Bumper cars: A crash course on the classic amusement park ride

Roller coasters and their trainloads of screaming passengers hog skylines and get most of the glory. Spinning carousels with their majestic prancing steeds and lively band organs project auras of charm and nostalgia. Towering Ferris wheels, bathed in colored lights, sparkle against night skies.

Bumper cars, however, are housed inside buildings away from the tumult of the midway and typically get lost in the shuffle. The ride may not have the panache of other classics, but bumper cars have been essential attractions from the earliest days of amusement parks to the present. Getting behind the wheel of one is a rite of passage. No visit to a park is complete without landing a good ka-thunk or two.

One of the first bumper car rides may have been the Witching Waves at Coney Island’s Luna Park, according to Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project. The attraction debuted at the New York amusement mecca in 1907 in a large outdoor oval along the Bowery. The cars were not powered by electricity, but relied on an undulating floor to propel the low-slung vehicles, which passengers steered using levers.

There were other attempts at one-off attractions, but the bumper cars that we know today can be traced back about 100 years ago to the Dodgem Corp. in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They included long contact poles that scraped along an electrified grid ceiling and transferred power to the cars. The distinctive poles remain to this day on many bumper car attractions, and the occasional arcing sparks they generate and the smell of ozone they produce are among the ride’s idiosyncrasies. Some bumper cars forego the poles and draw power from floor pickups.

Unlike the precision rack-and-pinion steering found on modern automobiles, the wheels on the original Dodgems were more aspirational in nature. “The early cars were kinda clunky,” says Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. “If you turned the wheel to the left, it might go right and vice-versa.” (Futrell should know a thing or two about the ride since he has a vintage bumper car in his basement.) The balky steering probably made the experience, where the goal has always been to bump other cars and dodge the cars trying to bump you, simultaneously frustrating and giddy.

As the rides evolved, the steering improved. But one of the attraction’s peculiarities has been the cars’ ability to go backward. It’s often a requirement to get out of a multicar pile-up or to free a car that gets pinned into a corner. The cars don’t have gearshifts, but drivers can go in reverse by turning the steering wheel 180 degrees, which faces the front wheels backwards.

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