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The gang rides again

Posted September 17, 2014 in Uncategorized
Vern Radcliffe, Don Nokes and Jerry Wells on their prized Doodlebufs. Photo by Dave Totten.

Vern Radcliffe, Don Nokes and Jerry Wells on their prized Doodlebufs. Photo by Dave Totten.

If all it took was enthusiasm to put a place on the map, local Doodlebug owners would have long ago put Webster City there in big red letters.

Webster City has legitimately earned its claim to fame as America’s — no, as the world’s — “Doodlebug Capital.” The little red scooters known as Doodlebugs did indeed originate in Webster City. And it is here that Doodlebug enthusiasts reunite each year to celebrate, tell stories, buy, sell, trade, ride, learn tips for restoration and share a camaraderie and fascination for all things Doodlebug.

According to Vern Radcliffe, one of the Doodlebug Club of America founders, an estimated 1,000 or so Doodlebugs remain.

Doodlebugs were manufactured by the Beam Manufacturing Company of Webster City from the spring of 1946 through fall of 1948. During those three years, there were four production runs of 10,000 scooters each. Of the 40,000 produced, only about 1,000 were standard model B, manufactured during the first run and equipped with a Clinton engine, making them very rare today. All the others, including standard model A, C, D and super model E, had Briggs and Stratton engines. To the trained eye of a Doodlebug enthusiast, the difference in models is shown by the color of the grips, the engine or other slight differences.

Built side by side on an assembly line with automatic washers, the bugs were designed by engineer Harry Mertz who was hired by Beam to design washers. The bugs, however, were an answer to declining washer sales and an effort to save jobs. They used a surplus of  Beam’s allotment of steel to address a need for short-distance transportation. Designed and manufactured during a time when the war used many of the nation’s resources, the little 1.5-horse-powered scooters were sold at Gambles (a hardware store chain that sold appliances, bicycles and general hardware) initially for the sum of $69. By the end of their production, their selling price was a whopping $169.

Nowadays, the little red bugs are a coveted item. Some have turned up on websites such as eBay in serious need of restoration for about $800. A fully restored or custom-modified model can bring thousands of dollars.

After production had stopped and the surplus frames had been discarded, Don Nokes, a local Doodlebug owner and club member, bought some of the frames for 50 cents apiece from the local junkyard. He sold them for $5 apiece in the ’50s.

“Now, they’re probably worth $500,” he remarks, wishing he had them now. Nokes’ love for Doodlebugs dates back to when he was 12 years old. He and a couple of  friends would ride the scooters around town and get “chased home by police,” he says. Although they were street legal at the time — despite the fact they had no front brakes or lights — a person had to be at least 14 years of age to ride one. He fondly recalled riding the alleys, going to Highview and back to collect pop bottles, just having fun.

“When I was a kid, and I had my Doodlebug, I was totally legal,” Radcliffe chuckles. “I was 14 and bought a new one. I rode it to school from out in the country.”

In 1946 his cousin bought one in Webster City, he remembered, and rode it all the way home to Waterloo. They did about 20-25 mph. Not bad, considering the limit was 35 mph at the time.

Jerry Wells, the resident club “webmaster,” says in the ’50s, when he was 14, he had a learners permit and owned a Doodlebug. They were licensed and street legal.

“All the guys had them. They were just thick in Webster City, like bicycles,” he says.

Probably the only thing better than owning a Doodlebug would be finding the one you had owned as a kid. Wells hoped to track his first Doodlebug by a patch his father had put on the gas tank, but the trail eventually went cold.

Don Nokes is tweeking his bugs for the reunion. One is being restored as original; the other is customized and has a 6-horse-power engine. Photo by Kristine Peed.

Don Nokes is tweeking his bugs for the reunion. One is being restored as original; the other is customized and has a 6-horse-power engine. Photo by Kristine Peed.

Radcliffe has one Doodlebug in the process of being restored, making him the owner of five. Nokes has “just two,” he said. Wells also has “just two.” Many owners ride both restored and customized bugs.

“A lot of the Doodlebugs had the original engines and are shot. Unless you are willing to have that rebuilt for about $1,000, you’re gonna replace it with a higher horsepower engine so when you pull the rope it starts and will run when you want to ride it,” says Wells.

Wells put a 6 horsepower Subaru engine in his. It doesn’t go any faster, but it runs better and is more dependable. A lot of the guys have the same engine, but they exchange methods for gear and throttle hook up for the best performance. Some have been known to get up to 60 mph, according to Wells.

Reproduction parts can be pricey, but old engines can be tuned up and work well, Radcliffe insists. He rides one with an original engine. Owners have become resourceful in their efforts to restore their bugs. When in early production, one of the problems with the washing machine was it “walked” when it spun. They decided the fluid clutch used on the Doodlebug would solve the balance problem. Some Doodlebug owners have found those washer clutches and re-bored the hole to fit the bug shaft.

Information about buying, selling, trading, parts, vendors, production information and more are all provided on the website, which is intended to help owners with their restoration efforts.

There is a lot more to these little red bugs than their monetary value or the interesting modifications and restorations that get enthusiasts so hooked. There is the nostalgia for a time and way of life long past. They represent a part of history (owners consider the bugs to be the last tie to Beam Manufacturing). The bugs still hold a bit of mystery, and even some urban legends are attached to them.

“We keep unraveling something new every year,” says Radcliffe.

“Which keeps the search for the truth interesting,” adds Wells.

Nokes shared a story of one member being a kid and having a engine in his Doodlebug go bad.

Vern Radcliffe, owner of  five Doodlebugs, proudly displays one restored to original condition in his office. Photo by Kristine Peed.

Vern Radcliffe, owner of five Doodlebugs, proudly displays one restored to original condition in his office. Photo by Kristine Peed.

“He put an electric motor on it and using 50 feet of an old TV antenna cord, hooked up the motor and ran it for as far as the cord would allow him to go, back and forth. It was basically the first electric vehicle in the country,” he chuckles.

A guy who posted online says he had no idea what he had purchased at a garage sale, but through his Internet research found a name, and the origin as Webster City, Iowa.

Two Doodlebugs were known to be in Okinawa, shipped there after the war. When the American officers left, the bugs were left behind.

The bugs were also sold in Canada for a time, under a different name, after Gambles bought out a small chain of stores there.

Another story has surfaced that details how, in 1950, Webster City assembled a batch of Doodlebugs and sent them to Minneapolis. The three men had only recently learned of that story but have yet to verify it.

Now, with a Doodlebug Club of America website, www.wcdoodlebug.com, they see people out there who are searching for information about what they have and where it was made. They have discovered owners of Doodlebugs turn up in locations from Indonesia to Brazil. And members are connected, sharing stories and photos and ideas.

Since the website has been up, and with all increasing interest in the bugs, the estimate of 1,000 reamining Doodlebugs is expected to grow. Radcliffe’s wife has been taking many calls concerning the reunion and the events planned. Just recently, a gentleman in northwest Kansas purchased an incomplete Doodlebug at a  farm sale and hopes he will make the trip to Iowa for the reunion, along with other first-timers.

Attendance has been averaging around 100 with about 70-80 bugs. Visitors come from across the United States, according to the club members.

As evidence of the bug’s scarcity, and its high desirability among current owners, Wells adds a final thought:

“If anyone has any Doodlebugs they want to get rid of, they are to call me, not these guys,” he says.





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