The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

William T. "Bill" Brown

Added to museum: 5/12/04

Museum quality pedal cars too perfect for kids

Bill Brown surrounded by some of his creations. (Click on photo for larger image.)

William T. “Bill” Brown and his wife Roberta, residents of Redlands, California for thirty-one years, live in a Victorian home believed to have been built in 1881 by Frank E. Brown (no relation), one of the founders of Redlands. Bill has become renowned for the collection of pedal cars which he has constructed over the years. He is often invited to show them at special events in Redlands and throughout Southern California. He has a collection of some 70 cars including 20 he made himself.

For Bill, creativity means hours of design and meticulous craftsmanship of those toy autos and assorted trucks that children used to climb into and pedal up and down the driveway. Bill’s creations, however, are works of art—gleaming painted metal with polished chrome and brass trim and spoked wheels made from scratch.

What started as a display turns into the main attraction

It all started when Roberta Brown wanted a rocking horse and pedal car to display all the dolls she had made. Bill had previously built a beautiful wood wagon from a picture he found in an old Sears catalog. The antique replica wooden wagon is emblazoned with “Redlands” on the side and is now filled with teddy bears in the entrance to their home.

Bill’s first pedal car was built from wood and patterned from a Garton hot rod photo found in a book. This wasn’t too difficult an undertaking, because Bill’s vocation is auto body repair.

Skills honed building aircraft and fixing real cars

Bill's innovative VW powered gyrocopter made the cover of the May/June 1969 issue of Popular Rotorcraft Flying magazine. (Click on photo for larger image.)

In the late 1960’s Bill had grown tired of restoring real Model A’s and began the hobby of building and flying gyrocopters. (A gyrocopter is a rotary wing aircraft that looks like a small helicopter except it is pushed by means of a propeller, and the blades that rotate overhead are not powered except by the craft’s forward speed. It takes off and lands like an airplane rather than straight up and down like a helicopter.) From 1964-73 he became an active gyro pilot flying at El Mirage dry lake. He became a member of Popular Rotorcraft Association (PRA) Chapter 1. He designed the first gyrocopter using a Volkswagen engine and flew it in different places in California. He also put it on a trailer and flew it in Raleigh and Edenton, NC. He later donated that aircraft to the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park.

Body shop business gives him the experience he needed

Having owned a body shop and being in the auto body repair business all his life, he had the experience and knowledge to build metal pedal cars. He quickly went from wood to metal, and hand makes the body, fenders, windshield, bumpers, running gear, wheels and even the grills. All of the work on his hand-built cars is done by himself. He makes the wooden spoke wheels for his cars with a band saw and wood rasp. It takes an average of 250 hours to build his cars. The chrome and accessories can run from $800 to $1200 per car.

Bill Brown poses in front of a miniature 1930 Packard boat tail roadster pedalcar. (Click on photo for larger image.)

His creations include the following projects:

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The original rocking horse and wagon for his wife

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Yellow metal car with no name

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1930 Ford Model A roadster

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1930 Ford Model A station wagon

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1914 Ford Model T speedster

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1923 Ford Mercury Indy race car

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1912 Stanley Steamer

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Three 1930 Ford hot rod baby strollers in red, green and pink

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1912 Ford Sedan Delivery

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1903 Runabout

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1930 Fire truck with tender

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1926-33 Ford Tri-motor airplane

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Space Shuttle

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1908 Ford Model T touring

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1930 Mack tractor and trailer

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1930 Packard boat tail roadster

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1930 Ford pickup with trailer

He has also restored some 40 other old pedal cars.

“People get mad when I tell them the cars aren’t for sale,” Bill is quoted in the December, 1997 issue of Reminisce magazine. “But if I sold ‘em, it would get to be a job. I find pictures of antique autos and then build them from those. They’re not to scale—they’re a reduced version.” Bill goes on to say, “I like to accomplish something. It feels so good when people admire the cars and say they look nice.”

A nice article in the December, 1997 issue of Reminisce magazine features Bill and his cars. (Click photo for larger image.)

“If I had to describe Bill Brown in one work it would be a craftsman,” said Craig Fleetwood, editor and publisher of Pedal Car News of million Viejo in a 1994 article.

Bill says that making pedal cars from scratch gives him satisfaction. “It’s a creation, just like anybody building an artwork. I’m more pleased with one I make than one I restore.”

Fixing old cars vs. making new ones

When he makes the cars, he starts with a flat sheet of metal, very few tools and no physical plans. He then bends, molds, cuts and sculpts until he creates a car. The cars are fairly accurate replicas of the real vehicles, but there is no engine, no battery and no solar panels. The vehicles are moved along by the rapid shuffle or pedaling of a child’s feet.

“I start building from the front and hope the back end comes out like I want it to,” he says., When he worked in his auto body shop, he would spend slow hours making pedal car parts. Bill says there aren’t many tools for crafting metal—just a metal bench, hammer and a dolly (a piece of metal held in your hand to back up the metal you’re hammering on), welder, small press brake and drill press. In constructing pedal cars he’s a sheet metal worker. “That’s flat metal and different than body and fender work,” he says. “When you’re doing body and fender, you’re taking it to where it used to be. With sheet metal, you’re taking it where it’s never been.”

The ins and outs of collecting and restoring

After he got started building his own pedal cars, Bill developed an interest in restoring some of the original pedal cars. Many of the cars that Bill restores were originally built in the early to mid-1950’s and are made to look like cars of the times; however, a few are as old as the late 1930’s. It takes him about 2-1/2 to 3 months to complete a car, whether he’s building or restoring it. Bill hires a professional in San Bernardino to do the upholstery and striping on his cars but builds everything else himself.

The old pedal cars that bill finds at auction houses can sell for anywhere from $100 to $3000 depending on how old and rare they are and their condition. When they are restored, they sell for up to $5000. Bill finds the old cars in a variety of places including antique stores and thrift shops and out behind people’s garages. “There are a lot of things hiding in the weeds out back behind sheds that people are all too glad to be rid of”, he says.

Showing his cars at prestigious events

Bill finds it difficult to part with cars on which he has spent so much time. He would love to see his cars in a museum one day. They have been on display for one three-month period at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. His cars were featured at the San Bernardino County Museum in 1996. He has also exhibited his pedal cars at many shows including the Concourse Car Shows at Torrey Pines, Palos Verdes, Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills and car shows in Southern California, where he has had the opportunity to meet several celebrities. He keeps nine of his crafted pedal cars stored in loaded position on a truck, ready to take to the next show. Jay Leno is a fairly frequent visitor to the shows, and once Bill spoke with film director James Cameron about the Stanley Steamer car that the director owns.

Satisfaction comes from making something as nearly perfect as possible

“I guess that even after spending my life fixing regular cars, I didn’t quite get enough of the work,” he says. “One of the very first things that I do when I start restoring an old car is to take the dents and dings out of it. You have no idea how many dents a child can put into a car this small.”

The five early manufacturers of pedal cars are all out of business today. The deluxe pedal cars were bought only by the wealthy in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He says that restoring old toy cars and creating new ones each requires a different skill. The new cars take more imagination, while the old ones require undoing the damage of decades. “There’s real satisfaction in creating something that works as smoothly as a pedal car,” he says. “You really can take one and get it to the point that it’s just about perfect.”

Education and influences

A native of West Virginia, Bill later moved to Ohio and joined the Navy at age 17, serving in 1945 and 1946. He then worked for an Ohio Ford dealership learning the body and fender repair trade. He moved to California in 1950 and established Brown’s Auto Works in Rialto, CA in 1959. He sold his business in 1973, which was repurchased by his son 15 years later.

During this time Bill also taught school for nine years in the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) at San Bernardino Valley College. His classes included body shop, frame and related subjects.

Bill retired in 1985 from another business he owned, Brown’s Enterprises, which manufactured equipment for body shops and sold internationally. After retirement from his body shop, Bill established a workshop away from home for manufacturing measuring system. When that slowed down, he started making pedal cars.

Asked about the early influences in his life that led him to building pedal cars, he said, “Mostly it was all by myself. When I came out of the Navy, I wanted to be a mechanic so I went into body and fender work. But really it was my wife. It’s her fault (for wanting a wagon for her dolls.)”

Sound career advice

Bill’s advice for craftsmen and those developing a life’s work is to “Make sure you’ve got a hobby you really like.” When he gives talks to young kids he tells them, “When you like something, learn to do it well, and then get good enough at it that you can make money at it.”

Here are several examples of Bill Brown's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

 

The project that started it all. When Roberta asked for a display to show off the dolls she crafts by hand, Bill got out the woodworking tools and built this rocking horse.
Bill's first wheeled vehicle was actually a wagon, again to display his wife Roberta's doll projects.

The first pedal car was made from wood.

The first metal pedal car was not built to represent any particular car. It did have a lot of appeal to kids and adults and he found it really fun to build, so he just kept going from there.

The next car got fancier wheels, louvers and a pen striped paint job. This one was built in 1991 to represent a 1930 Model A Ford roadster, Bill's first attempt at modeling a particular car.
1930 Ford Model A station wagon
1914 Ford Model T Speedster
1923 Ford race car
1912 Stanley Steamer. Bill once spoke to film director James Cameron about the real Stanley Steamer the directory owns.
1930 Ford baby stroller is Bill's own design. The convertible top folds and there are hand brakes on the handlebars for the "driver." A flame paint job finishes off the hotrod theme. Note also the three-spoke mag wheels.
1912 Ford Model T delivery truck
Another 1930 Ford baby stroller, this one in green
1903 Ford Model A
Bill at work in his shop on a 1903 Ford Model A
Bill's 1930 Ford Model A fire truck is seen with the real thing. The second and third photos show the trailer with a ladder extended.
This pink 1930 Ford hotrod stroller even has a hood scoop
Pedal cars were not modeled only after cars. Tractors, airplanes and other vehicles were popular among the early manufacturers. Here Bill has modeled a Ford Triplane.
Here's one the early manufactures never even could have conceived of...the Challenger space shuttle. The bay doors open to expose a cockpit complete with an extendable arm for hauling in stray satellites.
1908 Ford Model A touring car with very cushy upholstery
A Mack Truck and 8-wheel lo-boy trailer hauls a Caterpillar tractor.
1930 Packard boat tail roadster with soft top, mirrors, hood ornament and lots of chrome trim. The second shot shows Bill at a car show with a full-size Packard in the background. The final shot shows why it is called a "boat tail" roadster.
1930 Ford Model A pickup with matching trailer
Bill's traveling rig is always ready to hit the road for the next show.

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