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SUNDAY BRUNCH | SIC TRANSIT

Gee Whiz, They're Back

March 01, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In those supposedly softer and simpler times, Southern California buzzed with Whizzers.

Before school, they were an inexpensive, responsible way of delivering papers. After class, they were every hormone-fed adolescent's entree to Ocean Park mating rituals.

"Hop on the Whizzer," ordered magazine advertising of the '40s and '50s. "The price is right. Whizzer is right."

Times may be right again.

The Whizzer is back.

It has resurfaced in Southern California from shards of the original company, Breene-Taylor Engineering, which had offices on Hollywood Boulevard. The 1998 model, like the 1938 original, is powered by a 1.3-horsepower, single-cylinder engine good for 25 mph and 125 miles per gallon. The transmission remains a pair of rubber belts, and the sprung seat is broad enough for a bear.

Yet these are harder, inflationary times.

Yesterday's Whizzer motor cost $54.95 and was mounted by the owner

("Anybody Installs in 30 Minutes") on a Schwinn. Today's Whizzer is sold attached to its bicycle and the package costs $1,995, plus tax and registration.

In freer days, insurance was not a government mandate and Pacific breezes could muss your hair. In today's climate of caution, Whizzer riders' hair will be flattened beneath helmets, and riders must be age 18 or older, have a driver's license, and they will be allowed to ride their retro mopeds on freeways.

And although resurrected here by Gene Trobaugh of Orange, a former Suzuki motorcycle executive and motor-sports promoter, the bikes are only Schwinn look-alikes, made and assembled in Taiwan alongside their crossbar power packs.

Still, believes Trobaugh, 59, no matter where it is made, if faithful to the original design, a Whizzer is a Whizzer that still blows raspberries from a single exhaust and is more fun than a boatload of motor scooters.

Especially if you owned one as a kid in Detroit.

"I was 12 and bought my Whizzer used for $125, which I earned from my paper route, because you had to have a job to buy one," Trobaugh says. "Parents wouldn't buy you one, because they knew you were going to kill yourself on it.

"So I kept my Whizzer at a friend's house."

The stream of nostalgia continues: "A bunch of us would ride five miles to a gravel pit that was our summer swimming hole. Some of us were on Cushman scooters, others on Harley-Davidson Toppers, but at least three or five were on Whizzers. And wherever there was a few hundred yards of space, we raced."

Fondness for departed eras has worked wonders for current motorcycle sales. Also for builders of log cabins and wood boats, sellers of old clothing, operators of martini bars and owners of nouveau diners.

Trobaugh sees that kind of acceptance awaiting his Whizzer.

"So our first target audience is those aged 55 to 60 who were teenagers when Whizzers were popular, couldn't afford one, but now have the disposable income to recapture their younger years," he says. "We also have shown the Whizzer in Los Angeles, Dallas and Phoenix, measured response, and know the second level will be younger people who will appreciate a look, and a purpose that is unique to today.

"It represents personal freedom, and has a low, growling noise that creates a huge sensation of speed. All the original elements are in place. I've got to believe that whatever fun, thrills and satisfaction we got from it back then still exist today."

Trobaugh has several dozen bicycle and motorcycle dealers on national sales standby. Potential buyers may leave names and telephone numbers with Whizzer ([714] 939-3083), but no deposits will be taken until the bike goes on sale in July.

In summer, of course, young persons' fancies still lightly turn to thoughts of love.

"Her name was Jackie," remembers Trobaugh. "I stole her from her boyfriend because I had a Whizzer and he didn't. Then he came back strong with a car, a 1948 powder blue Plymouth convertible, and that put him a different league.

"But Whizzer for Whizzer, it would have been a fair fight."

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