65 years ago, kids of all ages couldn’t wait to get their hands on the wheel at Disneyland’s Autopia

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Disney History

Few car-related amusement rides were as highly anticipated or publicized as Autopia. Which makes perfect sense, since no amusement park was as highly anticipated or publicized as Disneyland.

Sixty-five years ago today, on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney’s dream to create “the happiest place on earth” became a reality when the $17 million theme park opened on 160 acres in Anaheim, California. An invited crowd of 15,000 swelled to nearly twice that size, thanks to party crashers using counterfeit tickets or scaling a fence.

According to history.com, nearly half of U.S. households gathered around black-and-white television sets to watch a live special on ABC, which was a one-third investor in the project. Disneyland guests included Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Fess Parker, who played the title role in the Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier and rode a horse down Main Street USA. Bands played and the crowd cheered as the California Air National Guard flew overhead.

Opening day was a spectacle indeed. An imperfect one, however.

Disneyland, which had been in the planning stages for years, was built at breakneck speed, opening just one year and one day after its groundbreaking. Disney bet his savings and reputation that it would work, but few Hollywood moguls were in agreement. Some even called the ambitious project “Walt’s folly,” and Disney’s rush to open Disneyland didn’t help.

isneyland Autopia - Parking lot on July 17, 1955
The parking lot at Disneyland on opening day, July 17, 1955. Los Angeles Examiner

On Day 1, the backup of cars on the Santa Ana Freeway was seven miles long. Impatient children were forced to relieve themselves on the roadside or in Disneyland’s jam-packed parking lot. Once inside the park, some attractions weren’t finished, including Rocket to the Moon, Peter Pan, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Temperatures soared to 100 degrees or more, and fresh asphalt melted underfoot. Food and drink ran out. An overloaded Mark Twin Steamboat nearly capsized. The Associated Press, among nearly 1000 members of the worldwide media in attendance, dubbed Disneyland’s first day “Black Sunday.”

Walt Disney vowed to make things right, and he did so in short order. Within a month, the bumps were smoothed out, and Disneyland became a cornerstone of the Disney empire.

Disneyland Autopia - Walt Disney on the track
Walt Disney drives an Autopia car with daughter Diane and grandson Christopher in 1958. Disney History

Among the most popular attractions on opening day (and in the weeks and years to come) was car-themed Autopia. In fact, it was almost too good. The cars, each powered by a 7.5-horsepower, one-cylinder Mustang motorcycle engine, could move freely around the track without the restrictive rails that were added in later years—which meant accidents could happen. According to history.com, many of the original 40 built were dinged or wrecked by aggressive drivers. Thankfully, each was equipped with a governor, limiting their speed to 11 mph. (Policemen in unrestricted vehicles could accelerate to twice that to chase down rule breakers or arrive quickly to help unsnarl traffic jams.)

The 160-pound, 5/8-scale cars were styled by Bob Gurr, who had helped design the mid-1950s Lincoln Continental. Hired by Disney as Director of Special Vehicular Development, Walt Disney Archives says Gurr, now 88, was “a man on the move.” In 40 years with the company, Gurr “helped move many a happy Disney theme park guest aboard vehicles and ride conveyances of his own design. As he’s often quipped, ‘If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it.’”

In addition to Gurr’s Italian sports-car design, the vehicles’ chassis and drive were developed by Johnny Hartman of Hartman Engineering in Montrose, California; Bill Tritt and Glasspar created the fiberglass bodies; and assembly and testing were performed by Ted Mangels and Ed Martindale of Mameco Engineering in Newport Beach. Richfield Oil sponsored the ride.

 

Automotive magazines quickly took notice of Gurr’s creation. Road & Track was the first to feature the new Disneyland ride in its September 1955 issue.

“No ordinary vehicle would satisfy the rigid specifications set up by the Disneyland planners …,” Road & Track wrote. “Accordingly, Disney’s own automotive division, headed by R. H. Gurr, was presented with a most difficult problem, and the result is shown here …

“The seating accommodates two adults if necessary but is intended to primarily to suit the age span from 6 to 16 years. Controls are unique, for there are two accelerator pedals located so that either may be used conveniently according to one’s leg length. There is also a long external lever to allow adult overrule of impatient young throttle stompers at the beginning of the one-mile ride. Brakes operate automatically upon release of the accelerator, or by a backward movement of the hand lever …  A tripping device under the chassis ensures that the brakes are applied as the ride ends.”

 

In October 1955, Hot Rod magazine joked, “It’s nearly a tossup as to who digs Autopia the most, the old folks or the kids for whom the miniature freeway was recently created.”

Sinatra and Davis could attest to that. They were among the happy drivers on opening day 65 years ago.

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