Reclaimed three-wheel ‘meter maid’ cars all the rage in San Francisco

Many in San Francisco are reclaiming former Go-4 and Cushman parking enforcement vehicles for transportation and personal expression

Photo: Maxime Philippe with her Go-4 Interceptor in San Francisco.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times (cropped)

Photos: Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

15 September 2021 | Bradley Berman | New York Times

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

After she broke her leg in 2018, Ms. Devine bought a 1996 Go-4 Interceptor, a vehicle best known for ferrying the city’s dreaded parking police, for daily driving. “People get out of your way because you’re driving a meter maid car,” she said. As she approaches, motorists fearful of a ticket quickly pull away from parking spots, even legal ones — despite the disco ball hanging from her fur-lined roof.

Ms. Devine, 54, is among a loose-knit group of a few dozen San Franciscans who are reclaiming former Go-4 and Cushman parking enforcement vehicles for transportation and personal expression. “If there’s more creativity in the way we move in the world, it’s an antidote to the sad and sunken place that many people find themselves these days,” she said.

The 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, drivers of these mini-trucks — a little over four feet wide — find immediate parking throughout the city while four-wheeled cars circle the blocks in vain, their drivers fuming.

Ms. Devine’s decorated Interceptor is a work in progress. “I found a cool bowling trophy to use as the hood emblem,” she said.

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

Ms. Devine is still adding to the décor of her Interceptor.
Ms. Devine is still adding to the décor of her Interceptor.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times
The three-wheelers are legally classified as motorcycles.
The three-wheelers are legally classified as motorcycles.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

“When a meter maid car is out overnight, it’s people’s time to vent their frustrations,” Mr. Bennett said. He reports a steady succession of graffiti and shattered windows — and vehicles tipped on their side. The antipathy has only deepened his love of vintage Cushman industrial vehicles, whose history has been mostly overlooked.

The Cushman Motors Works, founded in 1901 in Lincoln, Neb., produced engines for farm equipment before becoming known for its scooters in the 1930s and 1940s. During the Second World War, Cushman made two- and three-wheel 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 three-wheelers for use by the Postal Service, as ice cream trucks and in municipal parking enforcement. The company traded hands several times over the decades, eventually ceding leadership of the niche market of parking patrol vehicles to Westward Industries, the Canadian company that makes the Go-4 Interceptor.

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Thousands of communities have bought Cushmans and Go-4s for chalking tires and handing out tickets. But San Francisco appears to be the only city where the vehicles, after retirement, draw a cult following. A tragedy gave birth to the trend. In 2005, a San Francisco parking officer was severely injured when the brakes on her patrol vehicle failed. The safety of older Cushman models was called into question. The city promptly unloaded those models to regional auctions, where artists, mobile vendors and lovers of small, funky vehicles scooped them up.

“There was suddenly all the Cushmans you could eat,” Mr. Bennett said.

Their new availability coincided with the rise in popularity of the Burning Man festival. Burners, as the festivalgoers are called, were on the hunt for “mutant vehicles,” the creatively shaped or modified vehicles allowed on Burning Man grounds 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 three-wheeler, transforming it into a rolling greenhouse with growing plants and a configuration of six horns that play “La Cucaracha.”

Maxime Philippe with her Go-4 Interceptor in San Francisco.
Maxime Philippe with her Go-4 Interceptor in San Francisco.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Back home, Mr. Bennett persuaded Maxime Philippe, his girlfriend, to buy a Go-4 Interceptor, advising her to glue a Barbie doll on the roof to dissuade pranksters from vandalizing the vehicle. She agreed, but the strategy failed.

“Somebody beheaded my Barbie doll,” Ms. Philippe, 48, said.

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

“I’ve met the greatest meter maids,” he said. “They are so cool. I mean, I can’t imagine the trauma of having like six negative experiences every single day.”

Mr. Bennett would like to see the city teeming 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 nearly nonexistent. Automakers have all but completely abandoned small cars, much less three-wheelers, in favor of S.U.V.s. Most industry analysts don’t bother to forecast the three-wheel market in the United States.

“People get out of your way because you’re driving a meter maid car,” Jennifer Devine said.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

“They’re too niche,” said Ryan Citron, a senior research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, which tracks the micro-mobility industry.

Old-school Go-4 Interceptors use an internal combustion engine from the Ford Festiva and, in later years, similar Kia models. The result is an odd mash-up of a small front-wheel-drive car placed behind a one-person cabin and the front end of a motorcycle.

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

Three-wheeler drivers, from left, Andrea Steffen, Jerry Caldwell, Maxime Philippe and Jennifer Devine.
Three-wheeler drivers, from left, Andrea Steffen, Jerry Caldwell, Maxime Philippe and Jennifer Devine.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Most owners wisely stay off the highway. Amos Goldbaum, who uses a 1992 Interceptor for his art and apparel business, one time mistakenly ended up on Highway 101. “I drove on the shoulder going about 40 miles per hour,” he said. “Other cars were zipping by. It was terrifying.”

Cushman models, which are less capable than Interceptors, are powered by Kohler agricultural engines or seafaring units from Outboard Marine. Most of them are beat up after 20 years of hard service and public abuse.

David Gardner, who builds sets for theater and film in San Francisco, has owned a pickup-like 1985 Cushman since 2008. “You can’t just tap on the brakes with your toe,” he said. “It’s a full leg thing.”

Drew Ocon, an executive producer at a marketing agency, said he felt every bump in the road when driving his mid-1990s Cushman Truckster. It also takes getting used to the three-speed stick shift positioned to the left of the center steering wheel.

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

Jerry Caldwell is the go-to mechanic in the Bay Area for these odd vehicles.
Jerry Caldwell is the go-to mechanic in the Bay Area for these odd vehicles.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

The chances are good that owners needing repairs are in touch with Jerry Caldwell, the go-to Bay Area mechanic for these vehicles. Mr. Caldwell, 63, has provided a wide array of repair services for 37 years from the city’s industrial Bayview area. 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 in the back out there by the tree.”

Mr. Caldwell, who has a long gray beard and shoulder-length hair, said a half-dozen new Cushman and Go-4 truck owners had called him in the last month or so. Depending on the model and condition, prices range from about $500 to $7,000.

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

Mr. Caldwell, a native San Franciscan, first became acquainted with meter maid trucks in the mid-1980s. A neighboring business owner became fed up with people pushing his Cushman on its side, so he gave it to Mr. Caldwell, who used it to move heavy equipment around his shop for three years. It could haul 1,000-pound motors.

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

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

Mr. Caldwell in one of his Interceptors.
Mr. Caldwell in one of his Interceptors.Credit…Carolyn Fong for The New York Times

Mr. Caldwell set aside an 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 front.

“I’ve got to keep them on the road,” he said. “Somebody has to do it. They’re unique.”


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