Vintage Go Kart Build

Article by Mark Trotta

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.

go kart with scrub brakes

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 Go Kart

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.

vintage go kart project

Since the kart 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.

Dimensions of this cart are length 57", width 35", height 24", and a wheelbase of 43".

build an old school go kart

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.

fun go kart build

If a kart frame won't fit on your workbench, you can prop it up on wooden horses or with pieces of wood or cinder blocks while painting.

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, near an open window or open garage door is good. 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

Go Kart Split Rims will save you a lot of time on assembly and disassembly. If you've ever tried to install a wheelbarrow or cart tire, you'll appreciate this!

These have a 4-bolt pattern with a 2-13/16" bolt circle. Two-piece go-kart rims will require tubes.

two-piece wheels from go kart

The split-rims were painted metal gray from a spray can.

Kart Tire Replacement

I replaced the old, worn-out knobby tires with 4.10-3.50 x 5" sawtooth tread tires.

410x350x5 go kart tires

Go-Kart Engine Build

Many old yard 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.

vintage tecumseh engine rebuild

To get the kart project completed faster, I swapped the original non-running Tecumseh H25 flathead for a Briggs & Stratton 5hp flathead.

5 hp Briggs motor

5-HP Briggs & Stratton Motor

Because the Briggs engine had not run in a while, it needed a little "freshening up". A few 2x4 strips of wood made an inexpensive 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.

small engine project

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

A centrifugal clutch found on old school go karts does 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, which also gets more power to the rear wheel.

centrifugal clutch for go kart

DIY Steering Wheel

I couldn't fit my "adult-sized" body behind the original dished steering wheel, so I fabricated a flat steering wheel. 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.

go kart steering wheel

I sliced two lengths of 5/16" fuel-line hose and wrapped them around the ends of the steering wheel.

old school go kart project

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. One wire gets grounded to the frame and the other wire 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 and stopping power, disc brakes are best. Below disc brakes are drum brakes. Below drum brakes are band brakes. And below band brakes are scrub brakes.

go kart with scrub brakes

Read: Go Kart Scrub Brakes


First Ride

With everything tightened down and inspected, I fired up the motor, climbed in, and off I went. What a blast! Rolling along six inches above the pavement, neighborhood kids smiling and waving.

fun kart project

Even a quick spin down the street puts a smile on your face!

After the trial run, my son and I took turns driving around the block to work out a few kinks.

And that's basically all there was to this vintage go kart restoration; a few weekends of work and about $150 in parts. Supplies included several spray cans of primer, several spray cans of top coat, and about $20 of hardware.

best go kart tires


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