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John R. Luther, 83; Trade Tech Teacher Built Off-Road Rigs


John Russell Luther, who built midget racers, "sand sailors" and other inventive off-road vehicles and who taught for 22 years at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, has died. He was 83.

Luther died June 30 at the Kensington, an Episcopal retirement home in Alhambra, of complications from a stroke he suffered last year, said his daughter, Robina Riccitiello.

A native of Adel, Iowa, Luther worked for Lockheed Vega overseeing aircraft production for the World War II effort before joining the Marines. After the war, he worked for such companies as Weber Aircraft and Rocketdyne.

He also created and built his own company, Luther Engineering, and helped pioneer racing vehicles for youth, including quarter-midget and half-midget cars. Modeled after state-of-the-art Indy-style race cars, the midgets were used at special race tracks built across the country with boys in mind.

Luther also built sand sailors, three-wheel carts equipped with sails, that were raced across the dry lake beds of Southern California in the 1950s and '60s.

Other ahead-of-their-time products he built were lightweight alloy bicycle frames and motorized minibikes with balloon tires that could handle rugged mountain trails and streams--precursors of off-road vehicles to come in later decades.

Cycle magazine tested Luther's Cobra Cycle minibike and big-wheeled Mini-Goat in 1961. He offered both in three versions--fully assembled, in kit form, or as a mere set of plans.

"Minibikes are fun," concluded the enthusiastic Cycle editor Jim Davis in his report.

"With adequate traction, they will climb almost any hill you can point out. They are so light that if you find yourself in a tight spot on a trail, all you have to do is pick your bike up and walk off with it. A pile of them will fit in the trunk of the average car. Anyone can ride them with ease. On top of all this, they're economical to operate.... The Cobra Cycle has a 2.5 horsepower two-stroke engine that just screams."

During his teaching and mentoring years at Trade Tech, Luther went to Okinawa and helped create an education program for Americans stationed there in the armed forces, enabling them to take courses for academic credit at Trade Tech or USC.

In addition to daughter Robina, Luther--a resident of Eagle Rock for decades--is survived by his wife of 56 years, the former Bina Wallace; their other four children, Wally Luther, Laura Box, Priscilla Heft and Rollin Luther; 11 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

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