Many people who grew up in the 1970s, '80s and '90s will likely remember cruising around the neighborhood on a Marx Big Wheel, a low-riding tricycle made of plastic. Now, a Big Wheel-style bike is available for adults, thanks to the work of a former aerospace engineer.
As a kid, Matt Armbruster dreamed of being an astronaut. As an adult, he got to work on mechanical systems for satellites and planetary spacecraft, including a number of different NASA spacecraft. But today, Armbruster's biggest engineering accomplishment is building low-riding tricycles for adults.
It may not seem quite as noble as building things that expand humanity's understanding of the universe, but Armbruster said the power of these trikes — which look like adult-size versions of the Marx Big Wheel for kids — is something to behold. [Cosmic Playtime: Toys in Space (Photos)]
"The original Marx Big Wheel was kind of like the best toy ever for entire generations," Armbruster said. "And it has a very deep emotional pull. As a kid, it's like your first taste of freedom and moving under your own power. And when you crashed it, it taught you how to take a hit and keep going. It's a deep childhood memory, and you see that when people ride them."
From aerospace to Big Wheels
Maybe it's just the power of hindsight, but Armbruster said bikes and space have both been recurring themes in his life.
"In high school, my jobs were in bike shops, so I loved mechanical stuff," Armbruster said. "But I wanted to become an astronaut. At the time, the two ways to become an astronaut were through the Air Force or becoming a mission specialist. So I chose aerospace engineering."
Armbruster spent 16 years at Starsys Research Corp., which is now part of Sierra Nevada Corp (among other things, Sierra Nevada is working on a design for a private spacecraft called the Dream Chaser. Many companies, including NASA, contracted Starsys to design and build mechanical systems of satellites and spacecraft, Armbruster said. He worked personally on projects for multiple NASA missions, including the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Geo Eye and Worldview, the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, the Sojourner rover and the Cassini spacecraft. Once, in order to test a component that would eventually go on the Spitzer Space Telescope, he flew in the Vomit Comet (an airplane that briefly simulates weightlessness) in order to test the component in microgravity.
After seven years on the engineering side, Armbruster moved into the marketing department at Starsys. Then in 2011, after a total of 16 years at the company, he decided to take a leap into the unknown. After a few months, he realized he already had an idea of what he wanted to do: make a Big Wheel tricycle for adults.
Introduced to the world in 1969, Marx Big Wheels were tricycles made entirely from blown (hollow) plastic, with a low-slug seat almost brushing the ground and a front wheel the size of a manhole cover. Instead of being attached with a chain, the pedals connected directly to the front wheel.
During his college years in Boulder, Colorado, Armbruster started a community pub crawl in which adults had to ride from bar to bar on a Big Wheel trike. (The so-called Big Wheel Rally continues to this day, and has since evolved into a fundraiser for the Saint Joseph's Hospital Foundation, to benefit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).
"I'd had the idea [of an adult Big Wheel] for years," Armbruster said. "I'm not the first guy to have this idea, and I thought for sure somebody had made it and I could just buy it. But nobody had."
In September of 2011, Armbruster started a Kickstarter campaign and raised $89,000, which he said verified that there was a market for the trikes. And somehwhat suddenly, Armbruster found he had become an entrepreneur. [Elon Musk Unveils 'Iron Man'-like Design Tech for SpaceX]
I met Armbruster at the 2015 North American International Toy Fair in New York City, where his High Roller bike stood out among many awesome toys. In a move that was most likely against the exhibit hall rules, he let me take the High Roller for a quick cruise down the aisle, causing a few pedestrians to jump out of the way. The bike was smooth, comfortable, and surprisingly powerful.
To get an idea for how the High Roller handles, check out this video from the point of view of a rider going downhill, posted to YouTube by Travis Heystek. The wide, plastic wheels and the short turning radius make it easy for the rider to slide out on a turn, or intentionally power slide.
When Armbruster left Starsys, he knew that he couldn't turn around and start manufacturing the trikes right away, because the children's Big Wheel bike could not simply be scaled up to fit an adult.
"People look at it and say, 'Oh that's an adult Big Wheel!'" he said. "But it wasn't just as simple as taking molds from the original and making it bigger. [If] you do that, it doesn't work."
On a low-rider tricycle like the Big Wheel, the pedals are almost straight out in front of the rider. A scaled-up version of the children's trike would make the rider's knees bump into the handlebars. Armbruster wanted to get around this problem, and make the bike easily adjustable to the rider's height. In addition, he had to make the bike sturdy enough for serious adult riders.
"I had to design a steel frame; I had to figure out all the bends and what attachments to use," Armbruster said. "A seat attachment had to be designed that was adjustable. [I] had to figure out the handlebars and stem length to give you proper knee clearance. [For] the rear wheels, we had to get our own custom molds made. I had to design the real wheels and make them manufacturable and figure out what kind of loads they were going to have to take."
"Because of all of these things, all of the new design, [the High Roller] only bears a resemblance to the original Big Wheel," Armbruster said.
The High Roller is a low-riding adult tricycle, with a steel frame, a comfy seat, and wide back wheels that have low grip, making them perfect for power sliding (in which the bike slides sideways on its back wheels).
Armbruster said his training as an aerospace engineer and his work experience at Starsys (a small company where "everybody did everything") that equipped him with the skills he needs now as the CEO of High Roller.
"The analytical side, the materials and design, the documentation, the test control, the program management, the marketing — all these things I learned in aerospace," he said. "My career allowed me, just a single guy, to go and produce a new product and bring it to market."
The High Roller is now available for order online and in some specialty shops and boutiques. It was featured in a segment on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," and at least two other major talk shows.
The company regularly hosts and attends "big wheel rallies" where people race the High Rollers. The comapany is also hired to host races at corporate events, car shows, bike shows, music festivals and other events. At last year's X Games, the company ran "about 400 races over 3 days for the spectators," Armbruster said. The High Roller took second place at the Pikes Peak Invitational drift trike races, reaching speeds in excess of 47 miles per hour. Armbruster said he rode a High Roller through the entirety of RAGBRAI — a seven-day, 468-mile (753 kilometers) bike ride across Iowa, and is getting a full team of High Roller riders together for this year's ride. [The Space Cycle: New Way to Exercise in Orbit]
"At these rallies, I've had guys in suits; I've had guys covered in tattoos; I've had people who do roller derby. We did an event with a lawyers association," Armbruster said. "All these people love it. Anyone can ride a High Roller."
It might seem like Armbruster has left his love of space behind, but he actually may be closer to achieving his dream of being an astronaut than ever before.
"I have since realized that the easiest way to become an astronaut is not by doing [aerospace engineering], but by making my first $50 million with this [company] and buying a ride with the Russians," Armbruster said. "I may actually get to space faster by making adult-sized Big Wheels than in aerospace engineering."