My father, James, has always been the handiest of fellows. Growing up, we only got a color television when he decided to build one himself, from an old Heathkit product. Sure, the colors were tinged green and cyan much of the time and you had to fine tune it with this panel of circular dials in a rack you slid out of the television, and then you had to do that visually, but what the heck, it was color. My Dad had a knack for that kind of thing– his basement was a mad scientist refuge of shortwave radios, satellite trackers, antenna parts and shop tools. Before he was an early adopter in everything you can conceive of in the electronic realm, his big passion in life was (and is) small wooden boats. Being a product of the Naval Academy, he was thoroughly enmeshed in naval history and culture, but his big thing was always the small coaster vessel or harbor sailing boat– preferably wooden and hand crafted. He made a mahogany and teak double-seat kayak by himself. It was solid work and a thing of beauty. I remember helping him varnish it (inexpertly) as a youngster. His next small boat project was to build a small harbor sailing boat from a famous design, the Pelican.
(that’s not it; I don’t have any actual pictures of our Pelican. Ours was blue)
This was a fun little craft with room for our family of six on board. It may look kind of squat in this picture, but with the wind hitting her just a few points right of dead center she could really scud along at an amazing clip. I remember we sailed her all along the harbor of Monterey Bay when my dad was at the Naval Postgraduate School. Of course, even the best sailboat design will require a small outboard motor from time to time. Dad found the one he wanted, too.. in Great Britain.
This is a British Seagull Two Stroke marine outboard engine. The Seagull wasn’t loud and flashy, but it was small, dependable, and could cheerfully propel a hull of up to about 26 feet in length, so it had a lot of power in its tiny frame. The Seagull was designed for small boats (mostly wooden) so naturally my dad knew a lot about the Seagulls and no other outboard motor would do for him. He made arrangements to have a Seagull outboard motor shipped all the way from Wolverhampton, England to Monterey, California. This is where our story picks up.
The Seagull arrived after about three months of anxious waiting on my dad’s part. The engine was everything Dad could ask for, and would ultimately render years of good service. What caught my eye was the shipping container. This wasn’t reinforced cardboard, no sir. The Seagull shipped in a sturdy wooden box, already cut to be converted into a storage container (there were rope holes already drilled in the side for future carrying loops). A good Internet picture of this container remains elusive but these should give you some idea:
The crate was longish, about 4 feet and some inches long, and wide, maybe 2 feet 6 or slightly under. I was entranced with this thing. British Seagull Co Limited had built a sturdy container to be sure, but what to do with it now? We didn’t have a garage to store it in in Naval housing. Dad planned on hanging the Seagull on a wall in the shed, so when I asked to have the container he just shrugged and said why not. Immediate plans started forming in my head. We were too old to play “forts” with it, it wasn’t going to work as a tree house, so there was only one thing for it– downhill racer. In that era (California, 1970s), soapbox derby racing was still a thing. Soapbox racers hardly looked like the boxes they were named for. They were streamlined, space-age looking and went down a hill like poop through a goose. We reasoned, hey, this is an actual BOX, we can put wheels on it, and get into soapbox racing! Yay!
Dad wasn’t one of these over-protective parents. His views about child safety were at best, laissez-faire but not remotely Darwinian, exactly… Experience being a good teacher, burnt hand teaches best, etc. etc.. So he helped us with construction in a bemused, Dad-like fashion. I think the idea of the DIY reuse/rebuild racing cart appealed to him. Wheels weren’t an issue. We salvaged some very utilitarian axles and wheels off of some cart or something. They were tiny, the axle was slightly wider than the wheel base of the Seagull box, so it seemed perfect. Did we measure it? Nah! That’s for wimps! We eyeballed it! Then we installed our new axles roughly straight-ish by using a series of nails as “U clamps” by bending them over the axles. This was a design decision that would come back to haunt us, as we’ll investigate presently.
Steering? Well, as you can see from the pictures above, the box came equipped with handle holes if the owner wanted to store the motor in the shipping case. Dad drilled a hole through the front support and attached a wheel that could pivot on a bolt in there (using a countersink drill bit to give the nut some breathing room). We then added a wheel axle attached to a piece of 2 x 4 wood he cut to match the axle and attached it to the box and rotating nut. Two eyelets were attached to the front of the rotating piece of 2 x 4 and cut pieces of clothes line were attached. Then the bitter ends were run up to the two holes drilled by the company for carrying handles and pulled in to box. By pulling really hard on one rope or the other, we could steer this mammoth object while in motion, and pull them both out to tow it back up a hill. Smart, huh? Wellll.. hm.. as it turned out, the steering system was more theoretical than practical, and that’s something you should probably nail down early in any wheeled vehicle design. We’ll circle around to this later.
So the day arrived for to take our monster off of the blocks and out for a sail (as it were). We wanted to give it a cool name like Comet or Pirate or Cheetah.. Dad solved it in laconic fashion by saying “Call it the Fat Box, because that’s what it is”. We liked that– it had a certain panache all its own. So we pushed Fat Box out of the driveway and started to pull it up the nearest hill. Fat Box seemed enormous to us (though it really wasn’t, based upon the pictures I’m seeing). There was room for two kid-sized people max– my neighbor Scotty (about a year younger than me) was along for the ride. The nearest hill was La Mesa drive. La Mesa drops off from the hill where the elementary school is and descends for a long straightaway down into military housing. The Fat Box was heavy, and we had another guy along to ride with and help with the pulling. His name was Ricky Graves and he was a heavy kid, red faced and sweating, but exactly who we needed– because he was pretty strong, too. At the top of the hill I remember I was in the box with the neighbor kid (Scotty) and Ricky was holding on to it like an anchor.
I should point out we didn’t overlook safety gear– we were wearing my Uncle Jerry’s M1 Marine Corps helmet.. I was wearing the liner and Scotty wearing the brain bucket.
Nothing but the best for us!
So the Fat Box was on the lip of the hill. Scotty and I were nestled in the box itself, with myself in the back, feet braced against the center brace, and with the two steering cords all the way back at my end. Eyeing the steep grade, Ricky asked the only sensible question uttered that day. “You sure you want to do this?” You know, sometimes science isn’t about “Why?”, it’s about “Why the hell NOT??”, and we were feeling reckless. So Ricky shrugged and let go, and immediately we received our first lesson in momentum and potential energy. For such a crudely built and ungainly vehicle, the Fat Box LEAPED into top speed almost immediately. I mentioned this hill was steep, right? Looking back, all I could see was Ricky Grave’s astonished look as his face dwindled away rapidly.
DOWN we zoomed.. fast, fast and going faster, and our first design flaw became apparent. Nobody had even thought for a second about a smart way to slow this thing down. No brakes! Since we were at that moment bumping and bouncing down a steep hill right out into a busy intersection, heading into a suburban neighborhood with steady traffic, suddenly I had what Go enthusiasts call “atari“, or that moment of perfect clarity. We had best work on that “Slowing Down” part of downhill racing, and fast. Fortunately, my ten year old self wasn’t all about romantic notions.. I had come prepared. I fished out a length of wood, and tried to push it down on the back wheel to get it to slow down by friction. I suppose that might have worked in the Old West on a buckboard wagon or something, but in reality, here on La Mesa hill at top speed, the lumber flew out of my hand when I attempted the “stick in the wheel” method. As we tensed up, we couldn’t help but notice the Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon dead perpendicular to us at the bottom of the hill, rapidly approaching. I put everything my frame could put into heaving on the left hand steering rope, and we discovered the limitations on the steering system. The way the lines were rigged, the more you pulled on them, the more resistance there was from the angle of the rope rubbing against the holes and the forward bottom leading edge of the Fat Box. Suddenly, we were discovering the vast gulf between what looks like it will work in the shop and what actually works in the field. What was going to be a frantic 45 degree skid into a roughly sideways to the direction of travel configuration ended up being about 5 degrees left of center. VERY fortunately the Pontiac moved out of the way just in time as we swooped by the first intersection and shot into the neighborhood beyond, still going downhill, still not showing the least signs of stopping.
As we rolled down La Mesa drive, we actually passed an early model Volkswagen Bug with a young Navy mom inside it frantically waving at us to slow down. The grade was greatly diminished now but still downhill, so we thought our chances were fair to middling we might survive if we could get off the street and ditch into a lot a little further down. There was a small lot full of gravel and leaves that we sometimes played kickball in just a another block down on the left. Scotty had been crouched in a little ball, his helmeted head peering over the edge of the Fat Box, eyes wide, the entire trip so far. He looked like a demented version of that old Kilroy was Here graffiti. I yelled at him to grab the steering on the left and yank, hard.. I got up and bracing myself on the center strut, leaned out to the left a little. Gradually the Fat Box overcame inertia and heeled over a bit– and we shot straight at the little abandoned lot with the gravel. At this point, several things happened at once. The rear axle, which had been held on with bent nails, was never really on “straight and true” because, of course, we eyeballed it, remember? This was causing the back wheels to roll a little bit left of true and wobble a lot. When we tried to get the craft to yaw gracefully to the right, the tortured axle gave a mighty SNAP of disapproval and was now two pieces. The back of the box settled into a violent skid on the wood strut that had been carrying the axle and suddenly forward momentum was being dissipated as kinetic energy and splinters. Scotty was never a steady hand at the tiller, and gave up active steering for cowering and covering his head. For ONCE the wheels turned in a direction we were trying to make them turn but this time violently overcompensated, so now we were approaching the curb to the little gravel lot in parallel, rapidly decelerating. The Fat Box slammed into the curb, and proceeded to flip, free of the bounds of earthly gravity for one, critical, beautiful second– and the constraints placed upon it by the heaviest object on board, that is, your humble narrator. You see, I, too, was now enjoying a nanosecond of aerial ballet as I ejected out of the top (where I had been leaning to get the Fat Box to turn into the lot). I proceeded to glide like an ungainly chicken fired out of a cannon.. and land face first in gravel and dirt, sliding about 6 feet (I think.. it’s all a little blurry). I laid their groaning for a bit (with some spectacularly vivid contusions and scrapes, but otherwise undamaged). Eventually getting up, I found that the Fat Box was now as thoroughly destroyed as a thing can be– the combination of flipping, Scotty rolling around inside it, and the stresses of landing had done for the poor thing. The front was missing, the side was caved in, the British sturdiness we had admired a cruel lie. Fortunately Scotty was less hurt than I was and laughing like an idiot. I was momentarily saddened to see our grand design go down in flames like this, but for one glorious moment, we were about as cool as kids can be. That has made it all worth it.