Prairieville — A local auto technician is turning reclaimed, inoperable lawn equipment into modes of transportation.
Austin Smith, 21, who works as an auto technician by day, is equal parts environmentalist, mechanic and artist in his time off.
He refurbishes broken lawn equipment and bicycles and puts them together in his Prairieville shop to create customized
motorized bicycles — faster, and less sweaty, than a regular bike, and much more fuel efficient than a motorcycle or vehicle.
The vast majority of his parts he acquires for free — off the side of Baton Rouge roads in neighborhoods like Magnolia Woods, where his father grew up and his grandmother still lives.
“You wouldn’t believe what people just throw away,” he said. “And most of the time, I can have them running again for $10. As long as the motor has compression, I can use it.”
It’s an odd hobby, he admits, but his friends aren’t complaining.
Neither is he.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’ve had. I can have the worst day, and when I walk into the shop, it all goes away,” Smith said.
It takes a unique way of looking at the world to repurpose to the degree Smith can.
“I look for old metal bed frames to build the mounts. I could go buy the same stuff at the hardware store, but I never need to,” he said.
When he and a friend built their first motorized bike in high school in Destin, Florida — he was 15 or 16 at the time — the two couldn’t afford a welding machine, so they made one using two old microwaves.
“I think my buddy’s still got that thing,” he said.
He’s been repurposing everything around him ever since.
He designs and welds the motor mounts himself, and uses repurposed springs from car trunks and old door hinges to build what essentially acts as a clutch on the hybrids.
That means riders can disengage the motor, if they need to, and power it with the pedals. If they run out of gas. They get about 100 miles to the gallon.
He’s clocked his machines going up to 40 mph, he said, though the speed ultimately depends on the bike and the motor.
He’s used motors from leaf blowers, string trimmers and chain saws, though just about anything with a single cylinder motor would work.
“I made one for a friend of mine when he was going to LSU, and he used it to get around campus,” he said, adding that the hybrids are a great, low-cost option for smaller, bike-friendly areas like campuses.
All he needs is a bike — “any kind. BMX, scooter, beach cruiser,” and any kind of motor — “leaf blowers, weed eaters, chainsaws,” and he can do the rest, he said.
“When I get the parts, I can envision what it will look like,” he said. Also, he hates seeing things go to waste. For that reason, he can usually produce a machine for less than $300.