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Early Pushmobiles and The Little Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice

For a little quiet Sunday entertainment today we have a little something out of the ordinary as usual. Our video shows the film debut of Charlie Chaplin’s immortal Little Tramp character, although it was his third film for Mack Sennet’s Keystone Film Company. The scene of the production was in Venice, California on January 10, 1914, during the Vanderbilt Junior Cup, an actual event unrelated to the filming.

Sennett himself owned a high-powered Fiat race car that was driven by famous driver Terrible Teddy Tetzlaft, which can be seen here in The Speed Kings, that was made around the time of the 1913 Santa Monica Road Races.


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  •           How I Made My “Car” – A National Model 40 –  Boys Life, April 1914

A number of magazines in the period covered the building of pushmobiles but the best to be found is just above. In the article George H. Kendall, Expert Pushmobilist of Worchester, Massachusetts tells all about how he built his car and also illustrated it with his own drawings. His car won the Grand Prix in that city in 1912 and also finished second in 1913.  

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  • A dry cell-powered doorbell on the nearest car was used for clearing the way

The Jackson number 14 above shows some outstanding lettering and scroll work. Below, the barrel hood on the Alco number 6 shows some outside-the-box thinking. Both indicate that these little fellows had their favorite makes amongst contemporary race cars and were also trying to imitate their favorite drivers who were the sports idols of the day. Note the reel and rope steering on each.

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  • Cast iron steering and road wheels sold by dealers were used by many builders

In our research, we found that some of the first recorded pushmobile races took place in New York State during 1906. On November 17th, The Murray Hill Pushmobile Club named the race they held after William K. Vanderbilt, who was said to have donated ten dollars for the winner’s cup. Below in The Automobile of Nov. 6, 1906, is coverage of a race at Mineola, New York. Period newspaper reports describe similar events taking place literally from Maine to California in following years.

Photos courtesy of the AACA Forum. You can also see many other interesting photos here on The Old Motor from both the Junior Vanderbilt and the The Junior Racing Series of America.

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16 responses to “Early Pushmobiles and The Little Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice

  1. Great film of Chaplin at the push car races! Fans might be interested to know of another connection between Mac Sennett, the Keystone Movie Company and racing: Driver and later Pilot Arthur Klein and his wife both worked for Sennett in the early days. We have some photos and information on the company in the Racemaker Archive, saved from a California dumpster a few years ago! I looked for them in the picture but couldn’t make them out.

  2. If you look at the Venice film you will see that their pushmobiles are single-seaters with rear wings – or is that a handle I see? The earlier cars seem to be sports models – how did they get pushed?

    I know it’s splitting hairs but Kid Races was probably Chaplin’s second film and there is research that suggests that his snap visit to Venice was to try out a new character.

    • “If you look at the Venice film you will see that their pushmobiles are single-seaters with rear wings – or is that a handle I see? The earlier cars seem to be sports models – how did they get pushed?”

      A couple of the cars you refer to may have been Junior Vanderbilt Cup cars that you can learn about in the link in the text to them.

  3. Please forgive my ignorance, but what were pushmobiles? Did they have their own motive power, did they rely on gravity from that slope at the start or did they have pedals? And why were they called PUSH mobiles? In the film there is no-one pushing them.

    • On the level these little cars were pushed by other kids and some actually have handles for the purpose. Going down hill gravity was the motive power. Take another look at the film and it will be clear.

  4. At the Venice race there were 2 ramps at each end of the course which was part of the course used on the same day by the powered cars. The ‘mechanician’ (the pusher) pushed the cars up the ramp and them got them moving under gravity, presumably also giving a hand until they got to the ramp at the other end where they did it again. I am not sure how many ‘laps’ they did but you can see the cars being pushed up the ramp and down again.

    In the opening scene of the film there is a powered car being pushed but if you look carefully the pusher has just darted out of the crowd to give a bit of extra ‘kid-power’. The driver looks to be about 6 or 7 years old.

  5. More than that Grant – they are the great-great-grandparents of he modern race car.

    The line of descent goes like this:

    The original Venice pushmobile races had a race for single and twin cylinder engines in 1914. This led directly to junior dirt-track racing with (usually) V-twin engined, purpose-built , single seat race cars, the first of their kind.

    After WW1 the surviving cars played a major part in the start-up of midget racing in the early ‘thirties.

    This spread to Europe and the UK and there the idea of series production race cars was further developed with JAP 996cc V-twin engined Skirrows.

    This and other influences led more or less directly to the post WW2 rear-engined Coopers and like cars in Britain which used the same engine behind the driver.

    Coopers won the 1959-1960 F1 championship with a direct descendant of their early post-war cars. The modern race car followed.

  6. Dear David
    I think the idea of racing soapbox cars goes back to 1909 when Jose-Maria Armangue of Barcelona (where it doesn’t snow) added wheels to a bobsleigh to practice on a local hill for a French bobsleigh contest in which he was to head the Castalan team. That led to the formation of the “Down Car Club of Barcelona”, which in turn led in 1913 to Armangue’s designing the David cyclecar, which remained in production until 1923.

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