Saturday, 3 March 2018

Cushman Super Silver Eagle

The 1961 Super Silver Eagle Cushman is a strange, strange motorcycle but also a no frills utility vehicle. It came as standard with only a rear brake, front springers (sans shock) and an electric start was optional. Many were used as police bikes, especially in New York where they were popular with the park police. Crime rates dropped quite dramatically in 1964 when the Cushman was deployed in Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

The engine was produced by the Outboard Marine Corp (who were later to take Cushman over) and assembled by Cushmans in Lincoln, Nebraska. The bike was seven foot long, had fat 8" wheels and capable of 60mph flat out!

Other weirdness included foot operated clutch, two speed hand change, belt primary drive, pulley tensioner transmission and an engine so enclosed it needed fan cooling. A typical innovative American feature was the rear end of the engine designed so that there is provision for a second cylinder and carb. thus the unit becomes a horizontally Opposed twin. The optional front brake cost an extra $13, but was operated by a left-hand lever just to confuse would be thieves. The sensation of riding the thing is akin to driving a go-cart. It is one of the strangest devices I have ever ridden. l was a little apprehensive when the owner suggested that I might like to take it round the block.

The sprung seat is mounted very low which is great news for shorties like me, but the riding posture is similar to that of a grown man riding a kiddie bike. The running boards make a pleasant change to the usual footrests, the brake pedal’s similar to a car and, like the foot clutch, is rubber faced. The foot clutch is augmented by a centrifugal device making it unnecessary to perform a balancing act at the traffic lights.

The battery was low the day I rode the Cushman and however low a compression of 5.9:1 might appear on paper I really could have done with an electric starter. The kickstart requires a mighty jumping action which only a purist Panther rider would appreciate.

The first stop left me totally confused. I forgot the auto-clutch looked after itself and I ended up both feet up about to topple over until I remembered what I was supposed to be doing. Back to first gear, Open throttle and the bike moves forward Honda 50 style, open up to 25mph, relax throttle and move lever to second - scrape gears because the centrifugal clutch doesn’t work at high engine revs, and then relax throttle and press clutch with foot at same time to actually get it into second gear.

The handling is scooter like with those small tyres and the exhaust note's similar to the kind of stationary engine you'd find at a steam show. The rear end is solid, although there is a minimal rubber mounting which saves not the bum but maybe frame fractures. At the end of the run I was feeling a mixture of intrigue that a vehicle like this could exist but more notably that I had ridden it successfully without throwing it down the road, injuring myself or anyone else. 

At this point I suggested to the owner that I would buy him lunch. He had no fear of the machine’s peculiarities and after I had impaled myself on the welded tubular steel section of the carrier cum pillion and put my feet on the car type pedals posing as footpegs, we sped off with the single cylinder engine wishing it was being used for the purpose it had been designed for (as an outboard on a peaceful canal).

I never did manage to get the machine to stop quickly myself, but Justin managed to make it stand on its head. As I say, the seating position for passenger and rider alike were peculiar and sitting as I did, my head was just about level with Justin's back. The solid rear damping and steel tubing made every bump an unforgettable moment and how the handling was as good as it was still amazes me.

The rider assumed a most odd position - a forward crouch, knees well away from the tank and the head almost lost from view. Starting from rest, the Cushman absorbed a great deal of power with clutch and belt slipping, so when moving from stationary Justin would put his feet down and tread concrete. I felt like I should be doing the same but they are most insistent in America that the passenger keep his feet up at all times.

As it was, the device attracted enough attention and two man operation might be interpreted as a moving violation. Who knows? A strange sight it must have been - l was wearing my suit (a rare event), carrying a camera over my shoulder and a pile of literature relevant to the machine we rode upon. Justin wore a tatty tee shirt and his endless hair streamed back in the wind until it was getting caught in my mouth.

We stopped around Golden Gate Park for a photo session. Unfortunately, the Californian mounted police were also interested and asked the owner for his documents. The machine is insured as a scooter, although the officer didn't seem convinced. "Just how would you define that thing, boy?" The officer growled in a southern drawl. "It’s an outboard motor with a motorcycle built around it, and it goes. That's all I know about it, sir,” replied Justin.

The police horse farted just like they do in the UK. ”Get it out of here before the darn thing starts breeding, got enough to cope with in this crazy town.” A few more photos and we departed before the type approval men arrived.

Paul Jennings

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