Happy July Fourth! I’m a proud American, and as a proud American, I believe America’s automotive history is rich and diverse and complex enough that we don’t have to always celebrate, or even sale-a-brate, the usual suspects: the Corvettes, Bel-Airs, Camaros, Avantis, whatever. That’s why this year I want to honor America’s smallest, and likely ugliest, car ever made: the Eshelman.
Specifically, I want to focus on the Eshelman Adult Sports Car, a car named so not because it contained brief nudity and adult situations, but because Eshelman also built a nearly identical children’s car.
Cheston Lee Eshelman was a very interesting guy, starting his engineering and inventing careers in the early 1940s, when he developed a strange, radical flying-wing airplane that looked sort of like a flying flapjack, called the Flying Flounder:
Eshelman set up a company to produce light commercial aircraft, and later established a company in Baltimore to build garden tractors, lawnmowers, and similar motorized equipment. From there, around 1953, he decided to get into the automobile business, but only just a little—quite literally, as Eshelman began to produce incredibly simple, tiny cars, targeted as kid’s cars or golf carts.
Eshelman advertised these cars mostly in small ads in the backs of magazines, and generally, the cars were delivered by mail. The first models were the children’s cars, designed to seat two kids, and were 54 inches long, two feet wide, weighed about 225 pounds, and moved via a rope-start 2 horsepower Briggs and Stratton one-cylinder air-cooled motor which could get the car up to an in-context-respectable 15 MPH.
Adults could cram into these cars, too, as Representative Francis Dorn demonstrated as he used one to campaign for re-election:
Some trivia: that was the dude that advocated for putting the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954.
Just look at the face on that thing, though (the car, not the Congressman)—it’s terrifying. That massive, gaping mouth full of thick, crude teeth! It has the scary face of an angler fish without hundreds of feet of seawater between you and it. That’s not a shayna punim, there.
Even so, I have to admit, I kind of love it.
I guess seeing a full-grown Republican Congressman sitting in an Eshelman children’s car made the company realize, in 1955, that maybe there was a market for a bigger car, for actual adults?
While Eshelman seems to have occasionally advertised its basic child’s car as able to hold one adult and go 25 MPH (left), the new, enlarged Adult Sport Car had a ravenous six horsepower engine that could whisk an adult and a second adult across the landscape at breathtaking speeds of up to 35 MPH.
I’m not really kidding; I think if you’re sitting in something that’s basically a giant metal shoe with a motor in it, 35 MPH must feel pretty damn breathtaking.
The Adult cars were 64 inches long, three feet wide instead of two, and had a one-banger Briggs and Stratton engine that displaced a microcar-acceptable 249cc. Some of these engines made as much as 8.5 hp, if you can imagine that.
Bodywork was still pretty minimal, but at least there were door cut-outs and a real rear wheel opening, as well as larger headlamps, real taillights, and, best of all, the Eshelman trademark chrome rocket remained on the flanks. There was no system to charge the battery, though, so if you ran the lights a lot, you’d have to recharge the battery on your own.
A fire at the Eshelman factory in 1956 pushed Eshelman to sign a deal with a cutlery company to build Eshelman cars in Maryland. Around that time, Eshelman had the bold idea to move the cars a bit upmarket, developing the Sportabout model, which was 72 inches long, had a funny tall roof, an 8.4 hp engine, real upholstery and suspension—hell, this thing was practically a Rolls-Royce, only a Rolls that was still delivered to your house in a wooden crate.
If you were, like, a sultan or something and somehow a Sportabout wasn’t enough for you, Eshelman also offered a Deluxe Sportabout which came alarmingly close to being like a real car.
These had pretty crude, boxy bodies (but the trunk could hold 500 pounds, they claimed!), and had nine horsepower engines—that’s first-generation Citroën 2CV territory, people. The absolute top of the line, though, seems to have been the 1959 Eshelman Model 903, which could be had with a 16.8 hp engine and seemed an awful lot like a real car, just tiny and fiberglass.
These ads are pretty amazing for a few reasons: first, the use of what have to be well-dressed gnomes or 2/3-scale humans to pose next to and in the cars, and the delightful hedging of ad claims by printing things like “believed to be” in small print above “LOWEST PRICED CAR BUILT IN THE USA.” It also qualifies that with “that will pass state inspection,” but that seems a pretty fair qualifier.
These last, far more complex and well-realized Eshelmans are very interesting, but only about a dozen were built, so they’re incredibly rare today and can’t really be considered a success of any sort.
Soon, Eshelman stopped building his own cars and started doing crazy things to Corvairs, which I’ve covered before.
Eshelman also developed an interesting safety innovation that utilized a car’s spare tire as a sort of “crash absorber” bumper.
That didn’t really catch on, either.
Eshelman isn’t exactly one of the big names in American motoring, but in many ways, he embodied what I love best about small-scale American carmakers: a lot of innovation, a willful contempt for the idea of quitting, and a drive that actually made things happen, at least to some degree.
To celebrate Eshelman, here’s a guy tearing ass around a neighborhood in an Eshelman Children’s Car with his kids in their go-karts (one of which is a Herbie), set to the Herbie music:
I bet he’s the owner of that 2CV, too.
Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans.