The Auto Roller Coaster
By Gary Swilik
From the moment people discovered it was fun to ride down hills in anything on wheels the development of the roller coaster was probably inevitable. The first real roller coaster, with cars locked onto a track, was built in Paris in 1817. By the 1920s no amusement park was complete without an impressive roller coaster. Many remember that West Park had their own world-class coaster – The Cyclone – which ran at Puritas Springs Park from 1928 to 1956. Far fewer know there was once a roller coaster for automobiles near Cleveland Airport.
Yes, a roller coaster for cars. People paid a fee to drive their automobile over a series of eleven hills on a U-shaped elevated roadway constructed of wood. The peak of each hill was nine feet high and the distance from crest to crest was 112 feet. For about a dime riders could experience the thrills and chills of a roller coaster without leaving their own car.
Constructed by the American Amusement Corporation at the southeast corner of Rocky River Drive and Brookpark Road, the auto roller coaster opened on May 2, 1930. Such coasters were then popular on the West Coast, inspiring entrepreneurs to build one here. Reports indicate opening day was a big success with motorists waiting in line for their turn on the track till the wee morning hours. Vehicles of every description, from rusty hulks to expensive touring cars, made the bumpy trip.
Ed Brinkman, of Strongsville, remembers his experience on the auto roller coaster. “You actually paid to drive your car on this thing,” Ed told the author. “It was made of wood and had guard rails on each side so you couldn’t run off. I was about six years old when my Uncle James, a real live-wire, took my sister and I on the coaster in my Dad’s Chrysler Royal. My father, who wasn’t even with us, had just bought the car, and it was his pride and joy. I was scared to death!”
A second auto roller coaster was opened at about the same time at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and SOM Center Road, near Willoughby, Ohio. How long the auto coasters survived is hard to determine. There seems to be nothing published about them after opening day in 1930. The operator, American Amusement Corporation, canceled its Ohio charter in November 1932. So it appears their success was short-lived.
Considering the danger and liability, it’s surprising an automobile roller coaster could operate at all.
You’d imagine there would be accidents all the time. Of course, some safety precautions were taken. Speed was limited to 20 miles an hour, white guide lines were painted on the roadway, curves were banked, and railings protected cars from skidding off the edges. No motorcycles were permitted. And a second auto was not allowed to start until the first was three hills away. Still, safety was in the hands of individual drivers. And a wooden railing is no match for a car!
Although no accounts of accidents have been found, newspapers reported the steep hills caused cars to leave the ground slightly, the dips and rises could throw cars out of control, and drivers sometimes traveled at high speeds. All of which is a no-brainer by today’s standards. Some drivers, heavy on the gas pedal, must have unexpectedly caught up with the car ahead of them.
The auto roller coaster was definitely gone by June 1940 when the West Side Drive-in theater opened on the site at Rocky River Drive and Brookpark Road. An odd location for a drive-in as the planes landing at the nearby airport made it hard to hear the movie. The drive-in closed in 1955. Today the former location of the automobile roller coaster is vacant land next to the Berea Freeway.
Read about a similar Automobile Roller Coaster in Los Angeles, CA, but with a circular track, in the July 1929 issue of MODERN MECHANIX