This was from the brief time, a few years ago, when car magazines thought it was a good idea to feature my particular brand of irresponsible idiocy. I warned them against it, but they insisted. With money. My only weakness. This was commissioned by an off-roading publication. I no longer remember the name. They never sent me a copy, much less a notice that it had been published, and internet searches turn up nothing. I am going to assume that I’m either cleared for use under copyright law, or that I was doing mushrooms at the time and hallucinated the entire job. They wanted it to be a sort of Cracked cross-over, so we re-used a couple of entries from my other columns (with permission, of course). But some of them are new, or substantially reworked.
We modern day idiots like to think we have a lock on ridiculous vehicular death defiance. Our trucks can take more damage, our bikes are faster, our planes fly higher – hell, we even have sci-fi staples like jet packs with which to mock the reaper in his frumpy old-lady robes. But no matter how much high engineering and hard science we put into our own hurtling attempted-suicides, the past has one thing that modern man just can’t compete with: Giant, wobbling, almost unhealthily gargantuan balls. Back when ‘seatbelts’ were a rude suggestion, and ‘crumple zones’ were your own face and arms, people were hooning their automated carriages and motorized cycles in ways that put our modern shenanigans to shame.
Globes of Death
The Globe of Death is basically a simple physics demonstration: Centripetal force can keep a moving vehicle from succumbing to gravity even when it’s gone completely parallel to the Earth. Though it looks like snarky motorcycle riders are exploiting a loophole in science, it’s relatively easy, if you know what you’re doing. We even have a few globes of death still around, running in county fairs around the world – though they have become a rarity, as children of today find watching reality programs about storage far more compelling than a man flipping about on a guided missile inside of a metal hamster ball. But those globes up there – the kind that you may have seen before, nestled between the funnel cake booth and the tilt-a-hurl – they were actually considered tame back in the day. Here’s what the real ones used to look like:
That variation was called the Hornby Smith Globe, and though it works on the same basic principle as a regular Globe of Death (drive fast enough and hope that physics just sorta loses track of you), the consequences for failure were a hell of a lot more severe. Lose control in a normal Globe of Death and you fall no more than 16 feet, which is plenty enough to kill you, especially when you factor in the 300 pounds of out of control motorcycle trapped in there with you. Lose control on a Hornby Smith Globe, and you fell potentially hundreds of feet – sometimes into nice, forgiving water, sometimes into flames, or sometimes directly into the audience below, depending on how jaded with death the carnies had become over the years.
And falling wasn’t unheard of. Motorcycles today are just barely contained engines; back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, they were more like politely redirected explosions. Drive chains could and did frequently snap, overheated tires blew — hell, even a simple stall and accompanying drop in speed would send the rider straight to their death. But at least the old-timey vehicular daredevils died doing what they loved: Trying to die as elaborately as possible.
The Peking to Paris Autorace
The Dakar Rally today is pure madness: We’re pitting the height of modern technology and human endurance against the worst that nature has to offer across two continents. And it’s absolutely brutal. But that’s nothing compared to the races of yesteryear. One of the first major international rallies was the Paris to Peking in 1907, which all began with this random challenge issued by French Newspaper Le Matin:
“…We ask this question of car manufacturers in France and abroad: Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile? Whoever he is, this tough and daring man, whose gallant car will have a dozen nations watching its progress, he will certainly deserve to have his name spoken as a byword in the four quarters of the earth…”
There was an initial response of 40 teams willing to mount up what was, at the time, a barely existent form of transportation and race it across half the globe, all because some French wood pulp dared them to. But 35 of those teams had apparently entered on drunken promises and with fingers crossed: Only 5 teams actually showed up in Peking (modern day Beijing; they’d reversed the initial route to avoid monsoon season). Due to low participation, organizers quickly cancelled the event…which meant less than nothing to the teams, who all went ahead anyway and held an ad-hoc intercontinental death rally just for the hell of it.
Remember: Cars in general were such a new thing that most of the western world barely had roads. They were plain non-existent in the east: The racers had to take narrow footpaths and bumpy horsecart trails – they even drove up planks to mount their tires on railroad tracks, until the inevitable happened and the Italian team found themselves frantically prying up their car as an oncoming train barreled down on them.
If you’re unfamiliar with your early 20th century Chinese history (not you, esteemed reader, surely), this puts the route right through the heart of rural China in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, wherein the long-oppressed Chinese finally rose up and murdered every foreigner they could find (but especially the western European ones), then up into the Gobi Desert, where racers had to feed their drinking water into the car’s radiators just to keep them from catching on fire (not always successfully), and through post-revolution Russia. So to sum up: The Paris to Peking racers were mostly affluent Europeans in a place that hated affluent Europeans, they had no infrastructure in place for their largely experimental vehicles, and were trying to race them through two continents of hostile territory and post-warfare chaos. It’s like hopping in an electric car today, and racing from Somalia to the North Pole via Iraq, while blasting the Star-Spangled Banner the entire time.
The Italian team finally won, after 61 days of puttering a 40HP motorized cart through the most dangerous places on Earth, past several billion people that wanted them dead. They had nearly been hit by a train, fallen through a bridge, fought off a crowd of angry villagers with pistols, and caught fire in the middle of the desert.
And they did most of it without brakes, which they’d lost somewhere in Russia.
But hey, at least they claimed their prize: One single bottle of Mumm’s champagne.
Just take a minute and really appreciate that photograph. Cast your eyes on the man who has just been freshly ejected from a speeding automobile. There he is, currently flailing through the air. Now turn your gaze slowly to the other man — the one with a giant smile on his face, waiting to smack said crash victim with a comically oversized mallet before he hits the ground. Everybody in that image either died immediately after it was taken or were promptly investigated for suspected Highlanderism. But that was auto polo:
You would head out to your nearest muddy field, mount up an unstable, dangerous, rickety car — a vehicle that had only been invented 30 years earlier, remember — and then wail the bastard about psychotically while swinging a friggin’ hammer over your head. That’s like you and your friends buying a bunch of jet packs and jai alai sticks today and just setting off into the open sky, giving the finger to your concerned families — it’s insane that you would even own the technology in the first place, much less have the balls to violently misuse it like that. Auto polo was not just some Jackass-style one-off stunt, either: Demonstration matches were frequently held at county fairs and stadiums all across the country, though it was most prominent in the Midwest during the early 1910s. It was usually played with a basketball, and the only mandated gear was a jaunty cap and a callous disregard for human life. It was every bit as unquestionably awesome as it was uncontrollably, screamingly idiotic:
That picture is perfect. It’s everything art should be: There’s an Old West style sheriff in a ten-gallon hat, grimly staring off into the sunset as a pair of land-based airboats wait patiently for permission to start their automotive hammer-jousting. I’m going to dedicate that last sentence to my wife, because that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever created.
Don’t go thinking that auto polo was a case of things looking worse than they really were, either: I’m not cherry-picking exciting photos from a boring event. If you couldn’t guess from the ridiculous abundance of overturned cars and men flying through the air, about to successively eat shit and then have their heads bashed in by their own hurtling hammers…
Auto polo was so deadly, it was eventually banned nationwide. Heartbroken enthusiasts of sport and blunt-force injuries the world over had to pack up their families every Sunday, and settle for attending another boring old…
This was how you took in a show, back in the day. It was like going to the matinee now, only instead of watching Jeremy Renner pout in front of a shaky camera, you had the kids stick their unshielded little faces out over a bowl of automotive trauma and told them to inhale the heady fumes of gasoline and jungle predator.
Lion Dromes originally started as a spinoff of the Globes of Death, but of course, driving sideways in defiance of how everything should be wasn’t entertaining enough for the discerning automotive hooligan of yesteryear. So they added lions, naturally. Makes perfect sense: What’s better than oddly stoic men in severe suits bolting small lions to tiny cars and trying to outrace a million years of primal, murderous instinct … sideways?
That’s easy! Hot women and giant lions bolted to tiny cars and flinging haphazardly about a little wooden arena!
Our forefathers were so jaded by the rampant, unchained awesomeness of day-to-day life that they looked at motor vehicles defying gravity with zero safety measures and stifled a yawn. Then they politely requested that the show owners mix some comely lasses and apex predators into the Bowl of Death to really earn that nickel admission fee.
I know that we, as a species, have come a long way since then: We have established such important concepts as “human rights” and “respect for animals” and “basic, rational safety measures” in our modern society. And that’s great. Wonderful. But maybe it’s time we all stopped and asked ourselves: Is it worth what we gave up? Is it worth the total and complete absence of angry lions doing sweet motorcycle tricks in our lives?
I humbly posit that it is not.