Getting your child on two wheels without breaking the budget

Dec 16, 2014

The holidays are here, and you probably know a kid who is dreaming of a new two-wheeler — and I don’t mean one that is pedal-powered.

This year, after being surrounded by motorcycles for all of his 11 years, my son finally began to show interest in getting a bike of his own. For me, the dilemma was figuring out what would be a suitable first bike that would teach him the basic mechanics of riding without costing a small fortune.

The prices of kids’ dirt bikes have increased drastically since I got my first three-wheeler back in the 1980s, and after looking at some of the new offerings from Honda and Yamaha, I was coming down with a bad case of sticker shock. Sure, the new dirt bikes are much nicer than anything I rode when I was a kid, but dropping $2,000 (or more) on something that might be wrapped around a tree during the first 15 minutes of ownership didn’t seem like a good idea.

A starter bike should be one that can be dropped and at least mildly abused without making you cringe every time you see it being pushed back into the garage. Since new was definitely out of the question, it was on to Craig’s List to search for a used machine.

Honda Mini Trail
A Honda Mini Trail with a larger SC70 engine fitted into the frame. Photo by Panhead Jim.

I scanned through tons of clapped-out dirt bikes before stumbling upon a Honda Mini Trail. This bike fits somewhere between a mini bike and a full-on dirt bike, making it worthy of further scrutiny. It looked pretty good in the pictures, was in my price range and most importantly, my son thought it was “cool.” So a couple days later I found myself in a stranger’s backyard riding around on a bright yellow miniature motorcycle and having a surprisingly good time.

The seller, a race junkie and mechanic, built the Mini Trail as a pit bike when he was part of a superbike team. He had swapped the motor with a larger SC70 and then added a big bore kit. This bumped the bike up from 50 cc to 88 cc, giving it quite a bit more pep, and it also upgraded the transmission from a three-speed automatic to a four-speed manual. Of course it was missing the lights, luggage rack, chain guard, etc, but it ran great and the lack of parts would give my son and I future projects to work on together.

Mini Trail and spare parts
The good thing about buying an old bike from a mechanic is that you often get spare parts in the deal. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Within half an hour, the owner was $500 richer and I was filling the back of my wife’s minivan with a used Mini Trail and a bunch of spare parts. I have to admit that I was just as excited as my son to get on the bike and ride around the yard, telling him all the while that this was just a test ride.

gas tank
Bubbles in the paint were a tell-tale sign of a gas leak. Photo by Panhead Jim.

replacement tank and air filter
Replacement tank and air filter. Photo by Panhead Jim.
That weekend, my son and I gave the bike a good cleaning and noted what parts needed to be replaced right away. Thankfully, the list was rather short, as the only real issue was a leaky gas tank and a missing air filter. A quick browse through eBay turned up a replacement tank that was already painted to match the bike. I rounded out the order with a couple rubber bits to make sure the tank mounted securely and a universal slip-on air filter. I was thinking that we would have the bike running in a week or so.

Well, that week turned into a few weeks when I found out that the petcock on the new tank interfered with the air filter. Luckily, the SC70 motor uses a carburetor that has a built-in petcock, so the petcock on the tank was redundant and could be removed. All I needed was a 90-degree elbow and a hose barb to reroute the fuel line coming from the tank and it would work fine.

“No problem,” I told my son “We’ll just go to Lowe’s and get some pipe fittings to fix it.” Of course no one makes a 90-degree elbow with M12x1.0 threads on one end and standard pipe threads on the other, so I had to special order a tap and modify a stock elbow to make it fit.

fuel fitting
It took parts from two hardware stores and a M12x1.0 tap to make a custom fuel fitting. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Once my custom pipe fitting was completed, we could finally get the bike ready for real riding. I wanted to make working on the bike an enjoyable project and not a chore, so I cleaned out a special spot in the garage and got all the tools, parts, fluids, etc., together before calling my son to come out and help. Part of my reasoning for getting an older bike was that it would be a good excuse for some quality father-son time in the shop, as well as a perfect chance for me to teach him basic mechanics.

installing tank
The new tank goes on. Photo by Panhead Jim.

I let my son take the lead and he moved through swapping the gas tanks and installing the new air filter with ease. As I had hoped, he was really starting to get interested in working on the bike, and we moved right into performing a basic service.

chain adjustment
Fixing up an old bike is a good way to learn basic maintenance, such as adjusting the chain. Photo by Panhead Jim.
First, we went over the brakes, lubing the cables and adjusting the endplay for both the front and rear. Then it was on to the rear chain which needed tightening and a good coating a chain lube. A quick oil change followed (it only holds 0.7 liters), and after checking the tire pressure, the bike was ready to ride.

Our experiences with the Mini Trail so far have been very positive. These 1970s-era dirt bikes are relatively cheap and easy to work on (even an 11-year-old can do it), making them great project bikes for young riders. By sticking with the basics, I was able to give my son more confidence in his mechanical abilities and keep him interested. A big job, like rebuilding the engine or transmission, would be a great project, but hours of tedious measurements and adjustments would surely make him lose interest.

Mini Trail first ride
Ready for a first test ride around the yard. Now it's time to go shop RevZilla for some appropriate kids' gear. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Now I’m starting to think how much fun it would be to have another Mini Trail parked in the garage, just so we can ride around the yard together. Maybe Santa has a spare one. I’ve been a good boy this year…