Ten years ago, I received a letter from a man named Bob Shotwell who lived in a small town in Minnesota. He knew that I liked old cars from watching me on television. And he wanted to give me one.
He recalled that he asked his father for a car as he was about to graduate from high school in the early 1930s. But his dad replied that if he wanted a car, he should build one. So, 17-year-old Bob scrounged parts and made his own car. It was a little three-wheeled coupe powered by a 77.2-cu.-in. four-cylinder 1931 Indian motorcycle engine. Bob called it Philbert the Puddle Jumper. He and his brother, Edward, made headlines in local newspapers in the Northwest when they drove it on a 6000-plus-mile jaunt. He told me that he eventually racked up 150,000 miles on it.
Bob Shotwell went on to a career as a pilot for Northwest Airlines, retiring in 1975. He married and raised two children--and his little coupe was always an important part of the family’s life.
But at age 82, he was afraid that the car would end up being torn apart by motorcycle guys for its precious Indian engine. He didn’t want that to happen. So, he said he’d give me Philbert as long as I promised that I wouldn’t break it up.
Interestingly, the editors at Popular Mechanics sent me a copy of The Boy Mechanic, a book the magazine originally published in the 1930s and republished this year. It was aimed at boys age 8 and up. I looked at a lot of the projects. No kid today could build them. I don’t think guys in their 20s could tackle some of them. But back in the ’30s, there was no TV, no video games--some people didn’t even have a radio. So, kids developed the skills to create their own neat stuff. Bob Shotwell was obviously a child of that era.
He took a front end from a Model A Ford, cut it down a little bit and used the hubs from a ’32 Ford. But at the little coupe’s heart is the Indian four-cylinder engine with its integral three-speed transmission driving the single rear wheel via a chain. There’s no Reverse. And there were two little electric blowers for cooling everything in the engine compartment.
Bob made a frame with chromemoly steel tubing and angle iron. He hammered the body panels by hand out of flat stock steel at his father’s radiator repair shop. He even designed a pair of little outrigger rear wheels, probably taken from shopping carts, to keep Philbert from flipping if the rear tire blew. Bob took two years to build the car and he spent about $300 on the project.
I was really impressed with Bob’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. As we began restoring the car, I felt a real kinship to the man. Simply by looking at what he had done, I knew I liked Bob Shotwell. As with musicians who admire each other’s music, I felt a bond with this mechanically minded man.
But the decades had taken their toll on Philbert. The engine wasn’t just worn out; it was exhausted. We replaced the original gravity-feed carburetor with an SU carb--modern compared to what was there--and an electric fuel pump. We saved the block and crank but put in new pistons and rods, and replaced all the valves. Everything we did on the car was difficult, since it all had to be hand-fitted.
We also had to upgrade things for California’s climate. First, we replaced Bob’s oil cooler with a larger one. But on my first test run, I smelled acid. Driving in the Los Angeles heat had melted the battery. So, we put air scoops on the roof to feed a more powerful fan. We also removed his fender-mounted spare tires and smoothed the fenders to give the car a sleeker look.
As we were working, I checked in with Bob from time to time. When I first got the car, I think he thought that we'd have it in shape and running over a weekend. But it was an overwhelming project and took a few years.
I never did meet Bob Shotwell. He died in 2004. But I know he was thrilled that his car was not simply broken up and salvaged for parts. I think he'd appreciate the modifications we made to modernize the car without changing it much. I keep in touch with his wife, Peggy. She still lives in Minnesota, and since her husband's car is in Hollywood now, it's of interest to people back there who've known about it for years.
Maybe the best thing about Philbert the Puddle Jumper is that it is a driveable and vital link to a very different time. A kid building a three-wheeled car and driving it for decades is something that could have happened once, but that world is lost forever.
Just think: In those days a 17-year-old could go to the motor vehicle bureau to get license plates for a homebuilt, motorcycle-powered vehicle. The folks at the office would say, "What kind of car is that?"
"Oh, I made it myself."
"Lights work? Horn work? Okay, here are your tags."
Can you imagine?
By Jay Leno
Via: Published in the October 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.