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Thinking Small – Baby Cars

Most of you are probably familiar with the Crosley and King Midget mini-cars that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in this country following World War II, but cycle cars  and “baby” cars, have been around since the very beginning of the Automobile Age. Voiturettes enjoyed a racing class of their own in Europe both before and after the First War, and proved popular as economical road transportation as well. Photo (above) appears to have been shot at a bicycle racing track that was in France.

The first two cars pictured here today fall more into the category of novelties, although they appear to be very finely crafted. According to writer Robert Cunningham the two might be the work of  “Bird Boy” Art Smith, a pioneer aviator who contracted with the Perkins and Magini motorcycle shop in San Francisco to build several dozen copies of his design. They specced out at less than 30 inches high at the cowl and rolled on a 60 inch wheelbase with a 40 inch track. With V-twin  motorcycle power, they were said to be capable of 60 miles per hour. Some earlier cars of the same type can be seen in these previous posts on The Old Motor  The latter features racing great Ralph De Palma posed behind the wheel of one. The photo (above) was taken in Boston by Leslie Jones and it was reported that the driver later died in a “Loop the Loop” accident in Maine.

This last one was built by the future automotive writer and publisher Floyd Clymer in 1920. Driven by Hart Hueraine “Hal” Bowman (pictured behind the wheel) in 1920, it was the only car of it’s type in the Midwest at the time and had to compete with the big cars on dirt ovals. Although the car’s nickname might be viewed unfavorably today, with it’s Indian V-twin power it beat the bigger cars as often as not and in fact once set a record of a thirty second lap on a half mile track.

This is the first of a series of articles about the American cyclecar and baby car phenomenon that we hope to present in the near future.

Top photo courtesy of the  National Library of France. Center photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. Leslie Jones Collection © Copyright Leslie Jones. Bottom photo courtesy Bob Lawrence.

8 responses to “Thinking Small – Baby Cars

  1. Other miniature racing cars that toured the Midwest in the late teens were known by such names as “Baby Mine” and “Baby’s Unionalls”. At least the “Baby Mine” car was owned by Ray Claypool who also occasionally drove it. Other drivers known to drive them, at least in exhibition runs, were Dick Seip, a woman driver named Florence Edwards, and someone known only as Mr. Davies. I’m hoping that someone here will know more about these two cars as well.

  2. I can positively identify the car in the middle photo. This has been called the “Baby Dispatch Car.” It was tested in New York by the United States Army. The name of the builder has been lost over the years, but its basic proportions were nearly identical to Art Smith’s Baby Comet. The license plate matches a small photo of the car in the Encyclopedia of Military Wheeled Vehicles, and the driver’s headgear matches, leading me to believe it is the same driver. The cylindrical attachment on the cowl is a telescope, which pivots down for viewing. The two small, rectangular brackets on the side of the cockpit above the frame are receiving brackets for a detachable folding passenger seat. The passenger’s foot peg is mounted on the frame below the exhaust ports. The Army placed no orders for more Baby Dispatch Cars, but acknowledged that the low silhouette made it undetectable in tall grasses.

  3. One more observation: The caption provided by photographer Leslie Jones with his 1919 photo of the Baby Dispatch Car states: “Smallest auto visits Boston. Man later killed during loop the loop on sand bank in Maine.” Although we don’t know the name of the man pictured, we at least have a clue for further research.

  4. These little things are cropping up all over the place which is good and it is clear that there were a lot more of them in various parts of the USA than seems to have been recognized.

    A very good and detailed account of the California, and some other activity in terms of ‘kid racing” is the first chapter by Jim Chini in Dick Wallen’s “Distant Thunder – when the midgets were mighty”.

    Note that the centenary of the first race for these cars at Venice CA in January 1914 is coming up.

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