Roller coasters and their trainloads of screaming passengers hog skylines and get most of the glory. Spinning carousels with their majestic prancing steeds and lively band organs project auras of charm and nostalgia. Towering Ferris wheels, bathed in colored lights, sparkle against night skies.
Bumper cars, however, are housed inside buildings away from the tumult of the midway and typically get lost in the shuffle. The ride may not have the panache of other classics, but bumper cars have been essential attractions from the earliest days of amusement parks to the present. Getting behind the wheel of one is a rite of passage. No visit to a park is complete without landing a good ka-thunk or two.
One of the first bumper car rides may have been the Witching Waves at Coney Island’s Luna Park, according to Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project. The attraction debuted at the New York amusement mecca in 1907 in a large outdoor oval along the Bowery. The cars were not powered by electricity, but relied on an undulating floor to propel the low-slung vehicles, which passengers steered using levers.
There were other attempts at one-off attractions, but the bumper cars that we know today can be traced back about 100 years ago to the Dodgem Corp. in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They included long contact poles that scraped along an electrified grid ceiling and transferred power to the cars. The distinctive poles remain to this day on many bumper car attractions, and the occasional arcing sparks they generate and the smell of ozone they produce are among the ride’s idiosyncrasies. Some bumper cars forego the poles and draw power from floor pickups.
Unlike the precision rack-and-pinion steering found on modern automobiles, the wheels on the original Dodgems were more aspirational in nature. “The early cars were kinda clunky,” says Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. “If you turned the wheel to the left, it might go right and vice-versa.” (Futrell should know a thing or two about the ride since he has a vintage bumper car in his basement.) The balky steering probably made the experience, where the goal has always been to bump other cars and dodge the cars trying to bump you, simultaneously frustrating and giddy.
As the rides evolved, the steering improved. But one of the attraction’s peculiarities has been the cars’ ability to go backward. It’s often a requirement to get out of a multicar pile-up or to free a car that gets pinned into a corner. The cars don’t have gearshifts, but drivers can go in reverse by turning the steering wheel 180 degrees, which faces the front wheels backwards.
The Dodgem Corp. installed its first bumper car attraction a few miles away from its shop at Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts in the early 1920s. (As with most seaside amusement areas, the Dodgem as well as most of the other rides and attractions at the beach are gone.) In the late 1920s, the Lusse Brothers, a shop in Philadelphia, developed its own version of bumper cars, which it called Auto Skooters. Throughout the 1920s, the two competing companies sold hundreds of bumper cars. The ride quickly became a staple at the many parks that used to dot the country, such as Euclid Beach in Cleveland, which closed in 1969.
Nearly 100 years after they were introduced, the rides are still going strong. What accounts for their enduring popularity? “Bumper cars epitomize the fundamental appeal of amusement parks: a sense of escape,” Futrell theorizes. “You can do things you can’t get away with in real life.” For example, rather then fantasizing about road rage, the whole purpose of the ride is to smash into other vehicles. The only caveat is to avoid head-on collisions, as many bumper car attractions warn riders with large signs.
Another huge selling point: Kids can drive them. For many children, their first experience behind a wheel is plowing into other kids in bumper cars. Even when they can’t reach the pedals, kids love hopping into a car alongside a parent or older sibling and commandeering the wheel.
The amusements used to sprawl across a much larger swath of Coney Island than they do today. Denson, who grew up in the shadows of the area’s many roller coasters, recalls that there used to be at least six bumper car rides. He remembers the skill it sometimes took to operate them.
“The best job in Coney was the one where you broke apart tangled bumper cars while the ride was in motion,” Denson says. Attendants would stand on the bumper that surrounds a car, hold on to the contact pole with one hand and the steering wheel of the occupied vehicle with the other, and try to get the car in motion while other cars were slamming into it. “One false step and you could lose your foot,” he adds.
Today, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park features bumper cars that were relocated from nearby Astroland, a Coney Island park that closed in 2008. One of the oddest bumper car attractions is Eldorado Auto Skooter on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, which dates back to 1973. Inside visitors might be surprised to discover a Studio 54 vibe with glitter balls, pulsing lights and bass-thumping music. The Eldorado gives a whole new meaning to the disco classic “Do the Bump.”
The Dodgem Corp. sold its business in 1961, and subsequent owners stopped making the rides in 1970. Lusse continued manufacturing its Skooters until it closed in 1994. Today, overseas shops produce bumper cars, and the rides continue to delight visitors at parks as well as at fairs and carnivals. Knott’s Berry Farm in California, for example, calls its attraction Wheeler Dealer Bumper Cars.
Idlewild, a charming park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, that dates back to 1878 and is geared to families with younger children, has offered bumper cars since 1931. The attraction used to feature Lusse Auto Skooters, but now offers cars produced by a French company.
Some older bumper cars remain, however. The tiny Interstate Amusement in Seaside, Oregon, for instance, maintains a fleet of sharp-looking Lusse cars.
One of the best collections of vintage bumper cars is at Knoebels in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. The free-admission amusement park, which dates back to 1926, began offering Dodgem bumper cars in 1947. It switched to Lusse Auto Skooters and has stuck with them ever since.
Since Lusse ceased operations 25 years ago, that presents some challenges, according to John Fetterman, a member of the maintenance team at Knoebels. “Out of necessity, we have to source spare parts for the ride largely on our own,” he says. In fact, Knoebels bought Idlewild’s Lusse Auto Skooters when that park no longer needed them.
It takes a lot of tender loving care to keep the cars running, especially since their raison d’etre is to crash on a routine basis. In the offseason, Knoebels repaints and repairs the vehicles. It might seem to make more sense to purchase new ones, but Fetterman says the maxim “newer is not always better” holds true. The park prefers the mid-century steel-bodied Lusse cars over the company’s later fiberglass models.
In part, it has to do with aesthetics. The sleek, evocative cars that Knoebels has represent “the pinnacle of Lusse designs,” Fetterman says. “They somewhat resemble the popular, Harley-Earl designed Chevrolet line of automobiles of that period.”
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