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The Auto Red Bug – Fun with Five Wheels for Youngsters

Updated – An Auto Red Bug was the dream for every motor-minded boy and girl in the period between the early teens and the thirties. The lead image gives you a rare view of a Briggs and Stratton “Flyer” after the Company bought the design and patents in 1920 from A.O. Smith. The two youths were photographed on a street in the City of Toronto, Canada. The is image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives is via Doug Smith.

Update – The detailed patent drawings for the Smith “Motor Wheel” can be viewed at the end of the article.

Smith Flyer Buckboard 1917

  • Announcement of the new Smith “Flyer Buckboard” – “The Automobile” January 5, 1917.

According to the article in “The Automobile” – ” This machine, although its entire weight is but 135-pounds is capable of running at 20 to 25 m.p.h. and can go 80-90 miles on one gallon of gasoline. The controls consist of a small thumb lever attached to the steering wheels for the throttle. The clutch and brake pedals are the same as a regular automobile. The wire wheels are fitted with 20-inch clincher tires and the wheelbase is 70-inches and the tread 30-inches. The one h.p. “Motor Wheel” is held off of the ground by the clutch pedal and is crank started by a handle on the drive wheel. The price is $125 f.o.b. Milwaukee.”

The colorized image below appears to be a show business promotional photo of an attractive young woman, who is escorted by her a canine chauffeur. We are hopeful our readers can identify her. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Ames. You can view more Auto Red Bugs and learn more about them in our earlier coverage.

Smith Motorwheel 1

Update – The Smith “Motor Wheel” or “Motor Carrying Tractor Unit” was first intended to be an add-on power system for a bicycle. The first patent was filed by Smith Reuben Stanley on August 20, 1914, and granted on March 28, 1916. When Briggs and Stratton bought the designs and patents Smith signed them over to the Company on April 5, 1921.

The A.O. Smith Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, starting in 1899 began the manufacture of lightweight automobile frames. This new product soon became to be used by most of the automakers in the country. The Company is still in business today and manufactures water heaters, boilers and water purification equipment.

Smith Motor Wheel Patent 2

Smith Motor Wheel Patent 1

Smith Motor Wheel Patent 3

19 responses to “The Auto Red Bug – Fun with Five Wheels for Youngsters

  1. I’ve done a (very) little research on these lately, but in my short experience the Briggs & Stratton Flyer (ca. 1919-24) in the first photo has two items I don’t recall seeing: the cooling fan added to the air-cooled engine (must have planned for some extended motoring to test the claims of 90-120 mpg), and the “ONT 22” license plate- front and back.

    • The fan cooling was one of the improvements made to the Motor Wheel after Briggs and Stratton purchased and began manufacturing the Motor Wheel and Flyers.

    • Hi Steve, I don’t recall the fan either on those. It appears, when they were mounted on bikes ( and such) cooling may not have been an issue, but on the “cars” it must have been. Can you imagine the “safety advocates” would have a field day today with that machine.

      • Howard, I’m with you. When I looked at the first picture, I was thinking how it would make today’s lawyers smack their lips.

  2. When I was four years old my Dad gave me my first car… well sort of. Being the creative person that he was he had taken an old REO reel mower, removed the blades (not sure why) welded it to an angle iron frame and created a go-cart for me. A spring loaded lever forced a pulley against the drive belt and a old steel tractor seat served as both a seat and cross member – I remember the seat well because I sat in it while the paint was still soft and left the wrinkled imprint of my pants bottom. It hand throttle mounted alongside the seat and a steering wheel made up out of bent and welded heavy wire completed the rig.

    We had a “race track” up in the back field around a grove of poplar trees and I would tear around it lap after lap at the break neck speed of 2 mph. I eventually wore out the hard rubber tires and got pretty good at pull starting it with a loose rope (pre-rewind days).

    I only remember one serious accident. That was the day I started up over the hill to the field, about halfway up I got stuck. Not thinking I disengaged the drive and without any brakes I quickly found myself upside down in the ditch. I was more worried about damage to my “car” than to myself but all was well including me.

    Thanks for the memory


    • Hi Terry, cool story. ( I bet some people don’t even know REO made mowers) My old man was a carpenter, so anything motorized, I was on my own. It’s funny, (as with my home made go-kart) brakes were always an afterthought. ( wore out plenty of P.F. Flyers trying to stop that thing)

    • Thanks for posting that story.

      At four years old you couldn’t wait for the paint to dry?
      It’s one of those stories that takes me back in time in 2 or three sentences.

      My father was not at all mechanically inclined, so I had to wait a few years for things like this until me and my buddies could build them for ourselves. Just a different way, spending a lot of time to figure out how things work and how to find a few older guys that you could ask questions and learn from.

      A strange coincidence, hopefully not too far off to post here at TOM.

      When REO Motors (corporate name derived from THE Ransom E Olds and corporate successor to Ransom’s ventures) which was the parent company of the REO Lawn Mower operation (1946-1954) sold the Lawn Mower business, it was sold to Motor Wheel Corporation of Lansing MI? (With REO mowers finally ending up as part of Wheel Horse.)

      Motor Wheel made auto wheels for the OEM and accessory markets, perhaps some might recognize the MOTOR WHEEL FLY from circa 1970. Flys were “Drag Race ONLY” wheels on used by some Pro Stock teams. Like Gapp & Roush and Glidden + Allen. Exactly the kind of thing we had in mind at eight years old when we were looking at a pile of old lawnmower parts and all the other go cart makings and discussing what to build and how to build it.

      Which was probably pretty much the same thing with different names for kids early 100 years ago with these Flyers and Motor Wheels.

  3. I have been collecting and researching motor wheels, Flyers and Red Bugs for almost 40 years. I have 4 Flyers like the one the in the photo. The fan was used on the Flyer because the seats and passengers blocked the airflow over the motor causing problems with heat.

    The Motor Wheel was actually invented in England by the Wall Motor Wheel company and then licensed to A.O. Smith and then to Briggs & Stratton. The Briggs Model D motor wheel is the basis of all Briggs & Stratton small engines that followed.

    • I am researching the Red Bug as a gift for a dear friend who will soon turn 93 and once owned a Red Bug in Portland, Oregon which he drove on the estate (now site of Lewis & Clark College), of Lloyd Frank, heir to Meier & Frank Department store empire (now Macy’). It would be a nostalgic effort. Ideally to find a Red Bug located in Oregon. We could even rent one for the occasion if that is possible. Please reply at your earliest convenience. Your help sincerely appreciated. I am located in Castle Rock, Co. near Denver, the birthday boy is in Salem, Oregon. Robert Stevens.

  4. Hey David – Ever hear of a Banner Boy Buckboard? I have one, got it from an old neighbor a few years back. Found a 1958 add from Antique Auto for it, will scan and email seperately. B&S motor, centrifical clutch, but sure looks like the same chassis as the old ones. Happy New Year, Koke

    • David: I also own a Mcdonough Buckboard. These were made in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s just like the Banner Boy. The McDonough equipment company went on to become Snapper of lawn mower fame. Your Banner Boy looks more like the old Briggs & Stratton Flyer but the concepts are the same.

  5. There is a similar car over here in Holland in the Louman Museum in The Hague. It is also called ‘Flyer’ and is made by Briggs & Stratton. From what I’ve read, is that this car came before the car that is featured in this article.

    You can look it up if you want, the website of the museum is also translated in English.

    • The Louman Museum has a Briggs & Stratton Flyer just like the one in this post. The Briggs & Stratton Flyer was produced from 1919 to 1925. They are almost all the same with the exception of some minor changes as the production progressed.

  6. Steve, Excellent article. I have just as much fun with 4 wheels. I first saw one of these machines at the Crawford museum in Cleveland, Oh. I rebuild starter/generators for early 4 cyl. Dodge Brothers and could not help noticing the electric drive motor was in fact one of those North East Electric motors. I further inspected it and found it was done by a factory not an individual as I first expected. Eventually I got in touch with Jed Rappaport who got me in touch with a fellow in Denver, Co. and the rest is history. Mine is made by Automotive Standards Co. of No. Bergen, N.J. and is currently restored to proper function with the assistance of Jed for impossible to find parts. I had it down to a Micro Car meet in Oregon and it was the oldest and smallest micro car at the meet.

  7. On Seigrist Street in my small village of Newark in upstate New York there was a children’s car built by the Omar Car Co. from 1908 to 1909. It was called the Browniekar. The owner of the company, Samuel H. Mora, went on to build a line of full size automobiles in another location in Newark. He built 1200- 1500 quality automobiles, and was shut down by creditors in 1910.

  8. Hey.

    I am very intrested about that car (a new one). How can I order it, Ilive in Finland.

    Have you any dealer in Skandinavia, or in Europe. How much it will coast total with shipping?

    Best regards

    Pauli Mahlamäki

    Rautatiekatu 14 B 1
    84100 Ylivieska, Finland

  9. I too become fascinated by the idea of a fifth driving wheel and the minimalism of the Smith (and later Briggs) motor wheels. When I found a set of assembly instructions on the A.O. Smith website for a motor wheel, I was determined to build an accurate copy. My search for the history of the motor wheel is documented in my book “Motor Wheels and Flyers” by Tom Bartlett.

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