Bumper Cars: What Sadist Thought Crashing on Purpose Was a Fun Idea?

Bumper cars are a fan favorite at countless fairs, amusement parks, and family-friendly events. But when you really think about the concept behind the iconic attraction, it sounds absurd. Did someone at some point say, “Hey, let’s build cars that people can crash into each other on purpose”? Sadistic much?

But there’s more to the history behind the carnival attraction than crashing cars. You might even be surprised to learn that the original idea didn’t intend for bumper cars to hit each other at all.

Taliban fighters apparently love bumper cars

Bumper cars amuse plenty of people, including apparent Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Recent videos have popped up all over social media, showing members of the Taliban celebrating their recent takeover of Kabul by going for a spin in bumper cars. Insider shared additional details, including shocking images of fighters brandishing guns as they slammed into each other on the ride.

Though these recent viral videos of Taliban fighters driving bumper cars are disturbing and reflect a devastating turn of events, it also demonstrates a worldwide appreciation for the fun nature of this ride, better known across the pond as dodgem. These videos prove that bumper cars continue to attract fun-seekers across the globe.

What might be surprising to learn about dodgem, too, is just how old the concept is — and that its original intent was for the cars to avoid collisions, not aim for them.

A brief history of bumper cars

Actors Omar Epps and Hugh Laurie ride bumper cars in Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier in California in July 2007
Actors Omar Epps and Hugh Laurie ride bumper cars on the Santa Monica Pier in July 2007 | Lester Cohen/WireImage

The first official bumper car is said to have debuted in the early 1920s. A Massachusetts company called Dodgem invented a vehicle with erratic and unpredictable steering. Looking much like today’s models, the historic cars would be hilariously impossible to steer, making them fun (or frustrating) to navigate. But the whole point of the ride was to challenge participants to avoid hitting each other. Of course, ramming into other cars was a byproduct of the crazy steering.

These original bumper cars weren’t designed for collisions either. Pinstack Bowl points out that early models practically fell apart upon crashing. In one early Russian version, adults deliberately slamming into others resulted in escorting offenders off the ride.

How these vehicles actually work

It didn’t take long for amusement park-goers to realize how much fun it could be to drive erratically and ram into others without getting seriously hurt. And improvements in car designs and technology meant later versions wouldn’t fall apart. For example, the original bumper car was more open than those you see today that have leg and feet enclosure protection. Today’s dodgem cars also have seatbelts and better stability than historical models.

What hasn’t changed much is how the arena is designed and how the cars operate. The original Dodgem design featured a vehicle with a long contact pole that scrapes an electrified ceiling. The power transfers to the car, allowing it to accelerate. In fact, today’s bumper cars still operate with the same power design, USA Today reports.

You’ll find dodgem cars nearly everywhere family fun and amusement thrive, from seasonal fairs to permanent vacation hotspots. So the next time you hop in one and start spinning the wheel, remember you’re enjoying a ride designed 100 years ago. And the original version of the bumper car didn’t look all that different from the one you might find yourself riding today. 

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