Auto-biography 8: Childhood's End

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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auto biography 8 childhood s end

After five years living in the quiet, sheltered and nurturing environment of Iowa City, Iowa, my family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. I was twelve– that pinnacle year of childhood. I was blissfully ignorant of the long dark tunnel of adolescence just ahead. And in those very last days of innocence in the heartland, I was graced with a peak automotive experience.

It was during my final summer spent with the Mennonites. The preacher and I were working at their neighbor’s farm, helping with an old-fashioned barn-raising. For two hot days, I nailed down endless floor boards, while the men prepared the rafters for the final assembly. Towards the end of that second day, putting away nails in a shed, I had a genuine “barn find”: the chore scooter.

The short, squat creation is best described as a mini-me version of Henry Ford’s 1903 “999” racer. A tall one-cylinder air-cooled industrial engine sat in the front of its stubby bare frame. Two back-to-back three-speed stick shifts converted its thumping torque into nine speeds. Their output fed directly into a narrowed automotive rear axle, on which an old tractor seat was mounted, facing a junk-yard steering wheel.

The chore scooter’s pre-ATV mission: scoot the farmers around their large spread. To my eyes, this proto-auto, the archetype of all four-wheeled automotive vehicles, was perfection. It was the ideal blank slate, the veritable automotive white canvas upon which to express fully the range of my childhood auto-imagination. That afternoon, as I tooled around the farm on its bare bones, the chore scooter eagerly metamorphosed into every vehicle of my childhood dreams.

With a twitch of the wheel on a graveled curve, I was heading sideways for Monte Carlo in a Saab 96. In low-low gear, playing those split rear brakes, I crawled up the steepest banks in a Dellow trials special. Pounding across the rough field, I caught air in my CJ-3 Jeep. And cutting a circle in the packed dirt of the steer yard, I let her fly, like the “Mad Russian” Bill Vukovich in his Kurtis dirtrack roadster.

I revved up the beleaguered old Wisconsin, leaned back, popped the clutch and lifted a wheel (or two?) pulling a hole-shot in my G/Altered at the Summer Nationals. I cruised down the lane in my vintage Mercer Raceabout. Out on the road, I shifted both trannies into top gear and opened her up. Hunched down, I flew down the Mulsanne at Le Mans in my Jag D-Type at somewhere between 40 and 180mph.

That glorious summer day, every automotive thrill was mine for the taking. When I sheepishly returned to the farmyard low on gas, Mr. S grinned, told me to fill’er up and go have some more fun. This was unexpected, as joy riding is not part of the Mennonite ethos. But unlike my stern preacher host, this round middle-aged man had a ready smile and wink. He knew a little fun wasn’t going to take me and the chore scooter straight to hell.

So I made the most of my opportunity. I knew it might be a long time, if ever, before I’d have another chance to drive such a perfect set of wheels. When I reluctantly swung shut the shed door on the crackling-hot scooter, I somehow knew that I was closing other doors of my life.

The men raised the barn the very next day. I felt privileged to watch the well-orchestrated spectacle, knowing I was a witness to an increasingly rare event. Well over a hundred church members and neighbors showed up in their cars and horse drawn buggies. The women cooked dinner and set out long tables under the trees. Using block and tackle, the men lifted and assembled the huge rafters, posts and beams. I mostly watched– too young to work with the men, too old to play with the children.

At day’s end, when a fully-framed enormous barn stood in front of me, I felt as if I’d been witness to a farewell performance, a final lesson designed to instill a lasting insight into the value of self-reliance, and the power of community.

In recent years, I’ve been entertaining thoughts about a “project” car. I’ve had visions of a four-port-head Model T Speedster, a Triumph TR-3, a Bugatti Type 35 replica, a Caterham 7, a 1930’s dirt-tracker, and a CJ-3 Jeep, among others. They’ve been received, contemplated and, thus far, rejected.

In my quixotic search, I’ve been looking for that one elusive vehicle that encompasses all of their qualities, and more. So I’ve been struggling to go deeper and locate the well-spring, the proto-type of my visions. In the middle of writing this article, awash in the memories of that magical late-summer afternoon, I’ve finally realized the fount of my unresolved automotive yearnings: the chore scooter.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Esldude Esldude on Mar 18, 2007

    Your list of possible project cars is almost exactly same as mine other than the CJ which I would replace with a 32 Deuce. I think I am looking for the same thing too. A simple, basic, elemental fun car. I know you can never get one car to be the best at everything. But maybe a simplified design can get you to all the fun parts well enough. Doesn't need to be fast, or anything, just needs to feel alive and interesting to spend time driving. May the gods of automotive bliss smile on you during your quest.

  • Jjd241 Jjd241 on Nov 04, 2009

    Just catching up on some old posts after finding some of Paul's other columns. Here is a CJ-3 project idea!

  • TheMrFreeze This new 500e is selling really well in Europe, but here in the US the demographic that would be interested in a car like this is definitely in the minority. At $33K for this upscale model is a tough sell but hopefully incentives will come into play to make this a much more appealing option for those looking for a funky daily driver or a practical second car for the family
  • ToolGuy "EVs tend to be less efficient at higher speeds on highways than commuting around town. It’s also important to note that where you live and how you drive can have an outsized impact on range, as people with lead feet or those living in colder climates may find a significant drop in range."• Let's not forget elevation changes!Signed, Captain Obvious 🙂
  • Probert The EPA estimate is just that. Of course weather and driving habits affect the range. This is not news. The EPA tests on a combined cycle, so just running at 70 is not what the EPA numbers reflect. That said, my EV - a humble KIA Niro, freequently exceeds estimates, even on long highway runs. If most of your driving is local and stop and go, you can expect a range around 20% above estimates. The important thing is that the range estimation that the car gives you, is accurate, as it reflects your actual driver habits. Also, even with winter drops, or high speed runs, an EV is about 400% more efficient than an ICE.
  • ToolGuy Telluride killer
  • Ollicat And I don't think this test included changes in the weather which can affect range another 15 - 20%. Plus, I understand that it is very bad for the battery to run it down to zero. From my research on battery longevity, one is supposed to keep their battery from 20% to 80 or 90%. So in effect, one only really has at most, 70% of the posted range on an EV, if they want to preserve the life of their battery. And the ultra quick chargers are also supposed to be used sparingly. Hmmm.