Having a three-year-old means that you find yourself getting re-aquainted with cultural figures you haven't really considered in a very long time. For example, my son Otto is very taken with noted avian sailor/hothead Donald Duck. As with anyone I want to know more about, my first question was obvious: what's he drive?
The answer to that question, I found out, is much more involved than I ever would have guessed. It's not widely known, but I'm a former child myself, and as a child I was a big Donald Duck fan as well, though I never knew anything about his car. That may be why I was so surprised to learn that Donald's car is A Thing. It's not just some random cartoon car that changes from cartoon to cartoon or comic to comic — it's a specific car, with specific traits and history. It's even got a name: the Belchfire Runabout, also known by its license plate number, 313.
(from Col. Joivil)
It's actually a 1934 Belchfire Runabout, to be specific. That sort of year/make/model syntax does imply that it's a production vehicle — well, even a fictitious production vehicle, but it's not. The story goes that Donald Duck constructed the car out of parts from a number of cars.
In one panel from a 1949 comic book, a particularly astute dog who seems to hold some sort of security position assesses the car as having
... 1920 Mixwell engine! '22 Dudge body! '23 Paclac axles! Wheels off a lawn mower! But it runs!
And though I seem to remember my grandfather driving a '45 Paclac after he wrecked his '33 Mixwell into the plate glass window of a Dudge dealership, I believe all of these are fictional makes. Still, Donald's car may better be thought of as a Belchfire Special. Oh, and it's also sometimes known as a Duckatti, just to keep things nice and confusing.
Somewhat more grounded in our tedious, non-anthropomorphic duck world, the 313 seems to be loosely based on an American Bantam, which itself was loosely based on the British Austin Seven, and the Bantam went on to loosely base the famous Jeep of WWII. So there's a lot of loose basing going on here.
The 313 number is either Donald's fictitious birthday (March 13) or a reference to tripled bad luck (3x13). The car first appeared (in a slightly, subtly different form) in a 1937 animated cartoon called Don Donald, where the car has a pretty big role. Donald acquires the car by trading a donkey for it (still how most cars are acquired in the duck community), and this action is probably most hilariously described in the Google-translated German version of the Duckapedia, as
Here Donald exchanged ass against the car to at his flame Donna Duck to impress.
After this initial appearance, the Belchfire made its definitive introduction in a July 1, 1938 comic by Al Taliaferro, who added the 313 number plate and defined/refined the essential look of the car, with its bubbly fenders, external headlights, short wheelbase and rumble seat.
What's appealing about the 313 is that an unusual amount of gearhead-style attention has been paid to the car, with artists adding details and information over the years. The car is prone to many breakdowns for plot-furthering and comic effect, and has even been split in half on a few occasions, giving interesting glimpses into the car's internal details.
In fact, a really, really detailed cutaway of the 313 was produced in 1998 by Claude Lacroix in a French journal, and here we can see all kinds of details about the car. It's an inline twin engine with an overhead cam, driving the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission. There appears to be a solid live axle at the rear, and pretty basic suspension design, but it does seem to have rack-and-pinion steering. I think those are drum brakes all around, and the seats look very well-sprung.
For a cartoon car, this is a staggering amount of information. There's even a simple wiring/circuit diagram in the drawing. I had no idea Donald Duck was such a gearhead (though I have heard he was a prolific inventor in reality) — there's even sketches on the walls showing amphibious, dragster, and F1 possible variants of the car.
Of course, someone has built an actual, working 313. The real-world realization is from 1991, in Norway, where Donald Duck seems to be unusually popular, for Norwegian reasons I know nothing about. The replica looks to be incredibly accurate down to the very cartoonish proportions of the drawn car. It's powered by an Opel Kadett engine, and I'd love to know more about those crazy, bubbly tires.
I can't believe I never knew about Donald's trademark car before. I really love that it's been a consistent part of the character for over 75 years, and that it's been treated like an actual vehicle, with some frankly obsessive attention to detail. Next time I'm at Disneyland with Otto, I'll be sure to try and pester Donald to let me take it for a Jalopnik Classic Review. I'm sure they'll be up for that.