Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Midget Autopia's Obscure Brothers

Arrowflite Car 1964

In our last posting we showed a picture from Yesterland's site of what looked like an Arrow Midget Autopia car, featuring two happy children.  On the right side fender there is something which doesn't appear in any Midget Autopia pictures. Its hard to tell what it is, although it kind of looks like something with wings, maybe a dragonfly;

Mysterious Marking

Thru a remarkable string of coincidences, we can disclose the details of this mystery;

RH-BAC-16229-A Medallion
It's a diecast medallion of a highly stylized bird with a distinctively southwestern feel. The tail feathers are linear bars, like a jet exhaust, and there's a V8 chevron where the wings meet. If you look closely, you can clearly make out the letters THUNDERBIRD on the neck.

This is the logo of the Midget Autopia’s obscure brother; which I'm now calling the Arrowflite Thunderbird.  Only a dozen of the Midget Autopia cars survived Disneyland, the majority of which ended up in Marceline, MO. Clearly, this did not come from one of those cars - so where is it from? The answer can be found by tracing the rise and fall of a handful of amusement parks, ending in Pennsylvania, where the story continues to this day.

According to Wikipedia, Idlewild is a children's amusement park situated in Laurel Highlands near Ligonier, Pennsylvania about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, along US Route 30.  It 1878 it was just a campground next to the Ligonier Valley Railroad. It's the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania and the third oldest operating amusement park in the United States, behind Lake Compounce and Cedar Point. Idlewild has been called the best children's park in the world.

In 1998 Idlewild introduced two new rides; Raccoon Lagoon, which features Mister Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, including a 3 ft narrow gauge trolley designed specifically for Idlewild by Fred Rogers, based on his popular children's television show.  Raccoon Lagoon also featured an automobile ride called Ricky’s Racers, but where did Rickey's come from?

Rickey's Racers Today

Ricky's certainly didn't come direct from Arrow Development. The cars and track came from Old Indiana Fun Park, which opened as the "Middle Country Renaissance Festival" in August of 1983. Conversion to a ride park began in 1984, with an opening on June 9, 1985.  More rides were added until 1986, but was mostly a picnic area and campground with a few attractions. In the spring of 1987, the park filed Chapter 11 and the Kiddie Turnpike was sold off.

So, where did Old Indiana get it's Kiddie Turnpike? The answer is; 350 miles to the east, at Shady Lake Park - a small amusement park between Akron and Cleveland, operated by the Humphrey Family in Streetsboro, Ohio. Shady Lake only operated for four years, from 1978 to 1982.

Further back, most of the rides at Shady Lake Park were relocated from Euclid Beach Park, Cleveland's favorite summer destination from 1895 to 1969.  Euclid was the go-to place for summer. It had rides, popcorn balls, custard and the beach and Euclid was also the Arrow Thunderbird’s first home.

So, Euclid Beach’s Thunderbirds eventually became Ricky’s Racers, which also means it may just be the last complete, operating Arrowflite Thunderbird Freeway Ride anywhere.

How 'bout these stripes?

It's a testament to Arrow that 60 years after they designed Thunderbird cars, Ricky’s Racers is still going strong at Idlewild's SoakZone, along with what appear to be a couple other Arrow ride systems.

BTW - Euclid Beach had some of these too; Look familiar?

Another Euclid Beach Car

You can learn more about the preservation efforts of the Euclid Beach Boys by clicking here; https://www.euclidbeachpark.com/

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Midget Autopia Inspirations

Arrow Thunderbird V8 Kiddie Car

The early 1950's were an inspirational time in the automotive industry. GI's returning to America from duty in England and Europe had been exposed to sports cars; two seat roadsters which were built for speed and fun rather than practicality. Auto makers in Detroit would begin to jump on the bandwagon with the Corvette, but would not successfully enter the market on a large scale until the early 60's.

Custom car builders in Southern California began to respond to the new found sports car lust with sleek, feline, fiberglas bodies which could be built onto existing chassis and motors. Two of these independent designers would introduce cars in the mid 1950's; Victress and Glaspar. Kaiser Motors also introduced their short lived Kaiser-Darrin 161.

In the midst of this styling frenzy, another creative genius, Walt Disney, wanted an automotive themed attraction for Disneyland that would be fun for little kids. It was called the Midget Autopia. To help build it, he turned to Arrow Development, who had created the vehicles and track for Snow White's Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Arrow had been making kiddie car rides since the early 50's. Their flagship model was a sporty two seat roadster called the Arrow-Flite Super. It was introduced at the National Orange Show in 1953.

Arrow-Flite Super

In addition to the Arrow-Flite, Arrow had been selected by Kaiser Motors to build a few dozen small scale replica push cars of the Kaiser Darrin 161, for advertising purposes.

Arrow's Darrin Jr. Production line in 1954

With their experience in fiberglass, kiddie car design and manufacturing, Arrow was a shoe-in for Disney, but a close look at the body style of the Midget Autopia cars reveals that the Midget Autopia car wasn't an Arrow-Flite Super or a Darrin 161 knock off. There were similarities, but the Midget Autopia's swooping lines and feline fenders were much closer to the style of cars from another company that also did work for Disney; MAMECO, who did the original Autopia cars.

MAMECO's first Autopia Cars

MAMECO had collaborated with Glaspar in the creation of the 1953 MAMECO Ardun-Glaspar G2. It was born in 1949 when Bill Tritt helped Ken Brooks design a body for a car that Ken was building. At the time, Tritt was making small fiberglass boat hulls in Costa Mesa. Bill convinced Ken that fiberglass was the ideal material for his new hot rod's body shell.

1953 MAMECO Ardun G2

The G2 was a beauty and won a lot of races. The fender line was sinuous. Some of the features on the Midget Autopia cars also bear a striking resemblance to yet another 50's kit car; the 1954 Victress S-1A;

Victress S-1A Line Drawing

The Victress Manufacturing Company introduced the S1 sports car body in 1952. William Boyce-Smith was in his final year at UCLA when he started working with his good friend and fraternity brother Hugh Jorgensen to design a car that "Doc" Boyce-Smith wanted to be more stunning than all the sports cars of its era. Hugh began on a design that would, in Doc's words, “out Jag the Jag," referring to the XK-120. The result was a stunning, two seat roadster with elegant, yet racy lines;

The Jag to out-jag XK-120

Victress S-1A

Lining up the four bodies side by side highlights the shared features. The swooping fenders, wasp waist and provocative headlamps of the Victress are readily apparent, but the tail light treatment is clearly Darrin.

All of which were born, along with Disneyland, in Sunny Southern California.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Lil' Belle

Lil' Belle Riverboat

A letter dated January 6, 1953 from Arrow Development co-founder William Hardiman to Richard Irvine at W.E.D. Enterprises offers some insight into how Disney may have become aware of Arrow.

Dear Sir;

Thank you for your inquiry on our stern wheeler boat. I regret that we do not have the photographs and information on it worked up as yet.  However we are having these things prepared and will forward some to you as soon as they are completed.

We were quite pleased with the amount of interest shown in this boat even though the pictures we showed at the convention were very sketchy. This early interest caught us a little unprepared as we have not planned on releasing the advertising on it for another month. We are rushing it thought though, and you should have you copies very shortly.

                                                                          Very truly yours, 

                                                                          ARROW DEVELOPMENT CO., INC.

                                                                           by Wm. J. Hardiman

Arrow had begun attending the NAAPPB convention in 1952 and was one of 75 exhibitors. The next year the booth would be tended by Ed Morgan.

By January of 1954 Lil' Belle was completed and getting press reviews. The San Francisco Examiner ran a story on January 31st, but there was no mention of any work for Disney at that time. KCBS Radio featured Lil'' Belle in a story on July 6th. The first mention of work for Disney was in very late November;


LIL' BELLE                                                                      Tuesday, July 6, '54

Have news this morning for those of you who yearn for the good old days when the Delta King and the Delta Queen made the overnight run up the river to Sacramento.

Riverboat days are here agin - over in Oakland at least. The Lil' Belle is now operating in the lagoon next to the Peralta Playground opposite the municipal auditorium.

I was present for the dedication last week, and can report that this will be the most popuar ride in the Bay Area.

You stand at a regular landing, and watch the Lil' Belle come in. 2 tall smokestacks, pilot house, she's a model of the real thing, and when seen at the far end of the channel, looks very real indeed.

Actually, she's a launch, with a superstructure that gives her the appearance of a river boat. The 30 or so passengers sit in 2 rows facing across the keel of the vessel, which is powered with a small gasoline engine.

But the splashing paddle wheel at the stern is the real thing, and if you can, get a seat at the back where you can watch it kick up water.

The Lil' Belle was the idea of Arrow Development Company of Mountain View,  a firm that makes rides and things for amusement parks.

Karl Bacon, of the company, who was skipper on the first cruise, told me that safety paramount idea in designing the boat.

"She's a double steel hull, with fiberglass surface, and the seats are 2 long flotation chambers. The superstructure is aluminum, so all the weight is kept down in the boat."

Yes, the Lil' Belle is a grand idea, and with the miniature train - the Acorn - circling the lagoon,  and kids riding in a surrey with the fringe on top along on side, you have the feeling that you're really back in the good old days.

On May 1st, 1954 Anaheim was announced as the location for Disneyland - with an estimated $9 million price tag. Work was to begin as soon as the property cleared escrow and continue towards an opening date mid 1955 with expectations of 5 million annual visitors.

The San Jose Mercury News reported on November 28th, 1954 that Arrow Development had signed a contract that week to construct a dozen "dark ride" cars for the Snow White feature, a Dumbo train patterned after the Walt Disney cartoon of the same name, and to reconstruct an ancient merry-go-round in the spirit of the King Arthur's Knights tales.

Snow White Car @ Arrow Development

The Snow White dark ride was to be a "twisting, lightless, tunnel, revealing black-lighted, animated pageants of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to visiting children as they pass different turns in their ride.

Casey Jr. Concept Art - dated 11/20/54 - Initials of Bruce Bushman
Although the design of the Dumbo train was not yet complete, Bill Hardiman said; "One thing is certain about it - the engine will have the same wiggly stack it had in the famous cartoon."

King Arthur Carousel Scale Model by Arrow Development

The next few months leading up to opening day would be more like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for Arrow Development.