The world’s only collection of vintage carnival bumper cars licensed for the street will be displayed for the first time ever during Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Food Lion AutoFair, which takes place on a new date this year – Aug. 26-29.

All nine of the street legal bumper cars, which have been transformed into mini hot rods with motorcycle engines, working headlights, turn signals and windshields, will be on display at the four-day automotive extravaganza. The bumper cars will be joined by other Food Lion AutoFair attractions this August, including internet phenomenon 92-year-old Rachel Veitch and her 600,000-mile 1964 Mercury, Hippie Vans, the 70th anniversary of the hot rod icon 1940 Ford and a custom sports car build for Speedway Children’s Charities.

Licensed for the Street

The vehicles are the creation of an eccentric Southwestern businessman who prefers to be known as “Joe.” Fifteen years ago he bought a 1939 Lusse Auto Skooter to display in his office. The metal-bodied bumper car had given millions of rides at The Pike, a Long Beach, Calif., amusement park that closed in 1979, and Joe began to wonder why the fun had to stop. He converted the 90-volt direct-current motor to run off of an extension cord plugged into his shop and spent hours driving the Lusse around a parking lot.

Wanting more mobility, Joe asked a talented friend to build a frame so the Lusse could be modified with a gasoline powerplant and four wheels. A low-output Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine was considered as was an air-cooled 125cc Honda unit, but the modified carnival ride weighed a hefty 750 pounds. A Harley-Davidson Sportster V-twin was installed, but the air-cooled engine ran hot in its enclosed compartment. Joe and crew finally settled on a Kawasaki 500cc motorcycle water-cooled powerplant for the special Lusse.

Having created the world’s fastest Auto Skooter, Joe installed a complete wiring harness, halogen headlights, turn signals and a windshield. Although parts such as the steering box came from the dune buggy world, Joe bought spindles and calipers from Honda and major brake and suspension components from the desert racing aftermarket. Ten-inch aluminum wheels were shod with Goodyear street tires. Everything else had to be fabricated. He painted the 48-inch-wide, 62-inch-long two-seater bright yellow with red-and-orange flames and covered the mast with polished copper.

Eight more bumper cars quickly followed this first bit of inspired lunacy. Six were Lusse Auto Skooters; two were made by European builders. Because the completed machines met requirements for custom-built automobiles, Joe was able to register all nine mini hot rods for street use.

“People go nuts when they see my bumper cars,” Joe said, “but they aren’t for sale. I just finished a police car with full working lights and siren; it will be the last car I build for my collection. 

“I think everybody loves bumper cars because that’s where we got to drive for the first time.”

Bumper Car History

What we know today as the bumper car made its first appearance in 1920. Max Stoehrer had watched a young man drive a stripped Ford Model T haphazardly through a parking garage without hitting support posts or other cars. Spectators were having as much fun as the car’s driver, inspiring Stoehrer to create a carnival ride that allowed customers to race safely around an enclosed track and smash into one another while potential ticket buyers watched.

With some investor money and a patent pending for the first “Dodgem” ride, Stoehrer built 10 self-propelled, two-passenger machines and a special rink in Salisbury Beach, Mass. The first-generation Dodgem cars looked more like diner booths than anything one might see on the road. Controls were limited to a throttle pedal and a steering wheel sticking straight out of the car’s floor. A mast reached from the body to the rink’s ceiling to close the circuit that allowed 110-volt alternating-current electricity to reach the car’s motor. Primitive engineering made it difficult to steer the vehicle with any accuracy – a fact advertised as being just part of the fun.

America was in love with motorcars in the 1920s, thanks to Henry Ford’s mass-production techniques and the wildly successful Model T. As a consequence of this budding infatuation with the car, Dodgem sold its novelty rides to 136 parks in the United States and 14 in other countries during its first seven years. Competitors sprang up around the world, most notably Philadelphia-based Lusse, whose engineering innovations addressed Dodgem’s steering and control problems.

The industry evolved quickly. Dodgem began building bumper cars shaped more like automobiles in 1929. In the 1930s, Dodgem introduced products such as mechanical “targets” dressed as cartoonish police officers or clowns that made humorous noises when hit and bumper cars resembling motorcycles and circus animals. Cars with working headlights and taillights were common in the 1950s, and fiberglass bodies became popular by the end of that decade.

As theme parks became more sophisticated in the 1970s and ’80s, children and adults spent their money on other rides. Bumper car rinks can still be found in many countries, including the United States.

Food Lion AutoFair

Hours for the Aug. 26-29 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Adult tickets are just $10 and children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or go online.