Squirrel Power: Saving a Suzuki FA50
You may remember when we were battling the power steering in our Project VehiCross, that the biggest reason we got so hosed (no pun intended) was I had no way of getting myself to and from the parts store for things like crush washers, coolant, or big buckets. The reason is, the VX is currently the only (functioning) vehicle I have. The nearest parts store is 5 miles from my garage, so walking is not an ideal option. Friends help, but relying on friends for a ride is a surefire way of getting stranded at some point. While a lot of Kentucky is rural, I happen to live (and wrench) in a large city. A bicycle or scooter would be perfect for running around town for odd parts (or just in general since the VX gets AWFUL mileage) and a great way of saving money. So I browsed the local classifieds (Craigslist) and searched for cheap bikes under $500 and landed on this gem:
What we picked up was a Suzuki FA50. These tiny bikes were made between 1980 and 1992. Powered by a not quite 2hp 49cc 2-stroke engine, this is the ultimate in bare bones transportation. Why did we choose one of these over something manly like our own Project Ruckus? Well there’s a few reasons.
It was $200
Mopeds require no special licensing or insurance (just a simple registration), meaning getting one clear in the eyes of the law is easy and costs almost nothing
It was $200
The controls are much more similar to a bicycle than a motorcycle. The brakes are both actuated by hand levers and there is no clutch. This is perfect for someone (like me) who has never ridden a real motorcycle, but put more miles on a bike than a car in college.
It was $200
IT WAS $200!!! If you haven’t guessed yet, this was the deal sealer.
Despite now being a 35 year old design, the FA50 is actually quite modern for a moped and has some big bike features. For example, the FA50’s engine is center mounted below the frame, unlike a Vespa, whose engine is offset and requires the rider to constantly compensate for the odd weight balance, or a true moped with the engine mounted right under the driver’s butt, which makes the bike top heavy and hard to ride. Suzuki was incredibly clever, designing this bike with supreme cost cutting in mind. Unlike most mopeds that have tube frames, the FA50’s chassis is stamped, simplifying the production process (just fold some flanges together and spot weld). The chain drive is housed inside a cast aluminum case that also doubles as the swing arm. Not only does this keep the number of parts down, but it keeps the chain and reduction drives free of debris, keeps things well lubricated, and keeps the chain out of rider’s pant legs. The engine is the pivot for the suspension, once again keeping down on the number of parts. To modern moped riders, this is all business as usual, but in 1980, most mopeds had no suspension whatsoever, with engines jammed wherever they fit. Moped stands for “motorized pedal bike” because early mopeds were literally bicycles with engines strapped to them. The FA50 is technically a “noped” as it has no pedals whatsoever (though those foot pegs do fool some people). The entire bike is an exercise in how to make a bike as simple and cheap as possible. Despite that approach, most of the bike is metal and even the plastic parts are of good quality. It may be cheap, but don’t look for modern Chinese knockoff quality here. These things are built to run forever and can be serviced with a basic tool set.
The ad showed a nearly complete, but non-running bike. A very common problem with 2-stroke engines is the carburetor getting clogged with old 2-stroke oil. I’ve spent plenty of time on Lawnboys (including bringing one back to life that had sat for a quarter century), so 2-strokes don’t scare me and a gummy carb should be a cinch to fix. We drove to Cincinnati to look at this bike, which had been stored in a barn for over a decade. The owner was a bike mechanic and had quite the collection of vintage bikes that he was downsizing in preparation for a move. Other than a few missing parts (exhaust, mirrors, and seat tiedown), this was a complete bike with no major rust. It even had the rear fender, which usually goes missing on these when the plastic becomes brittle and shatters with age. And it’s so small it even fits in the trunk of the VX! Seriously, what’s not to love?
Ok well maybe the power. When running perfectly, these bikes make 1 and a fraction horsepower. By law, a moped is to be limited to 30 MPH and around 2 HP. Nobody is going to be dyno testing this thing (are there even dynos that read 2 hp?), so we’re going to take care of that with a few basic mods. Unlike bigger, newer scooters, these old FA50s have very little aftermarket, and even original replacement parts can be tough to come by 25 years after production ended. Now we only plan to run around town and there are plenty of neighborhood roads we can cruise around on with this toy, so we don’t need massive top speed. But being able to do more than 28 would be really useful for not getting turned into road pizza beneath the tires of a Suburban.