Like most Boomers born in the late 1940’s, I look back at my childhood days with a good deal of nostalgia. Most folks think that post-war America was an idyllic, carefree place to grow up in the 1950’s, and for the most part I would agree. In suburbia at least, the good times certainly overshadowed the problems of the rest of the world. Except for those stupid duck and cover drills we practiced at school where our teachers tried to convince us our puny wooden desks would save our little butts during a nuclear attack, life was pretty darn good.

Our neighborhood on the northern section of Sport Hill Road was a mixture of smaller early twentieth century summer residences that had been converted into year-round abodes alongside a few estates with vast amounts of acreage, a big house with a swimming pool and a tennis court. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the men living there had served in the military during WWII and were then starting a family of their own.

There were five of us boys who did practically everything together in those days. The oldest was eleven, two of us were nine, another was seven, and the youngest, a six-year-old eager to fit in and willing to do practically anything the older boys asked of him.

Kids our age were, if nothing else, quite impressionable. While television was still somewhat of a novelty, it certainly had an influence on the five us. One of our favorite afternoon programs broadcast those old Hal Roach Studio’s movie shorts – The Little Rascals. Those kids were our heroes. They roamed free and they did practically anything their little hearts desired. One of our favorite episodes had them building their own race cars and driving wildly down city streets. It sure looked like a lot of fun, and if a bunch of kids about the same age as us could build their own car, why couldn’t we?

These racers appeared to be something we could build.

Our first attempt at a four wheeled racer was one without a motor.

Materials were rather easy to come by. Each of our fathers had an assortment of lumber laying around; either left overs from past projects or the raw material for the next one. We had long ago learned that asking to use either materials or tools controlled by our dads prompted way too many questions about what we wanted them for. We found it easier to simply “requisition” what we needed and face whatever consequences might arise at a later date when our dads realized something was missing. As long as the tools we were using found their way back to the general area where we had found them before the next Saturday morning, we were seldom interrogated.

With any type of racer, we would first need to acquire a set of wheels. Four that were the same size would probably be the best bet. Having seen photographs of some soapbox derby racers, we reckoned that perhaps the wheels of a baby carriage would fit the bill. As luck would have it, Pauly’s parents had a beauty of a carriage stuffed in their barn.

Pauly came from the wealthiest family in our neighborhood. Kind of like Waldo in the real Little Rascals, but more of a regular guy than snooty old Waldo. Pauly’s parents hired someone to do everything that the rest of our parents did on their own, so that barn was likely only accessed by their gardener, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to notice a wheelless baby carriage stuffed in a corner.

Waldo’s toys were a step above the rest.

After about an hour of figuring out what size wrenches we would need to remove what we needed, we had not only our wheels, but two swell axles as well.

Keith was the eldest member of our fabrication team. He showed us a Popular Mechanics magazine from a couple of years earlier that had plans for a wooden racer. Other than it looking way too neat and tidy a machine that we might build, it had all the right components, including a rope steering mechanism, a pivoting hunk of wood that acted as a brake when shoved hard against the ground, and a seat that actually looked like a seat and not just a wooden crate that had been in our original concept.

We soon learned the value of the old carpenter’s adage, “Measure twice, cut once,” as we seldom cut anything the first time that properly fit together. Having a frame in the shape of a trapezium may have made for an interesting exhibit at the Guggenheim, but its functionality as a rolling machine was severely impaired – wheels that don’t face in the exact same direction don’t tend to track very well. It took several attempts and a good deal of wasted lumber before we had something that even resembled a rolling frame.

By Friday, we were ready for our first test run. We hauled our racer to the top of the hill. Terry – the other 9-year-old, was tasked with riding his bicycle to the bottom of the hill and screaming as loud as he could that the coast was clear and that no motor vehicles would suddenly appear before us as we tested our creation for the first time. Keith deemed himself as the driver – he was the oldest as well as the biggest kid, plus he could land a pretty good punch, so his unilateral decision to drive went unopposed.

Things went pretty well for about the first hundred yards. When Keith wisely determined that his speed was approaching the point of “Holy Mackerel, this is way too fast!!!” he pulled the pivoting brake towards him and the racer took a hard right into the ditch, causing the frame to come apart. Apparently, the nails we used were too short to securely hold the 2×4 frame together.

By Monday morning, we’d pooled our money together and had a list of the hardware and fasteners we needed but our dads didn’t have “in stock.” The three oldest boys hopped on our bikes and headed off on the five-mile ride to the hardware store in Stepney. We were back by lunchtime with nearly five bucks worth of stuff we hoped would work.

Our Number Two racer was ready to go by midday on Tuesday. With the right spacers now on the brake mechanism, the thing actually stopped fairly straight. We soon took turns coasting down the hill, but it didn’t take long to realize that hauling that thing back to the top was both time consuming and tiring. It needed a motor!

Mr. J was Keith and Terry’s dad, and it was in their garage where the Sport Hill Speedster was being designed and fabricated. We called him Mr. J because his surname had way more consonants than it did vowels and absolutely no one could pronounce it correctly two times in a row. Also stored in that garage was a brand new REO lawn mower.

The perfect power source for the Sport Hill Speedster.

A quick look at the mower’s unique engine setup made it a clear contender as a donor for the speedster. Set on the mower deck at an angle, the drive shaft connected to a gear that held a chain that powered the drive wheel below. It sure looked like we could power one of our rear wheels directly from the mower’s drive shaft. It was so simple that even a bunch of hapless pre-teens could make it work.

By Thursday, the REO had been stripped of its power plant and sat in the middle of the garage floor with a rather large assortment of nuts and bolts lying by its side. The speedster, however, was sporting a shiny light green engine that was connected to its left rear wheel.

The first test run was a magnificent success. Our little racer could probably go uphill as fast as ten mph, and on the flats above, it likely had a top speed of close to twenty. As an added bonus, the engine actually held back the downhill speed, as the machine couldn’t go faster than the engine would allow. It might not have been quite as exhilarating as it had been when it had been freewheeling, but it was definitely safer!

We all wanted to take it on an extended run on Friday, but we also realized that Mr. J was going to want to mow his lawn on Saturday. Being at least marginally smart enough to realize that putting that engine back on the mower might be more difficult than removing it had been, we spent most of Friday swapping it back onto the mower chassis.

By 4 PM it looked pretty good. There was just one small issue that had us all puzzled though. We had a few nuts and bolts still sitting on the garage floor that seemed to be left over. They probably went somewhere on that mower, but where was a complete mystery. The throttle cable was attached, and the thing started right up. Since Mr. J would be home by 5 PM, we thought it wise to collect the extra nuts and bolts and put them in a tin can for later use. Maybe Mr. J wouldn’t notice.

He didn’t. He also didn’t mow his lawn on Saturday morning as his brand new REO wouldn’t move. It ran okay, but it didn’t move.

He hauled it off to the repair shop, its bright white handle bar sticking out of the trunk of his little Triumph TR-3 roadster. When he retrieved it a week later, it cut his two-week long grass with ease, but we had gone an entire week with an idle speedster sitting in the garage.

Mr. J’s taillights were barely out of sight on the following Monday morning when our trusty pit crew went to work swapping the motor from the REO to the speedster. We enjoyed a full week of motoring throughout the neighborhood. Some of the neighbors smiled as we took turns whizzing by, while others frowned. Most of the neighborhood dogs wore themselves out barking and chasing after us.

Come early Friday afternoon, we were again ready to make the engine swap. This time, there were different sized nuts and bolts left over when the job was complete.

On Saturday morning, Mr. J’s Triumph was once again loaded with his inoperable REO. The following week, the power equipment company delivered a new riding mower to the J household, one with an engine that couldn’t be retrofitted to the speedster.

I was probably around twenty when I relayed this tale to my own dad. The tears of laughter running down his rosy cheeks told me that we were forgiven, but he did tell me that Mr. J couldn’t understand why so many parts had vibrated themselves loose, making his new REO an inoperable mowing machine. Luckily, the company that sold him that REO took it back, giving him full credit towards a new machine that gave him over ten years of trouble-free service.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books