More cynical, less danger: The parking cop three-wheeled vehicles are reborn

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, Jennifer Devine, a human sexuality teacher in San Francisco, rumbled on the school grounds at her Harley-Davidson, a grand entrance that broke the ice with students before her workshops. These days, she comes with even more fanfare—in a hot pink three-wheeled parking enforcement vehicle with old-school funk on the stereo.

After breaking her leg in 2018, Ms. Devine bought a 1996 Go-4 Interceptor, best known for daily driving to the city’s dreaded parking police. “People get out of your way because you’re driving a metered car,” she said. As she approaches, motorists are quickly turned away from parking spots in fear of tickets, even legal ones—despite disco balls dangling from her fur-lined ceiling.

Ms Devine, 54, is among a few dozen San Franciscan loose-knit groups retrieving former Go-4 and Cushman Parking enforcement vehicles for transportation and personal expression. “If there is more creativity in the way we move forward in the world, it is an antidote to the gloomy and sunken place that many people find themselves in nowadays,” she said.

Vehicles have a distinct practical advantage. Three-wheelers are legally classified as motorcycles, so they can be parked perpendicular to the curb. As a result, the drivers of these mini-trucks – a little over four feet wide – urgently find parking throughout the city, while the four-wheeled cars circle the blocks in vain, their drivers furious.

The interceptor decorated by Ms. Devine is a work in progress. “I got a nice bowling trophy to use as the hood symbol,” she said.

Outrageous decor is a necessity. “These cars are magnets for hate,” said Alec Bennett, one of the longest-standing owners of such cars in San Francisco. He bought his first of many Cushmans in 1998.

“When a meter made car is out overnight, it’s time for people to vent their frustrations,” Mr Bennett said. He constantly reports graffiti and shattered windows – and vehicles slamming into his side. The antipathy only deepened his love for the old Cushman industrial vehicles, whose history has been mostly overlooked.

Cushman Motors Works, founded in 1901 in Lincoln, Neb., produced engines for agricultural equipment in the 1930s and 1940s before becoming famous for its scooters. During World War II, Cushman made two- and three-wheeled vehicles for the military—including a scooter designed to be dropped by parachute.

After the war, the company became a leading manufacturer of golf carts and tricycles, which are used by the Postal Service in ice cream trucks and municipal parking enforcement. The company traded hands several times over the decades, eventually handing over the leadership of the niche market of parking patrol vehicles to Westward Industries, the Canadian company that makes the Go-4 interceptors.

Thousands of communities have bought Cushmans and Go-4s to wheel tires and distribute tickets. But San Francisco appears to be the only city where Vehicles, post-retirement, garners a cult following. A tragedy sparked this trend. In 2005, a San Francisco parking officer was seriously injured when the brakes on his patrol vehicle failed. The safety of older Cushman models was questioned. The city immediately took those models off to regional auctions, where artists, mobile sellers, and lovers of small, funky vehicles grabbed them.

“All of a sudden there were Cushmans you could eat,” said Mr. Bennett.

Their new availability coincided with the increase in popularity of the Burning Man festival. Burners, as the festivals were called, were looking for “mutant vehicles”, creatively shaped or modified vehicles allowed at Burning Man Ground in the Nevada desert.

Mr Bennett, 51, turned one of his first Cushmans into a mobile photo booth at Burning Man. A few years later, he placed an acrylic bubble top on another tricycle, turning it into a rolling greenhouse with growing plants and a configuration of six horns that play “La Cucaracha.”

Back home, Mr. Bennett persuades his girlfriend, Maxim Philip, to buy him a Go-4 Interceptor, and advises him to stick a Barbie doll to the ceiling to prevent mischief-makers from sabotaging the vehicle. She agreed, but the strategy failed.

“Someone cut off the head of my Barbie doll,” said Ms. Philip, 48.

In Mr. Bennett’s 23 years of tooling around the Bay Area in a private Cushman, he has become an unofficial ambassador for parking enforcers.

“I’ve met the greatest meter maids,” he said. “They’re great. I mean, I can’t imagine the trauma of having six negative experiences every day.”

Mr. Bennett wants to see the city come to an end with a new breed of easy-to-park, electric three-wheel trucks. “They’re incredibly practical, super user friendly and cute,” he said. But the market is almost non-existent. With automakers completely abandoning small cars in favor of SUVs, most industry analysts haven’t bothered to predict the three-wheeled market in the United States.

“They are very specific,” said Ryan Citron, a senior research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, which tracks the micro-mobility industry.

The old school Go-4 Interceptor uses an internal combustion engine from the Ford Festiva and, in later years, similar Kia models. The result is a strange mash-up of a man’s cabin and a tiny front-wheel-drive car placed behind the front end of the motorcycle.

Ms. Devine, the sex teacher, takes her interceptor to the highway. “I drive across the bridge regularly,” she said. “In California, you can split lanes, so when there’s traffic, I turn on my stereo too loud and drive between cars.” She regularly uses the three-wheeler for camping trips to the redwoods of Ukiah and Willits, Calif., more than 100 miles north.

Most owners wisely stay off the highway. Amos Goldbaum, who uses the 1992 Interceptor for his arts and apparel business, once accidentally ended up at Highway 101. “I was driving on the shoulder at about 40 mph,” he said. “The other cars were zipping up. It was scary.”

Cushman models, which are less capable than the Interceptor, are powered by Kohler agricultural engines or seafaring units from the Outboard Marines. Most of them are beaten after 20 years of rigorous service and public misconduct.

David Gardner, who makes sets for theater and film in San Francisco, has a Cushman-like pickup from 2008 to 1985. “You can’t tap the brake with your toe,” he said. “It’s a full foot thing.”

Drew Oaken, executive producer for a marketing agency, said he felt every bump in the road while driving the Cushman Truckster in the mid-1990s. It also takes time to get used to the three-speed stick shift located to the left of the center steering wheel.

Another problem is the gas gauge, which is broken on Mr. Ocon’s vehicle. Timing the refill requires intuition. “I’m like, ‘It’s been about 30 days. I just paid rent, so I must go fill my gas tank,'” he said.

Chances are good that owners who need repairs get in touch with Jerry Caldwell, a Bay Area mechanic for these vehicles. Mr. Caldwell, 63, has provided a wide range of repair services from the city’s Industrial Bayview area for 37 years. During a recent stroll through his shop and yard, there were nine parking enforcement trucks of various vintages.

“I have a boneyard too,” he said. “It’s out there behind the tree.”

Mr Caldwell, who has a long gray beard and shoulder-length hair, said half a dozen new Cushman and Go-4 truck owners had called him over the past month. Prices range from around $500 to $7,000, depending on model and condition.

He’s working on a gorgeous fire-engine-red 1961 Cushman Truckster ice cream truck. It’s owned by TreatBot, a company that before the pandemic used to send “ice cream karaoke trucks” through the streets of nearby San Jose.

Mr. Caldwell, a native of San Franciscans, first became acquainted with Meter Made Trucks in the mid-1980s. The owner of a neighboring business got fed up with people pushing his Cushman to his side, so he gave it to Mr. Caldwell, who used it to move heavy equipment around his shop for three years. It can haul 1,000 lb motors.

Over the years, Mr. Caldwell developed a reputation as the man who breathes new life into failed parking patrol vehicles. It is both a business and a passion. He loves retro designs and simple mechanics, and he considers many modern cars, especially electric vehicles, to be useless.

“I like things that can be recreated,” he said.

Mr. Caldwell set aside the original 1994 Go-4 Interceptor for a personal project. He plans to swap in a 120-horsepower Mazda engine, add a set of old racing wheels, beef up the brakes and put a bullnose bar in the front.

“I have to put them on the road,” he said. “Someone has to do it. They’re unique.”

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