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Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Dreyer Racers

baby car bill robinson shirley temple

By Robert D. Cunningham: I’ve been researching off and on for ten years or so trying to identify the maker of these baby cars. When Shirley Temple’s car came up for sale earlier this year, I thought I had the information: Knickerbocker Motors. But that turned out to be incorrect information, as a thorough search turned up a defunct truck manufacturing outfit from the 1920s and a couple of modern-day car dealerships.

I finally solved the mystery of who built the first two racers shown in the Three Stooges film from 1934 and the car that tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson gifted to Shirley Temple. Shirley used to drive the car around the Fox Studio lot, but after a series of near misses, the engine was removed.

Shirley kept her car until she passed away, and her estate sold it earlier this year. A “Knickerbocker Motor Co.” sticker on the back of the car prompted the auction company to credit Knickerbocker for building it. In fact, Knickerbocker may have been the retailer from whom Robinson bought the car, but Knickerbocker didn’t build it.

  •  The lead photo and the image (below) both show Shirley Temple in her “Dreyer Racer” that was gifted to her by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
shirly temple pop dryer racing car.

Shirley’s and the first two cars in the Thee Stooges’ film were “Dreyer Racers”, manufactured by Dreyer Racing Equipment Company, located at 4164 W. Washington St., in Indianapolis. They were designed and built by Floyd “Pop” Dreyer, a legendary pioneer in motorcycle and sidecar racing who, in 1926, turned his attentions to building and racing full-size automobiles.

He began selling $1 plans for miniature racers sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s for use as motorless “pushmobiles”. By 1934 he was offering complete cars. Dreyer Racers had hand-formed aluminum bodies mounted on wooden frames with a cast, wrap-around front cross member and lever-actuated cast-aluminum engine mounts that slid back and forth to tighten or loosen a v-belt drive. Dreyer Racer specifications were: Wheelbase 50 inches; Tread 27 inches: Height 26 inches.

Dreyer also sold a larger version called the Cannonball Baker Junior Racer, named in honor of his friend and fellow driver, Cannonball Baker. The Cannonball specifications were: Wheelbase 67 inches; Tread 33 inches; Body width 17 inches; Body length 70 inches; overall length 82 inches. The Cannonball retailed for $350 in 1936. Cannonballs were easily distinguished from the smaller Dreyers by the large Cannonball Baker Junior Racer label on both sides of the cowl.

the pop dryer racer

  •                                       Early advertisement for the “Dreyer Racer and Pushmobil.”

During the mid-1930s, Dreyer’s cars were often given away as contest prizes by retail stores including The M.R. Herb Co. of Sandusky, Ohio; Crismond’s Shoes and Hosiery of Fredericksburg, Virginia; Baylor-Nelms Furniture Co. Of Kingsport, Tennessee; and Himes Auto Supply Co. of Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Dreyer actually made more money selling the plans for building the cars than from selling the cars themselves. In 1950, Dreyer marketed an updated version called the Dreyerette Drive-It-Yourself Car with a fiberglass or aluminum body and contemporary quarter midget styling. Dreyer advertising was directed toward fair managers and amusement park operators, saying: “Looking for a sure-fire promotion? Giveaway real miniature race cars! Proven crowd puller! Low Cost! A Hit with kids 6 to 60!”

Dreyerette specifications were: Wheelbase 58 inches; Length 77 inches; Weight 185 pounds; Engine 2-1/2 HP Continental; Top speed 35 mph. The 1950 price had escalated to $495–half the cost of an actual Crosley Hotshot sports car. Although Pop Dreyer passed away years ago, his business remains in the family and is now known as Dreyer Motorsports.

View many more interesting baby cars in our earlier posts. Top photo courtesy of MorristownGreen, the balance are courtesy of Robert D. Cunningham, who wrote our earlier American Austin Bantam Story.

dreyer racing equipment

11 responses to “Shirley Temple, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Dreyer Racers

  1. Very interesting! Wonder if the plans are available anywhere? The “Cannonball” reminds me very strongly (at least dimensionally) of the Stevenson Cyclekarts that are getting pretty popular.

  2. Reminds me of a post WW2 similar sized mini racer supposedly made by Curtis. If my memory serves me correctly, they had Lawson engines, centrifugal clutch, chain to drive one rear wheel. Quarter elliptic sprigs, chrome plated. Hand brake – band type on right rear wheel, lever on outside of cockpit.

  3. The bidding on Shirley Temple’s Dreyer Racer opened at $10,000 and the gavel fell at $34,000. At the moment I’m unsure who placed the winning bid.

  4. As a young lad in the fifties, I spent many an evening pouring over “The Boy Mechanic” which was a hard bound publication of projects from boats to midget cars for young men (and the guardians) to construct at home. I do believe a similar midget advertised therein. Well now, we’re off and running in a new (but old and well traveled) direction. Oh, the fun of it all!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. My suggestion regarding whether plans are still available is to contact “Junior” Dreyer at Dreyer Honda in Indy. (317) 248-1403. Junior learned metal working skills from his Father and had a fine collection of restored race cars–but has parted with most of them. One of the cars once displayed at the Honda store was of the ‘Shirley Temple’ variety, along with an ad featuring a photo of the child star in her ‘Dreyer Racer.’

  6. Something very popular after WW-2, was the SOAP BOX DERBY. I remember watching this in different venues as a youngster, in and around Los Angeles. One year, I attended the event that was on a fairly steep North Los Angeles neighborhood street, that joined Figueroa Street, — cordoned off for the event. fairly high speeds wee attained and during the event, an authentic Race Car from older days, was “brought out of moth-balls” for a demonstration of “downhill coasting abilities — compared to the fastest soap box “racer”. The driver of the race car became concerned when his “brakes” were functioning poorly and he went down the hill really fast and also trying to get the engine started —for adding in “compression braking “. I don’t remember if or whom was the “winner” as the race car driver was “white as a sheet”! of “being in fear of his life” for lack of car preparation for the event! Some very “race tracky ” foul language was heard — along with a lot of chuckles from the adults and the car and driver were both diverted from any further “publicity”. After this “adventure” a particular SHALLOW angle area was prepared for future events, which made the “Derby” a wimpier safe, mild, demure, “nothing like reality” event that obviuosly had all of its teeth pulled !!! A mere shadow of the higher speeds previously attained by the Soap Box Racers. THIS is when I didn’t attend any more, as the “contest” was made more politically correct and slow! Ho Hum, Snore Zzzzzzzzz Zzzzzzzzz Edwin – 30 –

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