Owosso Pulse: Michigan’s ‘Back to the Future’ autocycle
Battle Creek – Andy Segar noticed two police vehicles in his rear view mirror.
He was taking his beloved Pulse autocycle on a 15-mile spin from Bellevue to Battle Creek in August when he said he heard a police officer say over a PA system, ”‘Hey, I don’t have a reason to pull you over, but can you pull over so I can take a look at that?‘”
Segar owns Pulse No. 28, made in 1985 by the Owosso Motor Car Co., which is essentially a motorcycle in a cockpit that resembles an F-16 without wings. It’s one of an estimated 347 manufactured between 1985 and 1990.
Boasting the capability of 100 miles per gallon, the fiberglass Pulse was once believed to be the vehicle of the future. It even appeared in 1989 film ‘Back to the Future Part II’ – set in the not-too-distant year of 2015 – as the first vehicle Marty McFly sees as he walks out to Courthouse Square in Hill Valley.
In 2020, the Pulse is still cruising Michigan roads and beyond, although not nearly in the numbers early investors envisioned.
Yet the niche vehicle made in Owosso, a Shiwassee County town of roughly 15,000, still brings smiles and puzzled looks from passers-by and delight to a small but dedicated group of owners.
A rocket, airplane, bullet or spaceship?
On Labor Day, the LiteStar and Pulse Network hosted its 22nd rally in Toledo, Ohio.
Andy Segar and his wife, Ginger Segar, weren’t able to make the trip from Bellevue to the rally this year. But they would not likely own a Pulse if not for “crashing” the annual convention in 2017.
Andy said first learned of the Pulse 22 years ago, when a friend’s father let him go for a ride in the one he owned. He wanted the vehicle ever since but had to convince his wife before making an offer. So the couple set off for Marion, Indiana, on a whim, thinking they could learn more from Pulse owners in the group, which has accounted for 245 of the vehicles to date.
“They opened up to us with open arms,” Andy said. “On the way back, (Ginger) said, ‘You better have it done next year.’”
When Andy purchased his Pulse in 2017 – he declined to say for how much – the engine was blown and the interior had been chewed up by mice. He has worked to restore it to something close to its original design.
The couple has logged most of their roughly 700 miles in the autocycle this summer alone.
Ginger said riding in the Pulse is “an adventure.” The couple is regularly asked by strangers if they can take pictures, and they have informational cards they hand out so they can do things like pump gas without having to answer endless questions.
“It took time for me to get used to people waving and looking at it,” Ginger said. “I’m still learning more about it myself. I just wave and go from there. They are like, ‘Can we take pictures?’ We were at a drive-in in Olivet and a little boy asked to sit in it. We’ve heard rocket ship. An airplane. A bullet. One little girl said it was a spaceship.”
Today, a Pulse can generally be purchased in the $4,000 to $20,000 price range. Almost all have been modified, as parts are difficult to come by, especially the original canopy and windshield.
As for why he has invested so much into the 35-year-old vehicle, Andy explained, “I like the Pulse. I like what it stands for. I like that it was made in Michigan.”
Made in Owosso
The Pulse is the brainchild of the late aeronautical engineer Jim Bede, who designed the prototype that would eventually become known interchangeably as the Autocycle or BD-200, and later as the LiteStar and Pulse.
The first 15 LiteStar models were built in Scranton, Iowa. They were powered by Honda or Yamaha motorcycle engines. Eventually, the Owosso-built autocyles would operate under the name Pulse and offer Goldwing-powered versions, five-speed transmission and a reverse gear.
David Vaughn founded the Owosso Motor Car Co. in 1984, also serving as company chairman. He was a key member of an early group of investors brought together by the company president Ed Butcher to build the Pulse in Owosso. At its height, the company had 42 employees that turned over 12 Pulses a week in a 66,000-square-foot-factory at 501 South Chestnut St.
“We pulled together a crew and built the vehicle actually from almost scratch in Owosso,” Vaughn recalled. “It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of effort and we achieved a good vehicle, but not enough to go on forever.”
In 1986, production moved to a pole barn at Butcher’s 160-acre farm in Owosso after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“We worked our butts off trying to make it happen the way it should as far as vehicles are concerned,” Vaughn said. “It was a success to a degree. But we didn’t have enough money to make a real impact on our country.”
Butcher, who died in 2008, was perhaps the most ardent believer in the vehicle. Which also made him “the most bullheaded man in Shiawassee County,” according to a 1989 Detroit Free Press article.
“People don’t opt for a Pulse instead of an Oldsmobile,” Butcher was quoted. “The chief competition for the car comes from fur coats, diamond brooches and cigarette boats.”
The $80 million in annual sales Butcher predicted never materialized, although the vehicle did receive a healthy dose of publicity, as it was used in marketing for Coors, Budweiser, a Florida surf shop and a Michigan McDonald’s restaurant, among others.
After the Pulse appeared on a 1988 Fox television show, Universal Studios reached out to the Owosso Motor Co. about using two of its autocycles in “Back to the Future Part II.”
Owasso native, author and local historian Shaffer Fox recalled his hometown being excited about the attention given to the Pulse, but added, “It was just another cool thing that came out of Owosso.”
“Big things normally aren’t permanent anyway. This was a cool, big thing,” Fox said. “It was a unique vehicle, it was cool enough to be in the movie, it was another cool thing that came out of Owosso, of the many.”