Some Ramblings About The Delage

The Delage CycleKart never started out to be that…It was a continuation of an experiment, and as experimenters know, you never quite know what you’ll discover! 

In 1994 we were sort of between projects: We’d wrapped up the Electric Vehicle stuff around then (we started with a 36′ sailing catamaran with solar-electric motors for moving about when not sailing, which led to a series of smaller purely solar-electric cats (first as tenders to the larger cat, then those turned into the SoleXplor line of solar boat prototypes for eco-resorts and such), and all of this led to collaborating on a very successful electric race car to run at Phoenix in ’93, and that led to doing some car conversions and a larger Formula-Ford-based E-racer…and somewhere in there we had to hide a solar-racecar for a fellow for a bit of time, but that was a whole other fun story…) 

As the saying goes, Idle Hands Lead To Fun Stuff (or something like that!) In our case, Peter Stevenson and his brother Bill, Mike Dormer, and I were sitting around on the deck watching the Sun sink into the sea and reminiscing about things. One story led to another and we were trying to recall if coasting down hills in little cars was as much fun as we’d remembered, or had the memories just grown large as time passed. We got to thinking that maybe we’d better make another coaster and find out if we had all lost our perspective or not! Dormer remembered that he’d pulled four old Honda wheels out of the trash in O.B. (Ocean Beach being the kind of Santa Cruz of San Diego)…Hmmmm…Peter still had the front axle from the Bugatti coaster he and his brothers had made in the late-’50’s…I seemed to recall there was an old rusty kart axle and bearings in a box somewhere in the garage. We had An Idea! 

One thing led to another and the story of that coaster can be found on the site, so I’ll move on — The principle point of that coasting interlude being that we rediscovered a few things: How fun it is to coast down a hill in rattley and goofy machines, and perhaps more importantly, how little fun it is to push them back UP the hill! We should have known better, as this was EXACTLY the development path that our Mini-Indy projects took twenty years before! (‘though not the same hill they came down, oddly)

The Delage project grew, as all good things grow, nurtured and inspired by the wonderful stuff which has grown before it in fruitful soil. In this case, the original Bloody Mary was a BIG part of the mix (I still have my Profile Publication from Cunningham’s happily tucked away!) We had a LOT of fun memories from the whole Mini-Indy project era, and we used a lot of that knowledge to get started. In the early ’90’s, most of us who built anything were inundated with Northern Hydraulics catalogs, a compendium of fun stuff for shop-rats. In that catalog there was a section of pages with Go-Kart parts. We decided to order a bunch of stuff and see what worked. We loved the idea of then-newish Comet torque converters, so we decided to use one of those. I went to some annoying trouble to be able to thread the chain back through the middle of the torque converter and be able to get the engine sort of to the side of the main sprocket. We never did that again, as having the weight that few inches forward just wasn’t that much of a benefit. It did mean that we had a really compact tail on the Delage, comparatively (although the engine could easily have tucked in without the trouble.) 

We decided to go with really fast kart-type steering, not just because the parts were handy, but because we knew how fun the Mini-Indys were with their handlebar steering and almost instinctual point-and-shoot feel. I think the C-Ks keep that feel, with steering so quick you don’t even notice it. And we have the added fun of watching new drivers zig-zag down the track as they over-correct their way to the first turn! (kind of like how Archie Frazer-Nash would hook up the steering backwards on the GNs they sold to annoying customers and would watch through the windows as they wobbled off! Happily, we’ve liked almost everyone we’ve let in our cars, and they almost always return from their first tour of the track with an HUGE grin on their face!)

The structure of the Delage was never up for debate: As well-established plywood aficionados of well over a Third of a Century, even then, we knew how vital and wonderful the Stressed Skin Box is! Plywood monocoque machines are light, stiff, and easy to make — By the mid-’90’s we’d designed a bit over fifty boats this way, so we were sticking to it! (and the old Albatrosses and Spruce Goose did pretty well with their plywood hides…) But how to hang the metal bits, which were undoubtedly going to bang into things at (relatively) great speed? We decided to have steel locating tube “framerails” which the front and rear suspension could attach to (but which would twist like a pair of cheap sunglasses) and a plywood box which would handle all the torque-loads on the cars. Having long framerails would be a great way to attach to the box without too much point-loading. And this turned out to be a great solution, and we’ve never really looked back! (We HAVE had the misfortune to try other people’s ideas of CycleKarts, those with lovely English-Wheel-formed bodies and cute little gauges turned on their lathes, etc. And built on “more accurate” ladder chassis, the poor ignorant slobs. It was pretty funny, really: Both Peter and I drifted to the back of the meeting, and the inevitable “Hey did you try so-and-so’s car?” conversation developed. I don’t think the host group appreciated the guffawing and shrieks from the back as much as Pop and I did!) 

We did run into an interesting design bit in the process of making the Delage, one which has been carried forward into all of our subsequent C-Ks. The Cockpit! A bunch of problems creep in around here: One wants the sides cut down a bit for the design (and to ease getting in and out, but that’s secondary to the design, completely!), and the narrow width kind of demands that the 1/4″ ply cockpit sides be not too obstructed with internal bracing (this time the getting-in-and-out-of IS important!)…So: What to do? The idea of using the tubing which looks like an “exhaust pipe” as a structural element was a happy solution and I can’t recall if Peter or I came up with it, but we were both very happy with it! The CycleKart monocoque box is actually two sections: The front where one sits (and which is a very solid box-structure) and the after section where the engine and drive and brakes and fuel and smuggled booze live is not a complete box! The slope of the seat back helps a bit, but the rear section still would vibrate about a goodly amount and doesn’t help too much with twist, UNLESS you tie the two box areas together with the “exhaust pipe” tubes! We use two U-bolts on each of the tubes to grab the box up forward, and one to tie into the rear box sides. This works nicely and you can see the flex without as you loosen the U-bolts. Certainly one could get away without the added stiffening, but it’s easy and looks good and we’re sticking with it! 

By the time we got to testing the Delage for the first time, we were blown away by how much fun it was, and I still have some tiny vids of the first testing day and we DO sound happy about it! We threw that machine through some torturous fun, and pretty quickly realised that we needed some tuning. The first runs would throw the chain pretty quickly when cornering hard, and we realised that we needed more locking collars than just the little grub-screws on the bearings! The brakes on go-karts were always abysmal, until one moved to hydraulic discs. For some reason (probably because they weren’t in the Northern Hydraulics catalog and this was before we used the web for everything, and we were too lazy to drive to a proper go-kart shop a couple of hours away), we decided to just make the mechanical disc caliper work, and it does. Actually, I recall why we didn’t go to hydraulic brakes: The mechanical was already locking up the rear wheel, so what more could we get with any better system? The tire was the limiting factor, and we didn’t want to go to front brakes (WAY too much trouble, and then we only had one car, so why worry?!) 

We did, of course, try keys in both rear hubs, and dropped that idea instantly! Far too much drag turning on pavement, and far too little steering on dirt! So that was OUT. 

By then, we’d had great fun, and it was time to add another car to the mix, and Peter decided it had been too long since he’d had a cute little MG Magnette sitting around, so he started on that CycleKart. By then, the whole concept had a NAME! We would talk about CycleCARS (and still do!), and look over the auto books we had and drool over the photos of delicate, minimalist creations, offering a maximum of sensation and a minimum of fuss about convention and safety and such. It was the merest of leaps to combine the concept of Cyclecars and Karts, so we did! 

We had great fun with the two cars, and realised that actual RACING was just not something we wanted to do with them, and that play and sport was more important to our ethos. Dressing up would be good (we STILL think Americans are missing a bet by having their vintage racing events in tracks more reminiscent of a penitentiary parking lot than a convivial and gracious space — When we heard of Goodwood’s concept, we were thrilled! For some stupid reason we didn’t accept the invitations to the first couple of years of that event…We went to the first few Monterey Historics, so I have no idea why I didn’t go to Goodwood when it was just starting.) Keeping the inevitable one-ups-manship out of the sport would be hard, but possible. We spent a lot of time discussing and thinking about the whole ethos. 

When we moved to Carmel, Peter proceeded to add a track through the pines right away! One thing led to another, and he decided to make the Type 59 CycleKart, as that was always his favorite Bugatti. Many friends stopped through, many drove around and had fun. Pretty soon people started wanting their own…We helped them choose their car concepts, and helped with the building and shaping and glassing and such. 

Around 2000 or so, some old friends who contributed to Road & Track from time-to-time suggested they use our MGA-based faux-Ferrari for one of their April Fool’s articles, then the shooting of that article led to parties over the Monterey Historics Race Week, and that inevitably led to their doing an article on the CycleKarts. Shooting that article was great fun, and R&T asked if we’d put up a website to further expand info about the cars. We dithered a lot about it, not wanting to have the fun slip into the usual spiral-descent of car-guy-mindsets. We were wheedled into it, and we posted pretty much what’s up there now (I don’t think I’ve made a change to the page in about a decade now). We had hoped to find interesting people of like-minded craziness, and happily, we did! We also found some disappointing groups, but that’s life, and overall, the whole concept of CycleKarting has stayed pretty true to what we had originally intended and hoped it would be! 

The Delage remains my favorite, possibly because I tailored it more to my fit and desires than Peter’s. I think it’s the second most nimble of the cars we have, after the Bug (which is just SO light.) The Delage is the one I feel most comfortable really bashing through stuff in, and it’s the one I kept out when we stored things away after selling the ranch in Texas. It probably could use a thorough going-over and maybe a new engine, but it still fires up after 25 years, still is running on the first set of tires and tubes, and pretty much NOTHING has changed since it was first “finalised” around 20 years ago. It got a coat of cream paint for the R&T article, and that’s been about it!

One of these years, a new track will be found, and the machines will be decanted and the Whitney Straight Maserati will get finished, and the Type 35 will finally get made (I spent a couple of hours when I couldn’t sleep a few weeks ago thinking on how to do the wheels and I suspect that’s going to be a fun project!), and a new era of CycleKarting will begin…


(coming soon…)

by Michael Stevenson

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