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March 15-21, 2006

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Car Culture

Pocket Rocket

Thunderstruck can take any gas-powered minimoto (or any gas-powered vehicle really) and make it a plug-in electric and not lose the speed

By Novella Carpenter

THEY ARE baaaaaack. What with the warmish weather, that insect noise that fools me into thinking my cell phone is vibrating can only mean one thing: pocket bikes. They are a common sight around urban and suburban neighborhoods: men riding tiny little motorcycles. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, picture this: a crotch-rocket motorcycle (the bright ones that look like candy and come in an array of neon colors), shrunk down to an eighth its regular size. Then picture grown men (and gangly teenagers) mounting the things, knees akimbo, hunkered over, zooming down the street at 30 mph-plus.

These pocket bikes, also called minimotos, usually have 6-inch wheels and a two-stroke engine, like the kind found in a lawnmower. That's why the bikes are so loud—and smelly. The trend of little motorcycles started in Japan in the 1970s. Since then, it's captured the imagination of Italians (who build many of the nicest minimotos, costing thousands of dollars) and now Americans (who usually buy cheap bikes from China at around $400).

One of the first questions—after why—with pocket bikes is, Are they safe? Pocket bikes happen to be the same exact height of the bumper of a car. Perfect for being invisible to most drivers and then perfect for getting lodged underneath a car and its wheels. So, no, I wouldn't call them safe. Because of safety and noise concerns, California police are handing out tickets to discourage using the bikes on city streets. Usually the drivers don't have M1 licenses or insurance or they get caught driving the little guys on the sidewalk (a no-no). The bikes are supposed to used on private property or paved closed-circuit racetracks.

As for the why, ask any man why he needs any automotive toy. They're fast even though they're small. They are fun and different—and you can race them. There are racetracks and pocket bike grand prix held in places like Fremont and Vallejo.

Brian Hall, owner of Thunderstruck Motors, converts minimotos to run on electricity. He has been converting vehicles for seven years now. He is no different from the two-stroke fans in his love of pocket bikes. "You get an adrenaline rush when you take off and pop a wheelie," he said in a phone interview from the Santa Rosa company's headquarters. He introduced me to NEDRA—that is, the National Electric Drag Racing Association. Yes, Harold, there are electric-vehicle drag racers.

Thunderstruck can take any gas-powered minimoto (or any gas-powered vehicle really) and make it a plug-in electric and not lose the speed. Why would someone do that? Well, as a matter of fact, the electric pocket bikes tend to be faster than their gas-powered counterparts. "The Pock-E-Tek is totally awesome," Hall said, referring to the motor for their custom pocket bike, which can go up to 60 mph. The other cool thing about electric pocket bikes is they are less illegal than gas minimotos. That is, according to California Vehicle Code 405, gas-powered pocket bikes fall under the motor-driven cycle category, while electric are considered motorized bicycles under code 406a. Since they are motorized bicycles, you can "drive" them in bike lanes and with traffic, as long as you stay below 25 miles per hour.

Ironically, the electric versions are more legal, but because they are electric—and therefore silent—they are even less likely to be seen by cars. Thunderstruck makes a taller version of a minimoto called the Jackal, which Hall describes as being more comfortable—and probably safer.

As fun as they may be, the dangers don't seem to make it worth it. I will say, though, I recently heard the pocket bikes roaring around my neighborhood; I saw, much to my delight, a tiny man astride one of the tiny beasts, wearing the biggest grin I had ever seen, little person or not. How perfect.

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.