In the 1960s, General Aviation was seeing an explosion in popularity. Average middle class people were getting their pilot’s license and learning to fly for both business and pleasure. The thrill of flying an airplane to a vacation destination or just to go someplace for lunch was now being enjoyed by an ever-increasing number of people.
But once one arrived at their destination, ground transportation could be a hassle. Small GA airports seldom had rental car agencies and, if one was lucky, the local FBO might have a beat-up courtesy car you could use as a loaner.
Enter Lawrence “Larry” S. Shapiro who saw the need and created a solution in the Suitcase Cycle.
Shapiro’s first airplane was a Stinson that he bought when he was 18 years old. In 1941 he began a 37-year career with United Airlines. A captain at 23, he retired in 1978 with 35,000 hours in Boeing 247s, DC-3s, -4s, -6s, -7s and Boeing 747s. During this time he also often flew his own small plane on vacations and for pleasure. If was on these trips in a small plane to out-of-the-way fields that Shapiro saw a need to carry one’s own ground transportation.
In the mid-1960’s Shapiro began work on taking a standard small motorcycle and modifying it into a cycle that would fit into the luggage compartment of most small planes of the day.
By the time it was perfected, the Suitcase Cycles had 90 custom parts that allowed the cycle to be taken apart or put back together in just minutes without the use of any tools.
After showing his prototype around, and seeing the interest from other pilots, he decided to form a company to make the cycles. Thus S & K Suitcase Cycles was formed, later to become just Suitcase Cycles.
Larry Shapiro at retirement from United Airlines
The front of the Santa Monica facility
“The business started in the garage at our family home in Westchester, California, in the late 1960s.” said Shapiro’s son Jeff. “With steady growth and positive feedback from pilots that found themselves stranded at remote locations without any transportation, the Suitcase Cycle was the perfect answer. While adding new and larger motorcycles to our production line sales dramatically increased.”
It wasn’t long before the company had moved production to the Santa Monica Airport and employed 12 people with Jeff and his brother Greg deeply involved in the company.
“At peak manufacturing, our Suitcase Cycle production models included the Suzuki 100cc, 125cc and the freeway legal 185cc model. Honda models included the CT90, CL100, and SL125 models,” said Shapiro. “We even had a customer that asked us to convert his Yamaha 360cc model and another customer with a Honda 175cc model. Both successfully converted and fit into their aircraft.”
Over the years of production, a number of different model were available including three different do-it-yourself kits. But the most popular seemed to be the Honda CT90 Trail Bike.
Brochures from the period (some featuring Jeff Shapiro’s sister Gayle on the back of a cycle driven by his brother, Greg) showed how the Suitcase Cycles in action. Others showed how it could be put together and ready to ride in five minutes or less and neatly stowed away in the Cessnas, Beechcrafts, Pipers and Mooneys, both large and small. Accessories included hard sided luggage, vinyl soft cases, and helmets.
Jeff estimated that there were around 1,000 suitcase cycles built, including the sale of the do-it-yourself kits. But unfortunately production came it a halt in 1974. “We stopped manufacturing Suitcase Cycles because of the issues with product liability laws,” said Shapiro. “This was a time when everyone began being sued for anything and everything. Plus, some of our suppliers were told by Honda and Suzuki not to sell motorcycles to us. They still did but I believe they suffered consequences from the big boys.”
That wasn’t the end for Larry Shapiro. Although few have probably heard his name, he made a number of significant contributions to general aviation industry.
Besides his Suitcase Cycle, he founded Turboplus in the mid-1980s. Under his leadership the company designed and manufactured ram-air intercoolers for a variety of turbo-charged airplanes. He also founder Spoilers, Inc., a company that manufactures hydraulically actuated aerodynamic spoiler systems for pressurized piston-powered aircraft and is run today by his son Jeff.
Shapiro died at the age of 82 in 2001. But his Suitcase Cycle has seen a bit of a rebirth in recent years as it has been rediscovered my motorcycle enthusiasts who are restoring and even riding these bikes. Those lucky enough to have one often cherish them and marvel at the engineering genius that went into its design.
From a former employee:
"I was a student working for Bill Krause Sportcycles (the K in S&K) back in the 1960s, and met Larry Shapiro about the time I graduated from college in June 1969. Having just been promoted to asst. manager of the store I was given the responsibility of helping sell these bikes to pilots who wanted convenient mobility. As a licensed pilot I was able to talk the language, and I recall taking the suitcase cycles out to the local airports on numerous occasions and demonstrating how easy it was to load them into the cargo holds of small aircraft. I also recall that Larry was a great guy, and he even took me for a spin in his Cessna 310 twin-engine plane.
At the end of November, 1969 I left Krause to report for active duty at Fort Ord, CA and never saw Larry again. However, I have fond memories of that time, and am glad that I had a great association with a terrific guy."