Ride on time.
The horse and horseless carriage are more connected than we give either credit for. In this second episode of the car’s youthful attraction, we have to step back to the US state of Missouri, 1930. One James Otto Hahs decided to create for his children a most wonderful Christmas gift, a mechanical horse ride. Inventive as he was, Hahs obtained some mohair and a cow’s tail from the local abattoir which he then fashioned over a hand-carved wooden buck, all connected to a mechanism within.
The Hahs children loved their horse ride, as did their friends. Realising its sales potential, he then set to work making a more production friendly and therefore commercially viable version with one key aspect in place – paying for the ride. Carving wood and using real hides was expensive and heavy. Hahs found a way of casting aluminium and using lighter materials for dressing. Teaming up with a distributor earned him 5% of the profits but it would take a score more years for the ride’s true impact – that of the shopping centre.
1950s America had plenty to spend, and the strategic placing of colourful rides became an important tool in encouraging folks to splash the cash. Outside a candy/ sweet shop was an obvious choice. Both inside and outside of the department store, the parents might need to placate their bored offspring before, during and after purchasing that new washing machine. One example being a Greenpoint, Brooklyn store who ditched the soda fountains for fourteen kiddie rides, witnessing revenues shooting upwards by hundreds of dollars a week.
As with Hot Wheels, licensing became a huge part of the deal as did the progression from horses to vehicles – be that rockets, buses, tanks and of course, cars. The running of such machines fell to specialist companies; vending machine operators simply weren’t interested. A 2012 estimate believed the US had 2.8m soda machines, 12m snack vending machines and just 55,000 kiddies rides. And even if the average range of ages has dropped from around eight or nine to five, (the lure of the video game getting ever stronger) there’s still a niche market that can bring automotive joy.
The ride has to endure not only the elements but the tantrums of those infant drivers. Your author has distinct memories of enjoying the ride one moment, twirling the wheel, honking the horn, etc to plunging into wails of despair as the ride stopped. Recent observations see this behaviour occurring, frequently.
Whilst OEM car manufacturers spend untold amounts on crash testing, the ride makers too have invested heavily in technology. Fibreglass, today’s material of choice, can be intricately fashioned into shapes that when painted, pertain to wheeled transport. Girona, Spain based Falgas have produced their own rides since 1965. Founded as a ride operator five years previously by Señor Joachim Falgas, they now offer delights such as an F1 car, a London bus, the ‘great off-roader’ that Magneto is, along with a fire truck, complete with ladder.
Most rides seat two, the bus accommodating four. Also available is a taxi, tractor and tipper truck (doesn’t actually tip) including a Porsche-like Roadster and perennial hit, the 60’s surf van. Averaging 130Kgs, modern rides come equipped with LED’s, exciting colour schemes and the ubiquitous video game – the ride alone no longer being sufficiently stimulating, it would seem. The Falgas repertory still includes horses, carousels and trains.
Zamperla are based in Vicentina, Italy. The ride company who invented the bumper car in 1969 – a different kind of youthful automotive experience. Now focusing on larger, theme park variants, kid’s entertainment has been brought into the 21st century with 3D planning, built-in safety and exemplary workmanship.
Closer to home is the firm of Jolly Roger. Established thirty years ago in the coastal town of Skegness, Lincolnshire, the company now operate under the Photo-Me banner – they of passport photo booth fame. Producing some 1,200 rides per year, the majority are exported. Blending modern and swinging Sixties themes, the range starts with Hank the Hot Dog van at £3,500 leading up to the Speedway Carousel at £6,500. Hank can also be specified as an ice cream machine.
Jolly Roger also make Bykero, a motorcycle with enveloping bodywork along with a licence to produce Bing, a character hailing from CBeebies (a BBC kid’s show) who also has a friend named Talkie Taxi. There’s also IXPod, an egg-shaped car that is more video game than actual ride. The Fun Bus and Eco Freddy, a refuse truck, can both seat three – the perfect recipe for tears before MacDonalds…
The sales and servicing side are a JR forte. With minimal assistance, a ride can last upwards of thirty years. “There’s a strong Chinese manufacturing industry but they’re more throwaway and not built to last,” says director, Dave Watson. “As with any kind of business vehicle, they have to earn their keep with minimal problems and downtime”.
A car ride receiving a great deal of attention is the Spydero. A two-seat roadster in striking primary colours, consisting of alloy wheels, ventilated disc brakes which sport red callipers along with an engine on view through the clear plastic canopy. “Bugatti asked us to alter the front grille – they thought it too close to their Veyron.”
Once more, fibreglass is the go-to covering of a reinforced steel frame in attempts to ward off those bruising infants. Watson alludes to the Spydero’s windscreen frame needing additional reinforcement. “It’s surprising how much strength a little ‘un can muster. We also had to delete the cars pedals as they were an easy target for theft and vandalism.” Start ‘em young…
A new ride from JR looks to the past in the shape of a 1957 Chevrolet, causing almost as much fuss as the faux VW rocket ship. “This car satisfies a desire for a return to the past and a cosier, more secure world,” believes Watson.
Not bad for a one-pound coin and around ninety seconds of play.
Data Sources: Theatlantic.com, Falgas.com, Autocar 20/11/20