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Charmed Life

Hot Wheels

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/14/2001

In June 1939, a 22-year-old Pennsylvania man packed some sandwiches, donned a jaunty white neck scarf, rented a two-seater airplane in Camden, N.J., and flew off eastward. Destination: the planet Mars.

Well, that's what Cheston Eshelman told the skipper of the fishing trawler who, hours later, pulled him out of the Atlantic, minutes before Eshelman's aircraft sunk forever beneath the waves. The neophyte flyer, on only his second solo trip, maintained that the red planet was his goal--even after the truculent plane owners had him tossed in jail for larceny. A Sun article of the day even quoted the plucky pilot as saying he brought along a pistol "because the Martians were supposed to be tough guys."

Eshelman missed Mars by tens of millions of miles, but a year or so later he successfully made it to Baltimore and began a decade-spanning manufacturing career. The would-be astronaut became a footloose inventor and captain of an industry of his own creation: the mail-order car.

But we're getting ahead of the game. Eshelman wasn't so quick to nix his aviation aspirations. Two years after his ill-fated Mars mission, he and his brother cobbled together a novel plywood airplane--a kind of flying wing--in a barn adjacent to their Middle River cottage. Eshelman said it rendered existing aircraft "prehistoric" and "obsolete." Never a man of modest intentions, he wrote President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him to invest in his winged brainchild, telling FDR that with a little lucre he could turn out 100 self-styled fighter-bombers a day.

Federal funds weren't forthcoming, but an undaunted Eshelman kept tinkering away, birthing a number of largely fuselage-free prototype planes in the 1940s (including one dubbed the Flying Flounder). Some actually flew, though at least one white-knuckled test pilot kissed the ground after an Eshelman flight, vowing never to take one up again. (Eshelman's Martian misadventure had cost him his own pilot's license, so he couldn't personally test his progeny.) One winged wonder crashed and burned, the first such accident at the city's then-new Municipal Airport. (No one was injured.)

Unable to darken the skies with armadas of Flying Flounders, Eshelman turned his attentions to the nation's roadways. Throughout the 1950s small ads appeared in the back of Mechanics Illustrated, Popular Science, and other magazines offering "cars" for just a few hundred dollars. Eshelman Motors Corp., based at 109 Light St. (site of today's IBM Building complex), offered a host of low-ball auto options one could buy through the mail. His simplest vehicle--barely two feet wide and powered by a two-horsepower engine--was geared to kids and sold for $295. He soon came out with a somewhat larger "Adult Sport Car" for $100 more. They lacked any form of suspension, sported brake pads that pressed directly against the tires, were pull-started through the dashboard, had headlights (but no generator), and, with their biggest optional engine--a six-horsepower Briggs & Stratton--could do about 35 mph. Styling for the 64-inch-long craft consisted of two chrome rockets slapped on the flanks. One had to be a sporting soul indeed to take to the road in what amounted to a glorified 385-pound riding mower--especially amid the era's multiton tail-finned Buicks and Mercurys.

Eshelman honestly intended most of his micro-cars to be street-legal. Later incarnations sported cloth doors, rudimentary aluminum roofs, and plastic windscreens. He even replaced the dashboard pull-chord with an electric starter on some models. Stories have it, however, that many people ordered Eshelmans only to send them back to Baltimore after pulling the humble little vehicles--10-inch-diameter tires and all--from the packing crate. Seems the artistic renderings the ads sported led some buyers (perhaps not the most sophisticated of folks) into believing one could actually acquire full-sized cars through the mail for less than $500. (Eshelman's teeming entrepreneurial mind also had a pragmatic side: The bulk of his income came from selling midget lawn tractors and sundry gardening apparatus; in 1958 he landed a sizable contract to build three-wheeled delivery vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service.)

In the early '60s, Eshelman finally began selling "real" cars, 2,400-pound models with six-cylinder engines. He called them Golden Eagles. Unfortunately, they already had another name: Corvair. Eshelman simply knocked off all the Chevrolet badges and replaced them with ones bearing his moniker. (Beats bothering with a factory and all.) General Motors was not amused and slapped him with a cease-and-desist order. Eshelman Motors soon gave up the ghost, and its entrepreneur disappeared into obscurity.

Today, half a century after the first Baltimore-born sub-subcompact rattled down the road, the Lilliputian cars are collectible. (Restored Sport models sell for thousands.) A quick Internet search turns up scores of Eshelman collectors and clubs. Wisconsin-based Lou Rugani is restoring a mid '50s Sport Car he bought on eBay for $400. He tells me about Eshelman's foray into the world of watercraft--the so-called jet-design rocketboat. "They looked like rocket ships on outriggers," Rugani says. Seems they were fashioned out of surplus Air Force under-wing fuel tanks. "He made a car out of these tanks as well," Rugani adds. "Ugly things, but Eshelman didn't like to throw anything away."

Perhaps the foremost authority on all things Eshelman is New Jersey's Bill Hossfield, who owns a dozen Eshelman machines. (One, he says proudly, goes all of 12 mph.) More importantly, 20 years ago Hossfield tracked down the elusive Cheston Eshelman and paid him a visit. The former carmaker was living in what Hossfield describes as "a bare cold-water flat" in Florida. He didn't even have a phone. After Hossfield vowed never to reveal the inventor's whereabouts, the two became friends ("He's really the nicest guy you'd want to meet," Hossfield says) and began regular mail correspondence. The octogenarian carmaker last wrote him just two months ago.

And so the big man of little cars is living out his days in reclusive retirement in the Sunshine State. But I like to imagine a more romantic end for the intrepid inventor. I envision Baltimore's everyman Edison piloting a Flying Flounder around the thin atmosphere of Mars.

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