If you spent any time walking the mean streets of Downtown Long Beach before 1971 or so, and you’re still alive against all odds, you can consider yourself a survivor of the Autoette menace that terrorized local pedestrians throughout the Vietnam-Cold War-era.
For our purposes, Autoette is a trade name for the little electric shopping car created by electrical engineer Robert Tafel in Long Beach shortly after he moved to Long Beach in 1936, but now it’s a generic term for the little three-wheel, stick-steering carts that were manufactured under several names, including Mobilette, Marketeer, Marketour and the Electric Shopper.
There were electric cars in existence in Long Beach at the time Tafel arrived in Long Beach. They were called Custer cars, for their inventor, L. Luzern Custer, and to call them cars is to engage in hyperbole. They were basically electric-powered wheelchairs (the term “electric chairs” was probably not much considered) and were chiefly used by polio survivors and infirm veterans of World War I to get around town. The cost was about $300 (more than $5,000 in 2018 dollars), which was nearly prohibitive. Tafel reckoned he could make it cheaper, and he did. Soon the little cars were zipping all over town.
If this brings back memories, or dredges up a long-subsumed fear, or if you want to know more about how Long Beach was the sun of the electric cart galaxy, one of the nation’s premier experts on the subject, Larry Fisher, will cover every aspect of the “low-speed electric vehicles” in a presentation, “The Autoette, As Modern as Today: Long Beach and the Electric Car” from 1 to 3 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Historical Society of Long Beach. It’s part of the society’s “Chrome: Cruisin’ Cars and Clubs” exhibit.
Fisher is the executive director of the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum in Pomona, and when you think of hot rods, three-wheeled electric golf-carts don’t automatically spring to mind. “I got into electric carts by accident,” he said. “I collect vintage motorcycles and I was out someplace checking one out at someone’s house, and I saw that he had an old Autoette,” said Fisher. “I said, ‘I remember those when I was a kid,’ and I’d forgotten about them. I passed on the motorcycle, but I bought the car.”
At one point, he said, he had 36 of them. Now they’ve joined the fleet at the Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation, in Kingman, Arizona, of which Fisher is a charter board member. “After I bought the first one, I started researching them and I began to realize there was a lot of incorrect information about them in the websphere. And I found out that Long Beach was the epicenter of their production.”
Tafel had the good fortune of inventing the Autoette just as World War II was breaking out, and the defense industry snapped them up to use in warehouses and factories, where they were put into use instead of gas-powered Cushman carts.
“After the war, the momentum increased,” said Fisher. “They became popular as a second car, and their names, like the Marketeer and the Electric Shopper, reflected the idea that they were a viable alternatives to a second car for housewives to do their shopping and run errands.
“They were sidewalk legal and curb cutouts allowed them to drive up on the sidewalk, so they could park right in front of the store. Businesses along American Avenue (Long Beach Boulevard) had Autoette parking.”
The cars, especially when they took to the sidewalks in large numbers, were more of a nuisance than a peril, said Fisher. “There weren’t a lot of accidents, but the cars were unstable at speed and if you turned too fast you’d flip it over.”
At the dawn of the 1970s, the Autoettes had become enough of a problem that they were basically legislated off the streets and sidewalks, and Downtown pedestrians rejoiced. The three-wheeled vehicles are now just a memory.
But electric carts are far from dead. In fact, they’re making a resurgence in beach communities, such as Belmont Shore and Naples, where parking is a problem and they’ve become the vehicle of choice for people just wanting to zip into town for a meal or shopping.
“People look at these modern vehicles and, yeah, they have better construction and they look nicer, but their performance, ironically, is about the same as the Autoette. They top out at about 25 mph and they have the same 50-100-mile range. People talk about them being modern, but all they have to do is look back 50 years,” said Fisher.
“We’ve already been there.”
The Historical Society of Long Beach Gallery is at 4260 Atlantic Ave. Tickets for the Autoette event are $25.
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