Timmy was nine, Kevin was seven, Stephanie was baby, and Jim thought he was the luckiest guy in the world. He didn’t mind working overtime at his city maintenance job and moonlighting in his small shop behind his house to put food on the table. He loved fixing things and both jobs presented a continuous line-up of mechanical challenges.

Jim told his family that their neighbor across the alley had brought over a frame and a motor that he found at the dump. “Vince didn’t even know what it was,” Jim told his sons, “but he sure was happy to give it to me when I told him, ‘I can’t pay you anything for it , but I’ll do fifty dollars worth of work for you if you give me that Whizzer frame and motor.’”

“Wow Dad, that’s COOOL!” the boys said in unison. “What’s a Whizzer?”

Between spoonfuls of hotdish the boys listened to their father’s discourse of the Whizzer bike he grew up on. His excitement was contagious, and soon the boys were encouraging their dad to find that old Whizzer. “If it was such a cool bike it still has to be around SOMEwhere Dad, it’s not THAT old!”

The Sportsman Whizzer was the last thing Jim thought about before he fell asleep that night and the first thing he thought about the next morning when he awoke. That Sunday morning Susie followed him to the kitchen table, set a cup of coffee and the phone book in front of him, and Jim started making phone calls.

His first call was to Ed Hanson, the county commissioner who had purchased the Whizzer fifteen years previously.

“Well, Yahhh, Jim, I remember you! Sayyyy, how’s your dad doing? I suuure always liked him! Yaahhh, I remember that Whizzer. Dennis sure liked that bike! Noooo, he doesn’t have it anymore. We sold that to Billy Johnson. You know him, he works at the county garage.”

“Oh, yeah, sure, I know you Jim. I see you around town all the time, now that you work for the city. No, I don’t have that Whizzer any more. I sold it to my neighbor, but I don’t think he has it any more….don’t know his number, got a phone book there?”

Nine phone calls later Jim was talking to a man in Duluth. The bike was on a garbage trailer and would be hauled away early Monday morning. If Jim got there before the garbage service, he could have it!

“Let’s go boys!,” James called up the stairs to his sleeping sons. Jeff, Timmy and Kevin rode with their Dad to Duluth to pick up the Whizzer.

It was a really good day. There would be many more really good days as the four men worked together to restore Jim’s first Whizzer.

It is restored and on display at the Sunrise Engine Rebuilder’s Whizzer Showroom in rural North Branch, Minnesota


  1. I enjoyed this story - thank you for posting it.

  2. I enjoyed the story & thank you for posting it. I have known Colleen most of my life & know she has a gift for writing. I would encourage more from her. Barb Weber