This little charmer was in the first wave of Japanese bikes to enter the U.S. market, thanks to Hap Jones, a motorcycle racer and businessman of considerable note. Hap had been selling British bikes in the 1950s, and then decided to get out of the retail business, focusing on his more profitable distribution side. And the Japanese manufacturers were just getting interested in American buying habits, with Honda opening up for business in 1959, Yamaha in 1960.
So Hap got on the phone to Japan in 1961 and had a chat with the Tohatsu suits, who were undoubtedly very happy at the thought of getting into the burgeoning U.S. market, especially with a well-known and highly respected gent like Hap Jones. They arranged for a couple of 50cc Runpet models and several 125s to be sent over, a deal was struck and Hap introduced them to the world with a full-page ad in the January 1962 issue of “Cycle” magazine…quite unusual for a start-up to spend that kind of money. Then he had the good fortune to have a rider on a Tohatsu 125 win the lightweight Sportsman road race at Daytona, which gave him great publicity. Within a few months he claimed to have 300 motorcycle dealers and a number of sporting-goods stores carrying the Tohatsu line.
What was this little Runpet Sport? And this Tohatsu Company? The word is a combination of Tokyo and “hatsudoki” (engine factory), the origins going back to 1922 and the Takata Motor Research Corp., which made its reputation by building a small motor for a highly successful rail-track car. The name was changed to Tohatsu in 1939, and the company became focused on producing military equipment, including small motors to run little generators. War came and went, the factory survived, and it began selling these little motors to other companies building motorized bicycles. “Heck, we can do that ourselves,” some executive said, and Tohatsu began selling kits for bicycle owners to mount themselves, with gas tank, exhaust system and bracketry.
Better yet, it would build a sturdy bicycle, with a telescopic fork. In 1953 the Puppy appeared, powered by a 58cc two-stroke. Not a very attractive vehicle, but mildly efficient. In the mid-’50s the Japanese were all desirous of personal transportation and some 80 companies were competing in the motorized two-wheeler market. By 1956 Tohatsu was the biggest of the lot, selling 70,000 motorbikes, twice the number that Honda was. But competition was getting fierce, and the serious outfits like Honda, Yamaha and Bridgestone were busy modernizing their products, while dozens of the small operations were shutting down. Unfortunately Tohatsu’s success was followed by some major financial mismanagement, with lots of borrowing going on to keep the company afloat. In 1960 the government, through something called the Rehabilitation Act, arranged for Tohatsu to be bought by the Fuji Electric Manufacturing Corporation, the presumption being that this larger concern might be able to get Tohatsu back on its financial feet.
Motorcycles were just a part of the Tohatsu Company, with marine hardware, from bilge pumps to outboard motors, being more important. However, the two-wheeler R&D boys had been hard at work with new models now at hand, including the 50cc Runpets, the Japanese advertising saying in translation, “…with the accent on having fun!”
The Runpet Sport was indeed a sporty creature, with a highly tuned 49cc piston-port engine, fed through a TK carburetor that, like the Amals of the day, had both a tickler and a choke. A single-disc clutch connected to a three-speed gearbox. The factory claimed it put out 6.8 horsepower at 10,800 rpm and was capable of speeds in excess of 60 mph. Quite astounding for a street-worthy little single! It should be noted that 50cc racing was quite popular back then, especially in Japan.
Unfortunately Tohatsu did not get into developing automatic oiling, and owners had to do things the un-fun way, mixing the oil with the gas. As well as kickstarting the tiny terror. Tohatsu had put an electric starter on its basic Runpet with a lower state of tune, intended for the commuter and housewife, but the Sport was to live up to its name.
Chassis was simple, with a large tubular steel backbone frame from which the engine hung, two bolts securing the head; two more were down at the back close to the swingarm pivot. A telescopic fork up front. Two pairs of arms went back from the main frame to hold the saddle and places for bolting the tops of the two shock absorbers.
The 17-inch wheels had drum brakes, and the distance between axles was 44.5 inches. A 100 mph speedometer (rather optimistic) sat in the headlight nacelle, and a very small windshield served to enhance the sport look. A short saddle and no passenger pegs indicated that this was a one-up ride. But you could get the groceries, as there was a small luggage rack and two tiny pannier bags, made from the hide of a Nauga. Total weight was 135 pounds.
There were several options as to presentation, and this one has the scramblerish high pipe and small skid plate. Shiny chrome fenders and nice paint on the tank and side panels enhanced the image. The company was also putting out new two-stroke models, designed with American riders in mind, like a 125 parallel twin with four gears and 15 horsepower.
All to no avail. Bankruptcy was declared in 1964 and the motorcycle side was shut down. We don’t know how many Runpet Sports were sold by the 300 dealers Hap Jones claimed were carrying the brand, but there don’t seem to be many in the used-bike lists.