As many of you know from reading my Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness entries, I have a ton of vehicles on my bucket list. Some remain far out of reach like an Audi R8 V10 while others, like the Suzuki RE-5, are so rare that they rarely ever show up for sale nearby. Here’s a vehicle that’s a little mix of both. This 1985 Pulse autocycle is like an airplane for the road (it doesn’t fly). In this case, that’s pretty much literal because it was designed by an aircraft engineer!
The Pulse autocycle was another creation of the visionary Jim Bede. During the 1960s and 1970s, Bede promised to make aviation more accessible for everyone wanting to experience the liberation that is flight. Bede earned his engineering degree in 1957 and went straight into the field, working for North American Aviation. During his tenure with North American, Bede was involved with the A-3 Vigilante, F-4, and F-100. He didn’t stick around at the manufacturer for too long, and eventually, he left his employer, setting his sights on getting more people in planes. Along the way, he created a vehicle that remains one of my dream cars today. Or, is it a dream motorcycle? Uh, maybe a dream thing?
Bede Tries To Make Flight Cheaper
In 1961, Bede founded the Bede Aircraft Corporation and got to work on his mission. Bede’s approach was novel for its time. As you’d expect, an aircraft manufacturer normally sells pilots aircraft built in their factories. However, having someone else build your plane means that you have to pay for it to be built. Bede figured that he would save pilots money by having them build their own planes from kits, thus cutting out the cost associated with factories and workers. The idea of pilots who built their own planes wasn’t new. The homebuilt aircraft has been around since the birth of aviation. What Bede did differently was streamline the build process. Builders would receive parts and instructions, making the process easy enough that you didn’t necessarily have to be an engineer to build your plane.
Jim Bede passed away in July 2015 and his legacy includes well over a dozen aircraft designs, some of which remain famous today. Perhaps the most famous of the lot is the BD-5, a compact homebuilt aircraft introduced in 1973 that looked like a speeding bullet or a rocket. The development of this plane had so many problems and broken promises.
I’ve written about this before, but in short, Bede’s engine supplier went bankrupt in 1974, the plane was difficult and expensive to build, and at first, Bede shipped kits for a plane that couldn’t even take sustained flight in prototype form.
Bede sold around 5,000 kits and the challenges of building a BD-5 were so insurmountable that it’s estimated that as few as 150 were built. Of the ones that were completed, 32 crashed, taking 26 pilots with them. It wasn’t so much a problem with Bede’s design, but that the lack of a proper engine put builders in a tough spot. Some outfitted their BD-5s with heavy engines that threw off the aircraft’s center of gravity. When those engines failed at low speeds and low altitudes, the aircraft would pitch up sharply; a recipe for disaster.
Bede never stopped designing new planes through all of this and this led to other problems. Bede had reportedly burned through $7 million in kit payments and $2.7 million in deposits while the prop-driven BD-5’s engine was delayed for years. Bede Aircraft ran out of money in 1979, and filed for bankruptcy. Bede reportedly drew the ire of the Federal Trade Commission for spending money that should have gone to BD-5 development on other projects. Ultimately, Jim Bede entered a consent decree with the FTC to stop accepting deposits for aircraft for 10 years. But Bede wasn’t going to let that stop him from building things and he pivoted to the automotive industry.
Planes For The Road
The history of the Pulse autocycle could have been largely lost if not for a group of Pulse owners and former Bede employees collecting all of the information they could. Late in 1980, Bede and motorcycle mechanic Doug Walsh built the first of what would become the Litestar and then later, the Pulse.
BD-5 designer Paul Griffen drew up the design while Walsh took a Honda 360 and chopped it in half. The team brought on someone who could weld chromoly steel tubing while others in the team created a body out of fiberglass. In short time, the prototype was finished and dubbed the BD-200. Bede started selling kit plans with the vehicle under the name of Autocycle.
Bede took the BD-200 around to shows, searching for investors. In 1981, Stan Leitner read about the BD-200 in a newspaper and decided to reach out to Bede. In April of that year, the pair created the Tomorrow Corporation with Leitner providing $25,000 in exchange for manufacturing and distribution rights. Tomorrow Corporation sold more autocycle plans before striking a deal with Scranton Manufacturing in Iowa to produce a factory-built version called the Litestar.
Production numbers are inexact, but Pulse enthusiasts believe that a total of about 15 Litestars were built by Scranton before production moved to the Owosso Motor Car Company in Michigan. Owosso is believed to have produced an additional 347 units. It’s said that the name was changed to Pulse after the first 21 units were produced.
According to Pulse owners, the basic design is the same between the two manufacturers. The vehicle has a fiberglass body that rides on a welded steel tube frame. The Litestar/Pulse is 16 feet-long, 6.3 feet wide, 4.5 feet tall, and weighs about 1,000 pounds depending on powerplant. Most of them use motorcycle suspension parts, but the controls are laid out like a car. You can find these with steering wheels and floor pedals! A neat design trick is that while a Litestar/Pulse has four wheels, only three are touching the ground while it is in motion. Thus, it’s not subject to car regulations. Instead, it’s legally classified as a motorcycle in most states. The Tomorrow Corporation liked to call it a “Ground Cruising Recreational Vehicle.”
Owners of these say that the Litestars built by Scranton had 400cc Yamaha twin-cylinder motorcycle running gear or the twin-cylinder running gear from a Honda CM450A Hondamatic. The Yamaha engine was rated at 35 HP and the Honda made 37 HP. Owners note that since these motorcycle engines were made for small motorcycles and not the heavier Litestar, you had to wring out the engines to get things going. Still, once they’re moving they could reportedly net 45 mpg and reach 100 mph.
The rest of the Litestars and Pulses came with drivetrains from the Honda Gold Wing. These engines were the Gold Wing GL1100’s flat fours and the Gold Wing GL1200’s flat fours depending on the year of autocycle. The Gold Wing-powered Pulses made 81 HP to 94 HP depending on configuration, much better for the task of moving 1,000 pounds. With Gold Wing power, they reportedly hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and could reach a top speed of 130 mph. Apparently, the sleek design was good for a coefficient of drag of 0.193.
Scranton built its autocycles between 1983 and 1984 with Owosso building the rest until 1990. When Owosso closed its doors, the Litestar and Pulse autocycle experiment was done. Thankfully, these have a huge cult following and owners have a registry of 283 units, so most of them are known. Tomorrow Corporation advertised an amazing 100 miles per gallon, but real-life fuel economy is reported by owners to be closer 50 mpg. I’ve owned a Gold Wing GL1100 before and it struggled to get above 35 mpg, so I’m not surprised that these don’t do much better.
When Owosso shuttered, parts availability dried up. Thus, a lot of these autocycles have gotten aftermarket and custom parts to keep them on the road. A number of them have gotten upgraded running gear from modern motorcycles.
This Pulse Autocycle
This 1985 Pulse autocycle is number 288 and it’s coming up on the Mecum Auctions block this week. It appears to be an excellent example and it still has its Honda Gold Wing GL1100 drivetrain, which is good for 81 horsepower.
I love how original this one appears to be. Inside the cockpit you’ll find a steering wheel, floor pedals, an HVAC system, and tandem seating. One of the autocycle’s previous owners gave it a livery and a tail resembling an aircraft and you can enjoy tunes with a Pioneer Super Tuner cassette stereo. This Pulse was a piece at the Horton Classic Car Museum for years and it comes with a binder full of service records, a GL1100 service manual, and the owner’s manual for the donor Honda Gold Wing. The selling museum notes that it will likely need servicing before being put back on the road again.
If you want this rare blend of aviation and motorcycle history, it won’t be cheap. I’ve been seeing these listed for $30,000 and beyond. Sadly, that means you probably won’t be seeing me driving one anytime soon. But if you do have that kind of cash, Mecum says it’ll go for between $30,000 to $50,000 this week.
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