The Dodgems

They began life in 1929 as the Midget Auto Cars. Mountain Park converted their former food stand, installing a steel floor and a chicken wire ceiling. The Midget Auto Cars were manufactured by the Dodgem company from Lawrence, MA. A sign read, "Dodgem means 'Don't hit 'em.'" The arena was a free-for-all, a big open rectangular space about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. A figure painted to look like a british bobby was placed in the center and patrons were encouraged to slam into it. During World War II, the figure was repainted to resemble a japanese soldier. Eventually the figure was removed entirely and a long island was created in the center with free-spinning tires at each end and spring-loaded wooden bumpers on each side. Spring-loaded bumpers also rimmed the entire arena. The springs were basically car suspension springs, really heavy-duty. One was placed about every two feet along the length of the bumpers.

When the Collins family took over the park, the entire inside back wall of the building was covered with mirrors eight feet high and four feet wide. Between them were eight foot high florescent light tubes. It was quite spectacular at night. The wall hid a small workshop just behind it where the cars were repaired. The cars would travel -- most of the time -- in a counter-clockwise circle around the island. Large arrows placed on the walls proclaimed "One Way" but the signs were often ignored by the riders. If that wasn't enough to get their attention, the operator had a P.A. system (a Radio Shack CB microphone patched into a speaker horn). All through the day, the operator's admonishing drone of "Turn around! Turn around!" could be heard.

The Dodgems, with its spectacular faux-geodesic roof facade, was always one of the busiest rides in the park and was one of the last to close at the end of the day. Mechanically, it was pretty simple. The cars were made of incredibly heavy steel and rimmed by a thick hard rubber bumper. The steering wheel turned a small steel wheel in the front. The larger steel back wheels were connected to an electric motor. Those wheels also tranferred the neutral current from the floor into the motors. The hot current was in the ceiling. Roger Fortin, the park supervisor, constructed a new ceiling from perforated metal sheeting and that proved to be much more durable than the chicken wire. The hot current was transferred into the car by a long post on the cars back. The top of the post sported a long arching metal strip that glided across the sheeting, often sending sparks flying. To make sure the cars wouldn't get stuck too often, every morning before the park opened the floor was dusted with powdered graphite and the bumpers and island tires were sprayed with silicone lubricant. This is why there were big signs that read, "NO RUNNING." The signs were usually ignored, and often kids running across the slippery floor would wipe out and then stand back up covered in black graphite dust.

Depending on how many people were in the park during the day, varying numbers of cars would be put into service. I believe there were twenty cars in all. Most of the time, about twelve would be used at once. The idle cars were stored on either side of the arena (facing the Sky Ride and Merry-Go-Round) with their noses facing the wall.

Operation was simple. After letting people in and filling the available cars, I'd make an announcement on the P.A. system: "Follow the arrows. Go one way and one way only. No head-on bumping." Then I'd turn the timer switch to 3 minutes (1 or 2 minutes on really busy days) and push the "On" button, located under a low wooden shelf that we used as a seat. The ride would automatically shut off when the timer ended. Or if there was trouble, I could press the "Off" button. Much of the time was spent watching the riders and making sure no one went the wrong way or got stuck. Often, younger riders would drive themselve into the wall and then just sit there blankly staring forward, as if the wall was going to move for them. I'd call out over the P.A.: "Turn your wheel. TURN your wheel. Turn your WHEEL! HEY! YOU! The kid in the red shirt! TURN YOUR WHEEL!" But the kid would just sit there staring forward angrily as if he'd been robbed of a ride. So at that point I'd usually hitch a ride, grabbing onto the post of a passing car and standing on the back of the car's bumper. I'd tell the driver to drop me off near the stuck kid. I'd hop onto the stuck car, grab the wheel, turn it and the car would then roll back onto the arena. As I passed by the entrance I'd hop off. At the end of the ride I'd call out on the P.A.: "WALK to the exit." But of course, kids wouldn't listen and run as fast as they could. That's when most of the wipe-outs would happen.

It was important to keep the riders going in the same direction. Head-on collisions not only could damage the cars and the floors, but could hurt the riders as well. The cars went pretty fast in the confined space. When cars collided head-on, often the front ends of both cars would lift up off the ground and crash back down, and the riders' heads would snap forward. Rear collisions were more forgiving, unless a car moving at full speed collided with one that had stopped. In that instance, the stopped car would often lurch forward and slam into a nearby bumper, then recoil back into traffic. A car hit on the side would spin away like a propeller. It was a pretty violent ride, but usually left everybody laughing. Sometimes a group of kids would gang up on one kid they didn't like and repeatedly slam into him, but I usually tried to prevent stuff like that from happening.

Most of the time when I worked at the park the ride was regularly operated by Tom Gagnon, a wirey guy with Harley tattoos and a Fu Manchu mustache. He wore a leather cap and a leather vest with chains attached to it. He looked really threatening but was actually a nice guy, if a bit of a curmudgeon. When the park shut down at the end of the night, the Dodgems, the roller coaster and the Dinosaur Den were the only rides in the park that usually still had long lines. Instead of turning the people away, the line would be emptied. That meant that the Dodgems often kept operating after the park had officially closed.

After the park closed, the ride was sold to a guy from New York named Tom Murray. He claimed he was from Coney Island. He wanted not only the cars but all of the mirrors and lights from the back wall as well. So Roger asked me and Danielle Pomales to dismantle them. It didn't seem like a difficult task. Although the mirrors were large, they were attached to the plywood wall simply, with standard mirror mounts. So Daniel and I decided to unscrew the mounts starting at the top and finally just loosen the bottom mounts. Then we could walk the mirror back and stand it against the wall. After we removed the mounts, Daniel grabbed the bottom of the mirror and I grabbed the upper sides. We slowly lifted it and began walking it back. We then heard a strange sound, like thin ice beginning to crack. Daniel immediately let go and ran off. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and I was standing there holding nothing. At my feet was a pile of dust and mirror fragments. Small shards of glass were embedded in my hands and arms. After thirty years, pressure on the stress fractures that had developed in the mirror had been released and the entire mirror imploded. We told Roger what had happened. He didn't believe us, thinking we had dropped the mirror. He decided to take one off himself. The same thing happened, except this time a shard of glass cut his wrist. After that, Roger told Murray if he wanted the mirrors he'd have to remove them himself. (Murray did hire someone else to do it.)

Underneath the Dodgems was a storage area. The old mirror maze from the Fun House was kept there, as were arcade machines, wood and all sorts of miscellaneous items. The back of the building had a giant sign welcoming families to the park. In later years, the sign was completely obscured by large bushes and trees. But the ride remained one of the single most memorable things in the park. Most families would walk up that inclined road from the parking lot. The carousel was on the left. On the right, the arcing poles of the Dodgems were visible. The smell of graphite was pungent. The rumbling of the cars over the steel floors echoed down the hill, along with the happy screams of the passengers. It was a child's invitation to come have fun.