Vintage Go Kart Build

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(Last Updated On: June 26, 2020)

Vintage Go Kart Build

They’re fun, they’re cheap, they’re collectable – but most of all they’re fun. Vintage go karts take the motorized world down to its most basic element.

old school go kart project

Resting peacefully for several decades before I showed up, this old kart had seemed to have had an impact with a tree years ago leaving the steering linkage slightly bent. Local rodents had made a meal of the original seat vinyl, and the gas in the tank smelled like turpentine.

Bird Engineering Inc.

On the horizontal bar behind the seat, a tin sticker read “Bird Engineering Inc P.O. Box J Fremont, Nebraska 68025” followed by a hand-engraved serial number. I did a little homework and found that Bird Engineering was founded in 1959, and manufactured go karts, mini-bikes and three-wheelers, selling them under their name as well as Sears and JC Penney. The company was bought out by Phoenix Engineering somewhere in the 1980s.

Since the frame was a solid shade of brown rust, I could only guess what the original color of the kart was. I decided on a two-tone theme: Allis-Chalmers Orange for the frame, and industrial grey for the wheels, pedals, and linkage.

Overall length of the cart is 57″, width 35″, height 24″, with a wheelbase of 43″. If a kart frame won’t fit on your workbench, prop it up on wooden horses or with pieces of wood or cinder blocks while painting.

Prep And Paint

The key to every good paint job is in the preparation. Everything was stripped down to bare metal before being primed and painted. I cleaned the surface with mineral spirits, and used painters tape to mask off anything I didn’t want painted.

After letting the primer dry for several days, I lightly scuffed the frame before applying the color coat. I let the paint sit for a few days (out in the warm sun is best), then scuffed and applied another color coat. I repeated this procedure three times.

Before you paint, select an area that is well-ventilated; an open window. open garage door, etc. Spray-can paint fumes aren’t as harmful as other paints, but good ventilation provides you not only with fresh air, it also helps the finished product dry faster.

Two-Piece Rims

Two-piece go-kart rims always require tubes. They really save you a lot of time on assembly/disassembly.

I replaced the old knobby tires with sawtooth tread tires, size 4.10-3.50 x 5″.

Go-Kart Engine Rebuild

Many old go karts and mini-bikes were originally fitted with either a Briggs & Stratton or Tecumseh flathead engine. Those old flathead motors are durable, reliable and easy to repair.

Originally, this kart was equipped with a Tecumseh 2.5 horsepower motor, but I did not initially use that motor because it was seized.

To get the kart project completed faster, I swapped the original Tecumseh for a 1980s Briggs & Stratton motor.


 Motor needed a little work to get back to running condition. First, a few 2×4 strips of wood were used to make a cheap engine stand.

The carburetor was disassembled, soaked in parts cleaner, then cleaned and air-dried. For reassembly, a new carb rebuild kit was purchased, which basically consists of a diaphragm and a gasket or two.

After the carb was rebuilt, I cleaned and flushed the inside of the gas tank with kerosene several times, let dry, then repainted it black. I flushed the engine with thin motor oil, then added fresh 10/30 oil and a new spark plug. After 10 to 15 pulls, it started up.

Go Kart Clutch

The centrifugal-type clutch found on old school go karts do not like “on-and-off” operation. If you drive it this way, the clutch will have a very short life, so it’s better to run pedal down or not at all. A solution to this would be installing a torque converter, but a centrifugal clutch is cheaper.

Go-Kart Steering Wheel

I couldn’t fit my “adult-sized” body behind the original dished steering wheel, so I made a flat one. I took some 5/16″ round-stock metal rod and bent it around an old Chevy harmonic balancer propped up in my workbench vise. For the steering wheel hub, I cut a scrap piece of 5/8″ round steel tube and welded it to the butterfly-shaped rods.

For a little bit of extra comfort, I sliced two lengths of 5/16″ fuel-line hose and wrapped them around the ends of the steering wheel.

Simple Kill Switch

The simplest kill switch is a shoe-string tied around the spark plug wire so you can reach over and yank it to stop the motor. Better yet, wire up a two-pole switch. Ground one wire to the frame and the other goes to the engine. When you throw the switch, it grounds the ignition and kills the motor. A momentary switch would also work.

Scrub Brakes

In terms of efficiency, disc brakes are best. Below disc brakes in stopping power are drum brakes. Below drum brakes are band brakes. And a notch above using your sneakers are scrub brakes.

Pressing down on the foot-operated pedal activates the cross-rod, which has two pucks of U-shaped metal pivoting on a bolt in front of the rear tires. So what is there to say in praise of the scrub brake? Well, they’re simple, they’re cheap, and they’re better than using your sneakers.

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