"Two brothers Max, and Harold Stoehrer, of Methuem Massachusetts spent two years developing a car they proudly named the Dodgem. Soon after the Dodgem was introduced to the public, the Scientific American Magazine did a test on one of the cars. The review was less than flattering…stating that the cars were "highly unmanageable, with the steering only relative". The two brothers later admitted that with their cars…." until you have learned how, you often try to go someplace, but often may not end up where you intended on going". . . Never the less, the cars became extremely popular, despite their bad reviews.
The success of the Dodgem cars caught the attention of Joseph Lusse and his brother Ray who together owned the Lusse Brothers Machine Shop Company. The Lusse Bros decided to design and build, their own car and fix, the defects in the design of the Dodgem Cars. The bothers would spend the next nine years working on their car during which time they were awarded eleven patents.
The Lusse Bros. introduced their "Auto-Skooter" car to the public in the Spring of 1930 and the cars were an immediate hit, in part because they had truly solved most all of the problems associated with the Dodgem cars. The Lusse Bros Auto-Skooters quickly established themselves within the market and easily outsold the Dodgem cars.
A 1940's Company advertisement for the Lusse Bros Auto-Skooter proclaimed that "Our cars are built to exacting Lusse standards, which means built-in quality and stamina to spare…"
Among the improvements the Lusse Bros. perfected in 1928, was to mount their engine vertically in the front of the car.
Power could then be transmitted through two couplings to a ring-and-pinion final drive that had a small wheel attached with the rim keyed to each end of the output shaft. This design was much like that used by BWM for the Isetta.
The advantage to this design was that the whole assembly could be mounted on bearings and could be aimed in any direction by turning the steering wheel. There were stop locks installed that prevented the steering from going to far in either direction. Soon enough, young drivers would discoverer that the Auto-Shooter could travel just as fast in reverse as it could forward!
From 1935 on the Lusse Bros., Auto-Skooter Company experienced strong growth and prosperity. A minor interruption during World War 11 only made the company more secure. Improvements continued including updated headlights, fiberglass bodies, and air-filled bumpers instead of solid rubber bumpers.
The cars were driven by an electric motor powered by a curve shaped piece of metal with a copper or brass metal lining called a "spoon". The spoon is firmly attached the end of a wooden pole. These spoons provided electricity to the motor in the bumper car when they rubbed on the underneath side of a series of metal grids located in the ceiling.
These same spoons could be made to arc and spark (which was cool to watch) when the cars were involved in a multiple car pile-up. Learning how to innocently create a multiple car pileup was an art into itself.
Watching the cars in action while waiting your turn to ride, you could easily spot the faster cars, the ones with the best connection between the spoon and the wire grid in the ceiling. The fastest car would give you a slight advantage, which you could then put to good use.
Turning the steering wheel to full right or left would cause the car to go into reverse. With a little practice, you could become very good at creating havoc on the bumper car highway
Now...For The How They Work Part
First up, the bumper cars need electricity to work. That makes it complicated because bumper cars are one of the few rides that is able to travel forward and backward, side to side, and in circles all at the same time, and are not attached to any controls directly ran by the ride operator.
The better the connection between the spoon and the grid the faster the car will go. A clean shiny contact between the spoon and the grid is what made the fastest cars. Sometimes you would get a really, slow car and the operator would have to take some steel wool and polish the topside of the spoon that had accumulated a corrosion film on top of the spoon That could turn a slow car into a fast car.
The remaining electricity is discharged through the metal floor to ground. So, if there is electricity on the floor… why don't you get shocked if you touch the metal floor while the ride is turned on? Because…the voltage present in the floor has "potential" but not enough amperage to do any work or any harm to you.
Electricity can do work, (turn a motor to power the bumper car for example) when the voltage goes from a higher voltage to a lower one. Most of the amperage, which is what does the work is used up by the bumper car motor, so what electricity that is left, has no amperage. You might get a slight tickle but that is all. The odds of getting shocked were reduced even more if you are wearing tennis shoes, which most kids wore in the summer.
Using the garden hose analogy the voltage is like the pressure in a garden hose and is what forces the current thru the wire. The amperage is like the volume of water present and what actually does the work. You can still have voltage present even though the amperage present is minimal having been used up to do the electrical work, as in this example powering the electric motor in the bumper car. There...do you get it now...?
To make the bumper cars slide around more and to prevent the cars from getting to much traction and hitting to hard, powdered graphite was sprinkled on the floor.
So…What Became Of The Two Original Companies…?
The Dodgem Company lasted up into the early 1970's and continued to make both portable and permanent design rides, all the while holding onto their original 110 volt design when the industry had switched to a 90 volt DC standard. Competition from three different Italian companies eventually proved too much for the company and it was closed in the early 1970's.
As for the Lusse Company, Ray Lusse Jr. ran the company after his father's death in the 1960's. In 1989 Ray Jr. got into financial trouble with the IRS but managed to shuffle money and assets around until 1994 when the bank accounts were finally empty. He died that same year. The rights to the Auto--Skooter were then sold to Designs International located in Dallas Texas. The remaining inventory of original parts and pieces, were sold off, by the Lussse''s last landlord to recover back rent.
And there you have it...the history and the "how it works"...of Bumper Cars. If you have ever thought about buying and restoring an old Bumper Car and put it on display in your office or basement here is a little incentive. Start looking!