Here’s A Look At The American Roller Coasters You Could Drive Your Own Car On In The 1920s

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Today, when we think of taking a car to the track, that usually means one of two things: a quick run down a dragstrip or a usually quite expensive and almost always too-short session on an actual racetrack. The truth is that for most people, neither of these are options that are regularly taken advantage of. Both track driving and dragstrips take special sets of skills and they can cause real damage to your car if you’re not sure what you’re doing; they’re great, but for beginners looking to just use a car for fun in a controlled context, there just aren’t many options. But, once, long ago, there was an incredible and strange and probably far more dangerous option: car roller coasters.

A car roller coaster is probably exactly what you pictured when you heard the words: a roller coaster-type track, only with your normal car driving on it. This type of track had the erudite, sophisticated name of Whoopee Auto Coaster, and the first one was built in a Chicago suburb called Lyons, in 1929.

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The company that built the Whoopee, the factually-named Coaster Construction Company, built similar tracks in Los Angeles, Detroit, Seattle, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Camden, New Jersey. These were wooden tracks, with lots of undulating hills and banked turns but, as far as I can tell, no one was daring enough to try to build in any loops.

Some of these coasters appear to have had painted tracks on the, um, track that helped drivers visually guide the skinny tires of those Model Ts and other teens-and-’20s-era cars on the right path for, I suppose, optimum fun and, if we can even really use this word in this context, safety.

An article covering the Los Angeles track described the track, which it noted was built in conjunction with a large, but un-named, amusement park:

The surface of this elevated roadway shown above
is perfectly smooth – smooth, but not level. A succession of dips and rises that range in depth from five to ten feet afford motorists, running their cars over the course, all the thrills and pleasures of a roller coaster.

The road is constructed entirely of wood. Its circumference measures 2,243 feet, and a railing protects cars from skidding off the edges. It is wide enough to allow two cars to pass easily, but only one-way traffic is permitted. Drivers are instructed to follow the white guide lines painted on the surface of the roadway.

Although the curves are banked to make it practically impossible to turn over when rounding them at a fast rate of speed, the dips and rises will throw a car out of control if driven too fast.

I like how the article ends with a bit of a scary warning, and the caption also mentions that the “owners of this auto coaster “get ’em both ways,” because not only do you pay to drive over the loop, you also have to pay to park inside it. Really, that’s not that unreasonable.

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There are wooden railings that I suppose could keep a car safely on the track if speeds remained low enough, but I’d think if you were really cooking all those railings would do is make the coroner add a line about “severe wood splinter intrusion” into the police report.

Some sources mention speed limits on the track, which makes sense, though I’m not exactly sure how they’d have been enforced effectively. A guy with a whistle and a lot of trust in people?

Delightfully, there is some footage of the tracks in action, being enjoyed, which you can see here:

Mostly, the track seems to be a roughly half-mile loop of those undulating hills which I’m sure were pretty fun. The turns were said to be banked enough to prevent a car from rolling over (the video doesn’t show any, but they do seem to have been a part of the layout, since it was loop), and it seems the track is wide enough that if you had to pass a car in front of you, that would be possible.

I’m amazed that there seem to be no records of horrible crashes on these things. The cars were all top-heavy, leaf-sprung things with crappy cable-operated brakes, usually only braking half the wheels involved. And they appear to have allowed multiple cars on the track at once, which you would think would be a recipe for a lot of painful rear-end collisions as a faster car pops up over one of those humps.

Plus, the whole thing is essentially a huge sine-wave bridge made of wooden sticks built by local carnies. Added all up, it feels like a clandestine project from some pro-organ donation cabal, but, incredibly, bloodbaths didn’t happen.

What did happen to kill the project was more basic: when the American and global economy went to shit in October 1929, people were no longer in positions to possibly wreck their cars tearing ass over a series of wooden humps, and the auto coasters died out after 1930.

Could something like this even be possible today? I feel like insurance alone would make it unlikely, and the idea of the driver of the car having total control of speed and steering seems a bit improbable. But, perhaps modern safety technology could let you drive over a bonkers track of some kind with enough safeguards that disaster could be kept at bay. It’d be kind of like the races in that 2008 Speed Racer movie:

But you know, with less fiery crashes, I guess.

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34 Responses

    1. Labor too. They used to build racetracks out of wood at the time, and it was a ton of work to keep them maintained. There are some incredible photos of the old board tracks of the time – its just incredibly dangerous.

    2. Found this –
      “In partnership with a local businessman named John Skale, the company announced it would build a full scale park on 23 acres surrounding the track; plans called for the erection of practically every kind of device… the kind found in old school amusement parks and traveling carnivals.

      It seemed a good idea at first. Car ownership had boomed throughout the Twenties. Yet, after a couple weeks operation, the novelty of the Whoopie Coaster wore off; then, it was necessary to stimulate patronage by giving two or more rides around the track for a single admission. And after the stock market crash that October, drivers would become much more cautious about wear and tear on their cars. It was soon evident that the Whoopie track was a one-season wonder.
      By 1930, the Lyons track had closed, its proposed full-scale park never built.”

      At River Road and Irving Park Boulevard in Schiller Park, Illinois, the Suburban Amusement Company used 200,000 feet of number one pine lumber to construct what it called an “auto coaster.” For just ten cents you could enjoy the thrills of “mountain driving” in your own vehicle. The Whoopee Auto Coaster at Waukegan Road near Willow Road in Northfield delivered the same excitement over a “mile-long plank road.”

  1. As a teenager growing up in SLC in the nineties, North Redwood Rd. near Lehi Utah was pretty close to this. It was mile after mile of butterfly inducing hills with hardly anything around to stop you from mashing the gas pedal to the floor. I assume that sprawl has probably ruined that though.

    In my early 20,s living outside of Oklahoma City there were some great coaster roads. Those are probably still there if you’re lucky/unlucky enough to live there.

    1. Where I live (mid-Atlantic region) there are some decent coaster roads like this, esp. out in what passes for “wine country” here.

      On weekends, I’ll make an afternoon trip of it on my motorcycle, doing laps on a rough circuit.

      It’s esp. good fall and spring when the foliage is sparse enough that you can easily see through the turns. The best part is I’ve found a road that runs through a flat grassy pasture area…features two big sweepers, nothing to crash into, usually no other vehicles, and perfect visibility. It’s probably the only public place where I embrace my Nicky Hayden fantasies.

  2. “Could something like this even be possible today?”

    Y’all are clearly forgetting about the glory that was TLC’s Full Metal Challenge. Okay, by “today” I mean “20 years ago,” but their “Roller Coaster” game was basically the flagship challenge. http://www.ukgameshows.com/ukgs/Full_Metal_Challenge

    The full series (only 1 season) used to be on YouTube but seems to be scrubbed. Fortunately, I have it all on a hard drive. It’s a genuinely fun show to rewatch, and bizarre as hell. Why is Henry Rollins hosting a game show about homemade cars? Who knows. But I love it.

    1. I absolutely obsessed over that show when it came out. It was the same era as Battlebots for homebuilt weirdness.

      I remember the “Octopush” car won that event, right? They also had that “soldier ant” car made from two aircooled Beetle rear ends (articulated in the middle, I think?) and I swear there was a weird little skid-steer thing that was basically an up-scaled zero turn mower.

      Mostly I’m glad someone else remembers it. I didn’t hallucinate it!

      1. Yes! The “Octopush” was basically an 8-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-steering truck with 2 Rover 3.0 V8s. It won and for good reason–it was absolutely unstoppable.

        The “Double-Dub” is the VW you’re thinking of, and yeah. Two beetle rear ends joined together with a hinge in the middle. Wild.

        And “Black Thunder” was built by the New Zealand team who were all lawn mower engineers, and they did exactly what you said–upscaled a zero-turning-radius riding mower design.

        Gosh, now I think I AM going to submit a piece on this.

      1. You should email them a few sample paragraphs! I remember watching that -and their junkyard challenge-back then. Should have called it Full Mental Challenge: it was pretty out there.
        Do see if they’re interested. I’d sure read the article

  3. RE: Doing it today – Isn’t this what Musk has done with his stupid tunnel idea? Except slow speed and not at all fun? Judging by how straight the tunnels are, there are probably dips in the road as well.

  4. This looks like a ton of fun!
    And we also need auto wash bowls back! The EPA wouldn’t love that very much I guess.
    I don’t think the car roller coaster would be impossible to do today.
    There are also plenty of private off-road parks, that aren’t any less dangerous.
    Sign a waiver, and go have fun.

  5. My favorite parts of a local rallycross were where the course took advantage of the small elevation changes. Is there a rule against setting up a course somewhere with enough contours to satisfy this itch?

  6. I live where we literally have hundreds of miles of roller coaster roads in every direction. Low traffic, good asphalt, good weather, stunning scenery. 97470. I drive a Boxster S and ride a Yamaha FJ-09. I live on Speedway Rd. And I’m single. I wonder sometimes if I’m already in heaven.

  7. Back when I was a kid, we loved it when Gram drove. Gram would veer to the edge of the road at crossing to bump us all over the hump. Great times could be had in a Rambler.

    One of the roads in Arizona passes across several aroyos providing a similar up and down motion. And yes, a VW Vanagon Westfalia can get airborne, just in case anyone was wondering.

  8. Really? 1929. Hmmm.

    They had Prohibition so no legal alcohol from 1920-1933 but you can drive on this death trap at your own risk.

    I suspect that is was just a cover (1920’s Illinois?!?) for a way to sell some of that “good ole mountain dew”.

    “Momma, why’s daddy so happy all the sudden?”
    “Just shut up and hold on, sweetie”

  9. That reminds me of some of the small bridges over railway lines round where I grew up.
    You could certainly get air-time if you went over them fast enough, although they are mostly only a single lane wide, and you can’t see what’s on the other side. In fact I’m surprised I made it through my teens without wrecking any cars.

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