Pee Wee Power!
To some, putting one's child on a motorcycle seems like a dangerous act. But it doesn't have to be that way if you shop carefully for the right bike.
Something, perhaps, like Yamaha's little PW50. The 49cc 2-stroke machine was the beginner bike many parents were searching for when it first debuted in 1981. With a mild and manageable power output and its easy-to-handle diminutive size, the PW50 quickly became one of the hottest selling motorcycles in the Yamaha lineup over the next 20 years.
Yamaha designed the pint-sized motocrosser with learning in mind. The mild-mannered air-cooled engine has an automatic transmission that gives kids the chance to learn balance and correct riding technique without having to simultaneously worrying about shifting.
Without a clutch, all that is needed to make the little P-Dub go is a twist of the throttle. Don't look so frightened at the thought of your child pinning it though! Yamaha was thinking ahead and installed a throttle limiter that allows parents to define the term "wide open." If only the rest of life's lessons were so easily managed!
The limiter is simply a screw that is placed on the throttle to determine how far the rider can twist the throttle. If a child is quick with the wrist but isn't as quick to find the brake, simply turn the screw in and you have an instant reduction in power and acceleration. As your child gets more comfortable on the PW, a turn of the screw is all that's needed to open up the 49cc engine a bit.
The Perch is built onto the handle bars which means if they break mom and dad have to spring for a new set of bars
Observing kids riding the PW, it's clear the little motorcycle does an admirable job of delivering predictable power throughout the powerband. The PW doesn't exhibit an abrupt jump in power in the upper echelon of the powerband the way a typical 2-stroke does, even when the throttle limiter was screwed all the way out. This kid-friendly power helps create confidence in young riders by allowing them to get familiar with two-wheel dynamics without being intimidated by too much power.
Once the kids learn to enjoy the smooth powerband, something's got to bring them to a halt. The front and rear 80mm drum brake at each end aren't high-spec units, but they proved to have ample power for our group of test riders. A few of our kids were even surprised at the amount of stopping power available.
Brakes are actuated by bicycle-style handlebar-mounted levers for both the front and rear. Most riders that are young and starting out don't need the extra worry of finding a rear brake at their feet and a front brake up top. The simple design of the brakes on the handlebars makes learning very easy. However, one parent in our test group felt as though the brakes on the handlebars were problematic because it didn't teach kids the proper controls of a motorcycle.
"I wish the controls were more realistic," said Brian Chamberlain, father of one of our test riders. "I can understand how making it simple can help, but when a kid finally gets on a real motorcycle there's definitely going to be some confusion when they go for the rear brake and find the clutch."
A host of protective features, like the throttling limiting screw, make the PW50 the class leader in rider safety.
Furthermore, the rear brake perch is mounted directly to the handlebars, which means breaking a perch would require a new set of bars. In addition, the throttle apparatus is linked to the front brake in one piece. Falls and mishaps could potentially get expensive if a child has a habit of breaking the perch.
Of course, as we found out when our group rode the PW, the instinctual braking system they use first is not the hand brakes but rather the Fred Flintstone feet-to-the-ground method. With the lowest seat height available at 19.1", the PW allows just about all kids to touch their feet to the ground when stopped and hold the feather-weight 82-pound bike upright with ease.
Luckily, dragging their feet isn't dangerous thanks to Yamaha's attention to safety details. The case-reed engine is nestled well inside a tubular steel frame, so no extraneous parts get in the way of the rider's legs. The exhaust pipe has been routed inside the tubular frame and exits low and along the side of the rear wheel to eliminate the possibility of accidental burns. Further enhancing the safety of the PW is the shaft drive, which not only requires much less maintenance than a chain, but is also less dangerous to little fingers and toes.
Also making maintenance quick and easy are the mag wheels. Kids love 'em, and the 2.50x10-inch wheels are easy to clean and eliminate the possibility of bent or broken spokes.
Yamaha rerouted the exhaust away from the rider's legs to cut down on the potential for accidental burns.
All these features are a great relief to parents seeking a safe and reliable machine. But if the kids don't like it, it simply won't do. Luckily our test group of kids came away from the PW ride grinning from ear to ear.
One of our testers, a dewey-eyed blonde named Luke was previously riding a Honda XR50, which dad deemed a little too big for the 4-year old. One ride on the PW, and it was clear Luke had found the perfect scooter for him.
"We tried to get him on the XR50 when he was three, which was a little too tall and heavy.," said Luke's father, Brian. "Plus the PW seems a little safer with the shaft drive and the rerouted exhaust. It's a great bike for him to learn on and he's starting to improve already."
When asked what he thought of the PW, Luke was a little on the shy side, but did manage a big smile and a few words about his latest bike.
"It's fun, but I wish it were yellow," said Luke.
For that, however, Luke would have to go find one of the original yellow and black versions. The PW, with the exception of color changes, has gone largely unchanged during its 22-year history and it still employs the easy maintenance Auto-lube oil-injection system that does away with the hassle of using pre-mix fuel. Simply keep the oil reservoir filled along with the 0.5 gallon gas tank and the PW does the rest.
Kids will love the fact that the PW looks just like the big bikes they see on tv and at Supercross events.
The bike is fun to ride and seems to soak up all the little bumps thanks to the four inches of travel from the telescopic forks. The rear suspension also does well to keep the kids from getting bucked off considering its paltry two inches of travel in the spring-loaded dual shocks. It works well enough for most kids, but you'll want to pass on the triple jumps.
Quite possibly the best feature of the PW50 is the ultra-quiet motor. Most motorcycle enthusiasts know the noise level of a bike can not only limit where you ride, but also be a source of fear for young children. Luckily, the PW50 is on its best behavior, putting out so little noise you could run it in a suburban backyard and the neighbors wouldn't be the wiser.
Another cool but necessary feature is the PW 50's centerstand. Because the bike is automatic, neutral is not an option. So when you first fire up the bike, use the stand to raise the rear wheel and you're free to rev the little engine while it reaches operating temperature. At idle, the rear wheel doesn't move at idle, so there's little fear of an unwary kid wandering near a spinning knobbie.
The PW50 was designed to get kids up and riding. As good as this little two-stroke is, it's tough to imagine a kid not loving every moment on Yamaha's entry-level dirt bike.
So, what age is right for the PW? It all depends on your kid and their ability to ride. But as a general guideline, the PW50 is made for kids to start riding around the age of four, depending upon their strength. While it's difficult to judge exactly when a kid is ready to begin riding, most of the kids in our group seemed to deal well with the size and power of the bike - with the use of the throttle limiter, of course.
Once kids reach the age of six or seven it might be time to step up to a more performance-oriented bike like a Honda XR50 or a KTM50. However, for young first-time riders, there's no question the PW50 is at the top of a short list for best beginner's bike.
With a suggested retail price of $1149, the PW is also the right price and might be the perfect way to introduce your son or daughter to the wonderful world of two wheels.