Written by Barbara Toombs
It’s hard to match the freedom on an agile scooter when it comes to zipping around town! Near the start of many an auction day at Barrett-Jackson that feeling can be captured – particularly during the Scottsdale event – you’ll often see a number of diminutive Cushman Scooters crossing the block, proudly holding a position of their own within the collector car community.
Back in the 1950s, the Cushman Eagle was by far the most desirable scooter in the United States. Patterned after the big American motorcycles of the day, the Eagle had design hallmarks like contoured fenders, teardrop fuel tank, sprung saddle, wide handlebars, tubular steel frame and – most importantly – an air-cooled Flathead engine. Whether for use as a summer runabout or hip school transportation, it was on the wish list of many a red-blooded teenage boy (and more than a few teenage girls) back in the day.
But Cushman got its start decades earlier, when brothers Everett and Clinton Cushman of Lincoln, Nebraska, began to produce four-stroke Husky engines for farm equipment, pumps, lawn mowers and boats. At the time, gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were rapidly being fitted to all manner of industrial and farm equipment, as well as bicycles and carriages, so Cushman Motor Works found plenty of demand.
Then the Great Depression hit, and Cushman was forced to innovate or risk shutting down. In 1936, a company executive thought it might be an idea to design a simple motor scooter around their pre-existing Husky engine. The result was the Cushman Auto-Glide – a simple, cheap form of transportation that was perfect for the belt-tightening times of the 1930s. Sales were brisk from the get-go.
When World War II kicked off in Europe a few years later and the U.S. began ramping up military equipment production, Cushman created a military-spec scooter called the Model 53. Designed to be dropped by parachute with Army Airborne troops, it became known as the Cushman Airborne or the Parascooter. The 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions airdropped Model 53s into France after D-Day; many were abandoned there after the war.
The Airborne was a one-cylinder, kick-started, 4.6-horsepower, gasoline-powered machine with a two-speed gearbox and a top speed of 40 mph. Simple though it was, it could handle a 25-percent grade, could carry a 250-pound load and could travel 100 miles on a full tank of just over one gallon of gas. A rear hitch enabled the scooter to tow full-sized cars and trucks in low gear, and there was even an adapter that allowed the Model 53 to carry a 50-caliber machine gun.
Because the scooters were considered energy-savers, Cushman was the only manufacturer allowed to sell motorized vehicles to civilians during the way, and the Model 53A was produced for that purpose.
Cushman’s most successful model by far, however, was the Eagle, which was in production for about 16 years, beginning in 1949. Featuring a simple tubular steel frame, the scooter was powered by an 8-horsepower, single-cylinder 21ci Flathead engine. Power was sent to the rear wheel via a foot clutch and two-speed hand-shifted gearbox with the lever on the left side of the fuel tank. Riders quickly realized they could get upwards of 50 mph from the Eagle by ducking down behind the headlight and pinning the throttle open; a slight tailwind could increase velocity to nearly 55.
Other models included the postwar “turtle back” Model 50 and 60, the Highlander and Step-Thru. The late 1950s saw the Road King and Pacemaker, with “jet-age” body styling.
In 1952, Cushman began production of the Truckster – a three- or four-wheeled vehicle popular on job sites and in industrial plants. Small, maneuverable and light-duty haulers, they also were used for ice cream sales, mall and stadium maintenance, parking meter duties, mail services and even police vehicles.
Small but mighty, the iconic Cushman Scooter made its mark on America – and continues to intrigue collectors the world over.