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Gus Petzel’s 1925 Coast-To-Coast Run In A Baby Car

Updated – In 1925, Gus Petzel made a San Francisco to Washington, D.C. run in this charming little baby car. The postcard description tells more about it: “The smallest automobile in the world – Designed and built by Gus Petzel of Alameda, California. The car has a 4-cylinder air cooled motor, 3-speeds, electric lights and starter, 60 inch wheelbase, 21″ x 4″ airplane tires, and weighs 560 pounds. It makes 52 miles per gallon and has a speed of 65 miles on the road and 80 miles on the track. Cost $2,000 to build”.

A number of stories turned up about Petzel’s run, and the February 1926 issue of Popular Science has a short article along with a photo and gives the same basic details. The book Alameda tells us that he lived at 1207 Grand Street, on the small island city next to Oakland and across the Bay from San Francisco.

This car is without a doubt is related to the Art Smith Baby Cars, built ten years earlier in San Francisco. The little racer is slightly modernized and powered by an in-line four-cylinder Henderson motorcycle engine. We found some additional interesting info about Petzel below. The image above is courtesy of historian Alden Jewell.

 

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Update – Historian Robert Cunningham has added the following: “His trip was from San Francisco through Yosemite National Park to New York City. Petzel financed his trip across the Lincoln Highway by peddling picture postcards of himself in his racer. Later, in October 1926, Petzel drove the racer over the Ascot Speedway where he was clocked at a record-setting speed of 92 miles per hour”.

“Later, Petzel sold his car to Edmond “Hoot Owl” Gibson. Gibson had become an accomplished rodeo champion in 1910 when silent film director Francis Boggs cast him as an extra in a Hollywood cowboy feature.” The photo below courtesty of The Silent Movie Blog shows Hoot in the car with his Cunningham Roadster behind it. Read the rest of Roberts comment below for more information.

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An issue of the 1914 Technical World Magazine contains the short story below about a Gus Petzel setting out from San Francisco on a trip to push a four foot six-inch 180-pound steel ball across the country. Other information that was found included a listing in the 1904 Iron Molders’ Journal of a Gus Petzel, who  belonged to a foundry workers organization in the City by the Bay.

The Ford Times March 1952 issue told of a 75-year old Gus Petzel, who lived in his 1930 Model “A” Ford Tudor Sedan in Palm Springs, California. He was described as an ex-foundry worker from Ohio that traveled to the sunny and warm climate for health reasons. He converted the interior of the Ford into his own full time one room mobile home. It was completely enclosed with an bed, cooking area, and a gasoline stove all located inside.

Driving the Baby Car cross country, the rolling of a ball across the country scheme, converting one’s car into a house and being a foundry worker with a San Francisco connection all could be a coincidence. On the other hand, these acts are all so bizarre and connected that these things may have all been done by the same Gus Petzel.

 

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5 responses to “Gus Petzel’s 1925 Coast-To-Coast Run In A Baby Car

  1. That ball must have been quite a chore in the Rockies, both going up and rolling down. $1000 was a good chunk of cash in 1924 when the average salary was only $625. But it was still a stupid and utterly useless stunt

  2. WWI draft registration shows
    Gustav Frederick Petzel, 415 15th, Oakland, iron moulder at Standard Gas Engine Co, b 25 Dec 1877

    California voter registations show
    1908 Gustav Frederick Petzel, Stockton, age 29, b Germany
    1912 Gustave Frederick Petzel, coremaker, 127 N Sutter, Sockton, Socialist
    1916 Gustave F Petzel, moulder, 2321 E 14th, Oakland, Democrat
    1922 Gustav Petzel, moulder, 1457 Jackson St, Oakland, Socialist
    1926 Gustave Petzel, moulder, 1207 Grand St, Alameda, Republican
    1934 Gustave F Petzel, 3125 W Cedar St, Socialist

    1930 census shows
    Gus F Petzell, 2629 E 52nd, Huntington Park, LA,
    age 52, divorced, born Germany, immigrated 1881, iron foundry core maker, not employed

    1940 census shows
    Gus F Petzel, rear 6201 Rita, Huntington Park, LA,
    age 63, single, not a citizen, iron foundry core maker, seeking work

    No other Gus Petzel in these records.

    He died in Riverside on 17 Jul 1952

    What an interesting character!

  3. The car you’ve featured here was first known as the Midget Special and later as the Hoot Gibson Special. Publicity hound Gus Petzel drove what he called “the smallest car in the world” from San Francisco through Yosemite National Park to New York City. Petzel financed his trip across the Lincoln Highway by peddling picture postcards of himself in his air-cooled, 4-cylinder, 3-speed racer. Later, in October 1926, Petzel drove the racer over the Ascot Speedway where he was clocked at a record-setting speed of 92 miles per hour. Petzel’s fame launched dozens of copycat publicity hounds, including Ken Morehouse with his Little Mystery baby car. Later, Petzel sold his car to Edmond “Hoot Owl” Gibson. Gibson had become an accomplished rodeo champion in 1910 when silent film director Francis Boggs cast him as an extra in a Hollywood cowboy feature. By 1921, his film career had taken root and Hoot Gibson became a box office phenomenon. During his spare time between filming western features for Universal Pictures, Gibson spent much of his fortune on airplanes and fast cars, including Petzels’s Midget Special. Close examination of photographs shows a remarkable similarity with the 1922 Wing Midget, manufactured by Chauncey Wing’s Sons of Greenfield, Massachusetts as well as a modern-day photos of a red Wing Midget. The current owner of this car says he has traced it to Hoot Gibson, although he thinks Gibson acquired it in the 1940s, not the 1920s.Even though the red car displays certain modifications today, it’s entirely possible that the red baby car is actually the very same Midget Special shown here.

  4. Hoot Gibson owned a cowboy ranch in Saugus, California. Rodeos, etc, the standard fare. He sold the ranch on the late ’30s to Bill Bonelli who called it “Bonelli Stadium” (imagine that) and started running midget and stock car races there. The stadium later changed names to Saugus Speedway which operated as the longest running auto racing track in California until it closed in 1995.

    The car shown above was similar to other cycle cars of the era. How many of those dared drive cross country is unknown. Henderson motorcycle and outboard motors powered the first midget race cars of the 1930s. Offenhauser engines came in with Gilmore Stadium in the mid ’30s. There’s a lot of history back that way…

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