• Rob Butterfield


Some scrap wood, old pram wheels and a bit of rope. The joys of the homemade go-kart.

Homemade go-karts from the 1970's. Image by monsis101 on

Who remembers building their first go-kart? (For any Americans who might be reading this we’re talking ‘soap box racer’). A couple of pieces of wood, some old pram wheels (why was there always a never-ending supply of pram wheels when I was a kid?), a box for a seat, a bit of rope to steer it and you were good to go. No need for brakes for us kids – although I do recall some of the ‘smarter’ kids affixing a piece of wood to the side of the seat just in front of the rear wheel. Pivoting on a bolt you could push it forward to touch the back wheel. The trouble was, braking on just one wheel when you’re travelling at speed could cause the kart to spin – not so smart now eh? Give me the friction of my shoe soles against the wheels any day! Although I have to say that falling off or crashing into something was the more common method of stopping.

For many it was a first foray into the world of engineering – just basic skills and basic knowledge required, and you could be an Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda or James Hunt for the day. I wonder how many kids ended up with the building of their first go-kart leading them on to a career in race car design or even a racing driver? You’ve got to start somewhere!

Go-karts weren’t just the stuff of the 60’s and 70’s though. Not at all. The first ever organised ‘soap box derby’ was recorded in America in 1934 and continued through the decades to be the focus of many an aspiring engineering student as they pitched design and technology innovation against their rivals - usually with the help of a corporate sponsor.

This fine art of potential self-harm was passed down from generation to generation; from my grandad, to my dad, to me. Sadly, I never passed this down to my son. Through my teenage years the attraction of these mean machines as a street sport was on the wane. There were cool bikes on the market alongside slick looking, safely engineered pedal karts with brakes and a steering wheel (I ask you, where was the fun in that?). And then there were skateboards and with them came knee and elbow pads, crash helmets and a keen regard for health and safety. Oh, and the realisation that once you’d got to the bottom of the hill you had to drag the damn thing back up again! Society wasn’t cut out for this anymore.

Red Bull Soap Box Race London 2013. Image from

That said though, the hunger for building a person-powered go-kart never disappeared, in fact it has seen a recent growth in both skill and sophistication. Who’d have thought that we’d ever have such a thing as the Red Bull Soap Box Race? An international and now televised event where amateur drivers race homemade non-powered soapbox vehicles on specially designed tracks in locations such as London, Brussels, Helsinki, St. Louis, Johannesburg and Tokyo. It’s big media business and participants compete not just for the glory but for trophies and money-can’t-buy prizes.

For today’s kids the art of the go-kart is not dead. It just seems that it’s got a bit more sophisticated, a whole lot safer (which in reality isn’t a bad thing) and just a bit too corporate. But that’s the world we live in!

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