European Motorcycles

Today in Motorcycle History

Sears Allstate Puch 250 Road Test

The motorized two-wheelers sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. (hereafter: Sears) during the fifties and sixties in the US were actually produced by three major manufacturers.  These were Cushman of the US, Piaggio (Vespa) of Italy, and Daimler-Steyer-Puch of Austria.  All these Sears units were essentially rebadged versions of the parent manufacturer’s wares.  The motorcycle in this test is from Daimler-Steyer-Puch, and was sold by Sears as the Allstate 250.  This motorcycle was first offered by Sears round about the mid-fifties for the princely sum of almost $500, and complimented a previously offered 175cc Standard and Deluxe version, and a rudimentary 125cc fan-cooled twist grip shift 3-speed fan-cooled single.  All four were sold in addition to the Allstate/Cushman and Allstate Cruisaire/Vespa line.  A Puch Moped was added to the catalog a couple of years after the introduction of the 250.  Apparently the 250cc was never offered in a “Standard” version (the equivalent of a Sears “Better” as opposed to “Best”) in the manner of the 175cc, and was always sold with chrome wheels, generator electrics, and other deluxe features. 

The “Standard” 175 sometimes had body color wheels and always a magneto system.  The earlier 250 was painted “Rich” or “Lustrous Maroon,” according to the catalog description.  The most abundant models found today were produced later and were finished in a shiny deep black.  The 175 was “Rich Medium Blue” for the standard and “Lustrous Maroon” for the Deluxe.  By the end of the run, the 175 had been dropped from the catalog and the 250 had lost a bit of charm with the introduction of the “Italian” models that used CEV switchgear and lights, with the body color black or red with silver painted tank and headlight case.  The tank on these models had lost the chrome panels and romantic teardrop shape in favor of a blocky more modern racer-style.  

As an aside, the fact that so many of the bikes keep appearing out of barns and fields can mostly be attributed to the very attractive “$50 down and $42 a month” purchase alternatives and home delivery advertised in the Sears catalogues.  You could order one and within a couple of weeks the truck would arrive at your door with your cycle in a crate whether you were in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest Plains, The Florida Keys, Manhattan or Maine.  Some Assembly Required.

A twin carb scrambler version of the 250 was sold for a couple of years alongside the toaster-tank models.  This bike used a tube frame, lightweight off-road fenders, dual ignition system, and a high mounted exhaust running up either side.  The catalog praise for this model was really very convincing in that, “Professional riders tell us that the Allstate scrambler handles so well that it seems to correct for the errors in the rider’s judgment.”  Now that’s what I need, because I make my share of judgment errors.  The statement was accompanied by a drawing of a very silly looking and grinning fellow wearing goggles and a soup bowl helmet.  This model was listed for a whopping $700.  That’s a lot of early sixties groceries.  However, although I have never actually seen one of these models for sale, I would imagine that the acquisition of one today could set a body back a whole lot of mid-nineties groceries.  Certainly, this enthusiast finds the machine highly desirable.  

Both the 175 and the 250 had the unique two-piston/common combustion chamber engine design.  This configuration is often referred to as the “Twingle,” although I’ve seen that designation applied to other types of engines.  That’s what I call them for now, at least until a better and more accurate handle comes along.  According to my meager historical resources this layout was used by at least one other manufacturer also of European origin, DKW, in their gran-prix racer in the 1930s.  Interestingly, the DKW folks also experimented with a third dummy cylinder lying horizontally forward at 90º (similar to a Ducati L-twin forward cylinder) to the twin cylinders that was used as a crankcase supercharger.  It has been written that the exhaust racket from this machine could be heard up to 3 miles from the track.  So never let it be said that my stodgy old Allstates have no heritage.  Besides that, as a 11 to 12 year old youngster I used to fall asleep with the Sears catalog open on my face to the motorcycle pages and that’s enough heritage for me.  What a wonderful, mystical beast was that huge black 250.  

Quickly here, I will remember my, what do the naturalists call it? Imprinting? from an Allstate 250, as it happened back in the halcyon 60s.  Most of us had some sort of small bike, mine happened (another story) to be an Allstate/Puch MoPed, but most of the guys had the bulletproof little Hondas singles or small displacement twins.  One day that summer one of the older fellows that hung around the gym and played basketball with us had unearthed this big black greasy thing that no one but me could identify.  I knew it from the pages of the Sears catalog, and the showroom way over in Huntsville.  Somehow I talked this guy into letting me ride his machine while he took my place on the court for a quick game.  We agreed that I would be back in ten or fifteen minutes which sounded like plenty of time, as if I wouldn’t have agreed to any amount.  Forty-five minutes later he tracked me down at the local gas station, and found me attempting to gas up both cavities in the fuel tank as I, realizing how late I would be, knew I would have to be very apologetic as well as offer some compensation when I finally returned.  When he had finished hollerin’ at me and had finally decided, with a lot of fast talking on my part, not to beat my ass, I was able to walk back to the gym thinking of how great it had been.  So much power, so big, so mean, and so stinky, smelly, and neat.  And even now, although I can remember having trouble then with shifting into second, I wondered why the folks who knew of them seemed to speak disparagingly of the Sears motorcycles.  Later of course, as being cool with a succession of Hondas, Triumphs, etc., came to mean much more than objectivity and open-mindedness, I began to use the Allstates and their ilk as an object of derision as well.  Smoky East-European dinosaurs, they became.  

The advantages of the subject engine design in the days before widespread use of the rotary valve in two-strokes lay basically in the enhanced ability to time the fuel air charge and in better combustion chamber scavenging.  Disadvantages are increased weight and complexity, of course.  In the Puch/Sears engine one cylinder is situated directly behind the other; the front contained the exhaust ports and the rear the intake ports.  The carburetor is mounted oddly on the left side of the front cylinder and is oriented rearward on the early bikes, directly to port side outboard on later models.  The pistons arrive at TDC a couple of degrees apart in order to provide the aforementioned advantageous charge/scavenge timing.  The engine is tuned in the Puch/Sears version to be very tractable at low RPM and to be reliable as the bike was built for post-WW2 Southern Europe.  The idea was to give the automobile and income starved populace affordable transport that would be effective in the Alpine geography.  The fact that Sears decided to import and sell this bike in the US had no bearing on its initial design and arrangement of parts.  

That’s a very brief history as I know it, and I realize that there will be hecklers and detail mongers pointing out discrepancies, but I believe I got it fairly close.  At least close enough to proceed with my evaluation of this beautiful old machine with my, admittedly baby-boomer out of focus, but present day jaundiced eye and posterior.

The unit used for this road test is model 810.94180 and was sold by Sears in the late fifties to early-mid sixties. Color for the particular model tested was “Lustrous Maroon” when new.  Tank panels, wheels, shocks, and various other trim pieces were chromium plated and were mixed in with scattered polished alloy pieces. .  A sprung solo seat was supplied with this model, with a similar one offered for pillion as an option.  Windshields, saddlebags, etc., were also available.

Starting a properly kept Allstate 250 from cold is relatively simple if one is accustomed to a variety of vintage bikes.  Here’s how I would tell the reader to do it.  Do not get on the bike first.  Turn on the fuel supply at the petcock, tickle the carb with the plunger on top of the float bowl until fuel leaks down the side, and turn the simple but effective choke disk so that the carb intake is closed off.  Push the BMW-style (Hella, I think) plunger type Ignition key down into position in the top of the headlight.  If the red generator and green neutral lights come on you’re ready to kick.  If they don’t they’re probably not working, but in that case it’s still a good idea to check manually that you’re in neutral.  Now, if you got on the bike to do all this in the beginning it’s best now, in my experience, to get off again and put it on the centerstand because the kick lever is on the left.  Upon hearing me complain about this arrangement once in the infield at Daytona an old Allstate aficionado asked me, “Why would ye want to git on the damn thang if it ain’t runnin’?”  Two healthy strokes on the kick lever with the throttle just slightly open is usually all it takes to get the relaxed two-stroke burbling away.  If it doesn’t crank this easily something is amiss.  Once running, immediately open the choke windows a bit to preclude fouling.  It’s possible to hop on now and ride away, but a few seconds in reach down and open the choke windows completely.  This last step requires the operator to look down at the choke disk since there is no positive indication of rotational position that can be felt.  Or you could stand there beside the bike until it warms a bit before riding away, I suppose, if you aren’t anxious to sample the subtle joys of riding this wonderful, torquey old machine.  

First is one down with the left side shift lever (unlike the classics from that foggy island off the French coast).  Engagement into first and pulling away using the clutch lever on the left bar is a smooth operation, but shifting into second on all the examples of this bike that I’ve ridden isn’t.  First is an extremely low ratio (probably for starting with passenger aboard with the bike pointed up an Alpine incline) and optimum power/torque rpms are reached quickly.  Second is up on the other side of neutral and engagement can require two distinct shifts to clear neutral.  Second ratio is quite a bit higher than first.  Maybe others can do it better than me, but I’ve never been able to get the set of gears that make up the second ratio to meet agreeably.  If I shift from first at low revs where things aren’t spinning so quickly the engagement to second is better but the ratio is so high that the engine bogs.  If I allow the revs and forward motion build to a proper velocity before shifting there’s a lot of unhappy gnashing of (gear and my own dental) teeth.  But after that the power, what there is of it, and torque build smoothly and shifts into third and fourth are much more gratifying.  I’ve found that even moderately high engine speeds do nothing to increase acceleration and that short shifting between the upper three ratios is not only more agreeable, but more effective.  The practical, utilitarian design of the engine really comes through here.  

Very few two-strokes of this capacity that I’ve ridden pull so well from low in the rev range.  The Suzuki TS250, a seventies vintage one-lung two-stroke enduro I used recently, pulled fairly well from down low but had a definite “On the pipe” area up the rpm range.  I know for a fact that the Yamaha Big Bear Scrambler (YDS3-C) that I drag out of its cave occasionally truly demands that a lot of noise and rpms be present to move on down the road.  But then the YDS would kick the do-do out of the Allstate in a sprint.  Amusing to note here that the stump pulling Puch engine is in a street bike, and that the peaky oriental unit is in a alleged scrambler.  But then we all know about early Japanese so-called scramblers.  The point is, the Allstate pulls well from down low, and excessive engine speed is a waste of time and motor.  

Through the corners the pressed steel frame performs adequately.  Things start touching down fairly early, even for yours truly, a fellow not known specifically for his curve slicing skills.  Little ‘bar effort is required to change direction, and the old Puch is willing to do so even after taking a set through a ‘rounder.  Never having had the delectation of using one of these machines with fresh suspension damping, it’s difficult to say how much that would help.  The dampers are rebuildable, but the parts are scarce and I’m never sure that I’ve done it as well as our Austrian buddies did originally.  With the large mufflers and silencers intact, and good main bearings, the machine is acceptably quiet, even to today’s more socially critical ear.  The aforementioned Yam Big Bear is much noisier.  

Seating position for my portly 6’ 2” and 235 lbs. is a bit cramped, but not too bad.  The pegs are bit forward for me in relation to the European bend ‘bars.  But that’s OK because the sprung solo saddle is so close to the front of the machine that that’s where I have to be anyway.  Me and the Allstate look pretty ridiculous together, sort of like John Wayne on a burro, only in this case the Allstate is prettier than me.  Note, however, that the ergonomics start to feel very natural as time and miles pass.  Later versions of the bike with the dual saddle, and eventually - with the “Italian” versions - a western handlebar height and bend, allow for more freedom of butt placement but don’t look or feel nearly as cool and continental.  

Stopping the Allstate is covered more than adequately by the large drums front and rear.  Probably another symptom of the Alpine heritage.  If it’s possible to go quickly and enthusiastically enough to cause fade in a well tended example I’ve never done it, but then I’ve never actually used one of these bikes in anger.  By and large, the brakes are up to their intended task.  

Maintenance on one of these old classics is fairly straightforward if parts can be found.  More on that later.  The points/condenser ignition, oil bath primary chain and clutch, and enclosed rear drive chain will provide years of service if looked after with a conscience.  The 250 utilitizes an oil pump in the engine case to provide a throttle related oil/gasoline mix.  The fuel tank incorporates a +/- quart sized oil tank in the left side, ergo the two caps on the tank.  The oil pump should be kept operational, as opposed to disengaging it and using pre-mix, since the oil is also injected into the main bearings by the pump.  The primary weak point in the otherwise very robust unit has to do with the engine top end.  According to my sources, the front pistons seem to burn up within five to eight thousand miles.  It is unusual to see a machine with more miles than that still retaining enough compression to run properly.  This probably usually has some to do with overly casual maintenance.  However, the exhaust piston is separate from the cooling incoming charge and is located directly behind the frame downtube and out of laminar air flow; not really optimal design.  Occasionally, one will come across an engine that just seems plain noisy, i.e., not piston slap or rod knock or whatever, and that overall noise is symptomatic of a main bearing having become rough and worn.  Altogether though, the motor and frame are very strongly built.  

Parts availability is quite limited, although MotorWest (see acknowledgments) seems able to eventually supply critical items, either from stock or upon request.  DomiRacer/Accessory Mart of Cincinnati OH (513/871.1678) also have a quantity of parts as they bought the remainder left in the States from Sears in the early 80s.  Cosmetic and accessory items, as with all vintage bikes, are the most difficult, i.e., chrome and other shiny bits, tool kits, tail lights, tire pumps, pillion seats, and so forth.  Additionally, it’s always a good rule with classic bikes (Definition dependent upon reader’s viewpoint) to purchase more than one example at a time if possible as a parts source.  Some seals and bearings can be purchased through specialized retail outlets.  

Overall, the shift from first to second not withstanding, riding the Allstate/Puch 250 motorcycle can be a Zen-like event.  It’s completely obliging and easy to get along with, as long as one doesn’t require a blistering pace that day (that’s where the Zen comes in).  As a similar life-lesson, I’ve found that in my small city when I go out shopping for building materials or hardware or whatever, I might as well set myself to the slow and rambling pace of my town, otherwise I end up just being pissed off and it all takes the same amount of time anyway.  Over the past several years, since my return to the motorcycling fold after a fifteen-year hiatus, I’ve come from thinking the Allstate ugly and silly, to viewing the visual and visceral elements of this motorcycle as ones of beauty, with form and function blended into a suprisingly beckoning whole.  There’s literally more character than a dozen of other certain cycles could ever muster.  Maybe even a hundred of them.  Realizing that there are those of us, myself included, who find this same magic on our Harleys, IN our Gold Wing Interstates, or aboard our long-legged Beemer Boxers, I have to say that very few machines fall to my eye and heart as easily as the Twingle.  But that’s me, all others must judge for themselves, give one a try.

Acknowledgments, wherein I must pay debts to some kind and helpful folks:

First and foremost, to Mr. Tom Bell of Florida near Orlando (407/295.8417) who is an Allstate Guru.  He has examples of most models of the 250s and has been messing with them and the 175s, Sabres, Compacts, and 125s, along with other East European two-strokes, for years.  He’s willing to answer questions from anywhere about any of these bikes.

To Matthew Quirk, of MotoWest in Brown Deer, Wisconsin (414/354.4154) who has lots of parts and access to even more, and knowledge of what fits what.  

The photographs are of a beautifully restored Allstate previously owned and restored by Mr. Stuart Echols of Florida.  This is not the bike I rode for the test, but does closely represent how it would have looked when new.