How to Build a Motorless Go-cart

MOTHER's children article showcases a young man who learned how to build a motorless go-cart that is fast, fun, eco-friendly to run and low-cost to make.
By Greg Matthews
July/August 1985
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Greg Matthews' "Heavy Hauler" go-cart. Greg used fencing nails to fasten the wheel-and-axis units onto his Thunder Racer.
PHOTO: ROBERT W. MATTHEWS
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MOTHER'S CHILDREN: Greg learns how to build a motorless go-cart from scratch and has great success with his building project and his consultation gigs to help his friends build a homemade go-cart. 

MOTHER feels strongly that youths can be creative "doers," working toward more ecological and self-reliant lifestyles — ;whether their tasks be raising chickens on a farm or maintaining rooftop container gardens in the city. To support the endeavors of our often overlooked "underage" citizens, we're glad to publish well-written articles from younger children and teenagers concerning projects they've undertaken. 

It all began when my dad told me about the soapbox derby cars that he built when he was a kid. His stories made me want to build a motorless go-cart of my own. I didn't have any money to spend, though, so I used stuff we already had. At the time, I had two broken-down Green Machines, which are low-riding, big-wheeled, plastic tricycles. I also had some white cedar 2-by-8s left over from an old sun deck that my dad said we kids could use for projects. With that and a few other odds and ends-mostly from my "junk jar" — I learned how to  build a motorless go-cart, the Thunder Racer!

I used the axle with attached wheels from the back of both Green Machines for my go-cart wheels. I built a basic frame from 2-by-8s and added side and back walls (my younger sister insisted that she wouldn't ride in the go-cart unless it had sides). I lined the seat with carpet for comfort, made a steering mechanism so I could turn it with a rope, and even put on a brake shoe — made from an old shoe, naturally!

To find out how to make a cart like mine, read the section below, "Ten Simple Steps for Building a Really Good Go-Cart." Right now, though, let me tell you about some of the experiences I've had with my downhill racer. I made two big, important mistakes right off: First, I built the frame in a rectangle shape that was just wide enough to fit between the wheels. But that meant there wasn't enough room for the wheels to turn sideways at all, so I couldn't steer! I had to tear the go-cart frame halfway apart (which was a lot of work I could have saved myself if I had thought ahead), then put it back together again with the front end cut narrower. Then there was room for the board with the axle on it to pivot.

My second big mistake was using cedarwood for the sides of my go-cart. It made very thick, heavy walls that I felt would last forever. But they didn't. When my older brother and his friend tried to ride on the cart together, the two of them ran smack into a brick mailbox, and the sides of the go-cart split in half. (The two boys nearly did, too!)

I asked my dad how to fix it, and he suggested using thick plywood for the sides, since that wouldn't split. He also said I should require drivers to have a license or insurance to cover damages. Ha ha ...

After I fixed the sides of the go-cart with plywood, it was sturdy. It went amazingly fast, too. One of my friends, Eric Eidsvik, had a gasoline-powered go-cart. When he saw how much fun we were having using only people power, he tried to race mine without using his cart's engine. Eric thought that because his was a commercially made go-cart, it would cremate mine. So he brought his to the top of my racing hill at a nearby church parking lot.

Eric told me that since his go-cart was so heavy, it would go like the wind. Some of the neighborhood kids gathered around to watch and make bets and harass us with cheers and silliness. Well, I yelled "Go!" and, for good measure, gave him a push before I jumped on my own cart. He took off like a snail! I took off like a rabbit! He made about five feet for every ten yards that I covered.

So now I'm acting as a "consultant" to show Eric how to build his own wooden go-cart like mine.

My Second Go-Cart, "The Heavy Hauler"

Everyone in the neighborhood wanted rides on my Thunder Racer, so I soon saw that we needed to have another cart. I made the second one sturdier (I wanted to be able to use it for hauling things) and changed a few other things, as well (I learn as I go!). And since this time I used wheels from a busted lawn mower my dad had, I had to make my own axle.

I've had a lot of races between the Heavy Hauler (my second go-cart) and the Thunder Racer. Even though they both weigh about the same, the Heavy Hauler definitely goes slower. I think the thin lawn mower wheels of the second one just aren't as fast as those very sturdy, broad, Big Wheel-type wheels.

I like the longer axles the Heavy Hauler has, though. They made the cart easier to build (I didn't need to make the front end narrower), keep the cart very stable (although I've never come close to tipping over in either go-cart), and let me steer it more sharply. So most of the instructions in my section on building your own go-cart are based on the Heavy Hauler.

Fun, Fun, Fun

Sometimes when I take one of my carts out to ride it, I see friends that I haven't seen in a long time, or make new friends. Other times, a bunch of kids out riding on their bikes will stop and ask for a ride. Usually, they at least want to ask a lot of questions, because they've never seen anything quite like it. And when I tell them that I made the go-cart myself, they act like I'm some kind of wizard or something.

At times like that, knowing I built my go-carts myself is almost as much fun as riding them. Why don't you try it? Building a cart takes a bit of careful planning and attention to detail.

But it is definitely worth the effort.


Ten Simple Steps for Building a Really Good Go-Cart

  1. First make sure you have wheels, axles, and plenty of sturdy wood, plus all of the other materials you'll need. The main tools you'll use are a hammer, saw, wrench, and drill with bits.
  2. Start by building a frame. Use three 2-by-8 boards that are each about five feet long. You can substitute a lot of 2-by-4s for the 2-by-8s if you have to. (When I built the Thunder Racer, 1 used only two 2-by-8s and put a short 2-by-4 section between them in the back of the cart to make the boards angle in towards the front.) Cut three 2-by-4s to 23 inches in length for cross braces. Nail these under the main boards with 10d building nails, nailing some from the top and some from the bottom.
  3. Make your axles out of two steel rods, each 36 inches long and the same diameter as the holes in your wheels. This part is hard, so you may need some help. (My grandpa helped me.) Clamp each rod in a vise, and drill two holes (with an extra strong drill bit) in each end. Put a 1-inch cotter pin through each inside hole, then add two washers, a lawn mower wheel, two more washers, and another cotter pin through the outer hole. If you can find wheels already on axles-like the Big Wheel type I used on my first go-cart-you can skip this step.
  4. Put your axles on your 30-inch axle boards. You can do this with a lot of 1-inch fencing nails (putting the two points of each U-shaped nail on either side of the axle) or with 1 1/2-by-4-inch U bolts (drilling two holes on either side of the axle, sticking the U bolt through the holes, and tightening the nuts on the ends).
  5. Put the back wheel assembly on the cart. The back wheels don't have to swivel, so just use large nails to fasten the axle board securely to the frame. (Be sure it's perpendicular to the length of the frame.)
  6. Put on the front wheels, which do have to swivel unless you want a go-cart you can't steer! (See the drawing in the Image Gallery.) Drill a 3/8-inch hole through the very center of the axle board and another through the very center of the front of the go-cart frame. Push a 6-inch carriage bolt through the frame from the top down. Turn the go-cart upside down and put two thick 2 1/2-inch washers on the bolt. (You need the washers to keep the axle board and frame from rubbing against each other. Without them, the steering would be very stiff.) Then put the axle board over the bolt. Finally, add some more washers and screw two large nuts onto the threaded end of the bolt.
  7. Put sides and a back on the cart, if you want them. You won't need them if you're going to be using your cart just for hauling. If you have some sort of old seat you can add, put it in. (I used a piece of old shag rug in mine!)
  8. Add a brake (shown in the photos in the Image Gallery). Nail a 2-by-2-by-3-inch spacer block onto the outside of the sideboard or frame. Then drill horizontally through the sideboard and the block and put a 1 1/4-by-4-inch carriage bolt through this hole. Find an old wooden closet rod and saw off a 24-inch section. Drill a hole for the carriage bolt through the center of this rod. Now, find an old sneaker and cut off its back half by clamping the shoe in a vise and sawing it with a coping saw. Then stuff one end of the rod into the toe of the shoe and secure it all around with 1/2-inch staples and carpet tacks. Slide the rod onto the carriage bolt and fasten it in place with a washer and nut. You can also hook up a spring between the brake handle and sideboard with a couple of screw eyes to keep the brake shoe from constantly rubbing against the wheel.
  9. Put on a rope to steer with (and to pull the cart). Drill a hole in each end of the front axle board. Screw a 1-inch eyebolt into each hole and tie an end of an 8-foot rope to it. If you don't have eyebolts, you can just push the ends of rope through the drilled holes and knot them.
  10. Fancy the go-cart up however you want. I added a bike flag to mine, and that's probably a good idea, since it makes the cart (and me!) easier to see. You can also paint it, decorate it, and for real class-add an old license plate on the back!

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