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A remarkable car, made right and requiring no gas

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Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 12:00 am

I've been a car nut since I was 4. That's when I got my first one.

No, I don't mean a car with a gasoline engine that can hold four people. I'm taking about a pedal car.

They were quite popular with kids back in the late '30s, '40s, '50s and early '60s. These toys weren't the molded plastic junk with cheap Chinese motors that you see today. For power, we had to move our feet vigorously to achieve motion.

The cars were all steel without a single piece of plastic. Mine was a deluxe "Jeep" model. It was a red fire engine with a metal bell on the hood and finished hardwood ladders on both sides. It had a hardwood seat as well as dashboard. Best of all, the entire vehicle was made in the USA during the days when American factories ruled.

I loved that little car and pedalled it whenever I could. In 1950, I remember walking with my mother into a Santa Monica toy store and seeing one just like mine. But this Jeep was slightly different. It had a printed pattern of gauges and a glove box on the dash.

Being the spoiled brat that I was, I complained that mine was now obsolete. It obviously was not the latest model. How could I be expected to operate a pedal vehicle without a fake speedometer and gas gauge?

Mom just blew it off, telling me to "live with it."

But you know how moms are; they don't like to see their little darlings unhappy.

Buying a new vehicle was out of the question, since mine was only a year old. But my mother was creative and quite an artist in her early adult years.

I remember on a beautiful spring day, coming down the stairs of a '47 Ford kindergarten school bus and walking up our driveway in Lakewood. Mom had my fire engine, a calligraphy pen and a picture of a 1950 Dodge dashboard. She had created a beautiful instrument panel far better than the one displayed in the store. It even had a plaque with the words, "Especially built for Steve Hansen." (How spoiled can one get?)

That summer, we moved to Quantico, Va. The little red Jeep came with us.

I remember wanting to crash test its structural integrity. I peddled down a hill and headed straight for a tree. As I flew over the enameled sheet metal hood, the impact was swift, sure and shocking. The elm and the sturdy Jeep bumper were unscathed, but I ended up in a large mud puddle covered with soupy soil from head to toe. I learned early in life why seat belts and airbags could be good things.

I don't know what happened to the Jeep after that. Certainly, I outgrew it, and Mom probably gave it away when we moved to Ann Arbor. Again, you know how mothers are: Stuff we cherish over the years just seems to somehow vanish and disappear. Inquiries usually lead to silence, a shrug of the shoulders or "I don't remember" dead ends.

Haven't seen a fire engine like mine in over 60 years. If one was located, I'd probably buy it. Old pedal cars are highly desired by today's collectors. Many are worth hundreds, but some can bring thousands of dollars, depending on rarity and condition.

The majority of kiddy cars you now see at swap meets were mass-produced. Brand names like "AMF," "Murray" and "Garton" are still fairly easy to find. I don't know who made my Jeep, but there still has to be a few left out there.

If I bought one today, don't ask me what I would do with it. But somehow, it would just seem so cool to have that little fire truck back in my possession once again.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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