Sputnik the Space Junk UTV

Group editor Rebecca Martin shares the story of a UTV her father and grandfather built in the 1950s out of a single-cylinder engine.

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Pixabay/Nasa Imagery

The tinkerers in my family always had a design percolating in their brains. After a few days of considering their options, they’d fire up the welder and transform a pair of front wheel-bearing assemblies into bookends, or a pile of old iron pipe and leftover hog panels into a baseball backstop. This talent made for some interesting Christmas gifts.

When Dad and Grandpa decided to build something useful back in the late ’50s, they were inspired by the first artificial satellite, “Sputnik,” launched by the former Soviet Union. They decided to create their own Sputnik, but this Earth-bound version would be a UTV for tooling around the farm. Mind you, this was at least 20 years before commercial UTVs hit the market. We like to think they were decades ahead of their time.

Ironically, our little Sputnik ended up looking like space junk. Its distinctive appearance was largely due to a single-cylinder engine made by the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Co. These engines were easy to find and fairly inexpensive. Ours was vertical, mounted to the top of the UTV’s front, and looked like a robot head from “Lost in Space” or “Star Trek.” The gas tank and air cleaner housing resembled ears, and the rounded lower housing had the appearance of a sagging face. No battery necessary: You started the engine with the rope crank mounted to the bottom of the face. We kids drove Sputnik all over the farm, but only adults could start it after the pull start disfigured one of Dad’s fingers.

The rest of our UTV was scavenged from a Chevrolet car (rear axle, three-speed transmission, and clutch), farm equipment (drive shaft), and miscellaneous piles of scrap metal. The steering wheel likely came off a rusty truck, and the seat from an old tractor. Common to most single-cylinder engines, it made a putt-putt noise wherever it rolled — and it rolled a lot.

Sputnik first found a purpose at Grandpa’s car repair business, but eventually it moved to the farm. Sputnik was a useful gofer, capable of hauling a small trailer for tools and junk, but it wasn’t as successful at pulling implements.

The original Sputnik burned up reentering Earth’s atmosphere a few months after it launched. Our Sputnik also burned up, but in a barn fire. We’d used it for about 15 years. A few of its charred components linger on in the shelterbelt. It’s difficult to discard machinery with personality.


What types of tinkered inventions have you come up with, and how have you used them? Email me at RMartin@Grit.com.