If you see an elephant walking down the street in Waterford, Michigan, don't be alarmed – it is probably the gas-propelled pachyderm of Larry C. Gavette, and one of the most unusual mechanisms ever to cross your path.
The gas-propelled mechanical elephant, named Jumbo, is heading for England this summer for a reunion with one of its mates, which is in a museum there. The whole story is delightful.
Jumbo the mechanical elephant is powered by a 1939 Model 948 Anglia 8 HP engine. Gavette, who shows Jumbo in parades and at other public events, tells the whole story in a fascinating letter which we quote for this article.
Peter Sellers, the late movie actor, was shown in a recent Life magazine atop Jumbo – a 30-year old photo. And Jumbo appeared at last year's GOP convention in Detroit, making the tail end of a TV report.
Here is Gavette's information:
"Jumbo was built in England 30 years ago by Mr. Frank Stuart, a theatrical prop maker and owner of Mechanimals, a company formed to develop the elephant as a viable endeavor. It wasn't, as Mr. Stuart went bankrupt soon after completing only a few of these marvels of engineering. Apparently there wasn't much call for a carnival type ride that needed a full time 'keeper.' Through two years of research I have found only two others of this particular model, and only one of those was of the gas-powered variety. The other was also built by Mr. Stuart, but some 17 years later, and is powered by an electric motor and battery hook-up. It's basically the same mechanically with the power plant being the only difference. I had just located the other one like mine when I had talked to you, it is in a museum in Exmouth, England, and a letter has been sent to find out all about that one's history.
"As far as Jumbo is concerned, he was brought over in 1951 and used for promotional things for five years here in Michigan, then sold and used to New York City for the same. In 1961 he was repurchased by the original importers, Cunningham Drug Stores, but was never used for rides again, just standing static on his trailer for the novelty effect. At this time he was still operational but since it wasn't being used the works started locking as mechanical things are prone to do. He ended up at a riding stable as an attention-getter but again was never started by the owner. After ten years of standing in a field exposed to the elements and vandals, I came across him Labor Day 1978 and could not pass up an opportunity to give it a shot at repair. I intended to work through the winter and if I hadn't made him move then, I was going to scrap it out and use the trailer that he had come on. We did get him started, the engine had pretty much been frozen up, but the burning oil necessitated the pulling of the engine for a ring job. In the spring with all parts working satisfactorily he did come off his trailer for the first time since 1962 and provided rides for the neighborhood children on Memorial Day of 1979. The research for his history was going on all this time and continues with little tidbits popping up every once in a while.
"Mechanically, Jumbo is powered by a 1939 Model 948 Anglia 8 HP gasoline engine. This 2.320 Bore gem works like a dream (especially in warm weather) and remarkably was easy to get parts for once I found out what it was. The Ford Motor Co. couldn't help as the numbers on the block, besides being of foreign manufacture, is a little old for available records. Even the international division ran into a stone wall. I finally called a sports car club in the area and through them narrowed down the possibilities. Based on the location of the valve cover it was decided it is the one I mentioned, and made certain when I bought a set of rings made for that model. Besides rings, new plugs, points, and a new electric fuel pump were purchased. I made my own air cleaner and choke assy, functional but probably not like the original. The whole system is 6 volt, recharged by a 60 amp generator. The power is conveyed to the legs through a standard 3-speed transmission with a shortened drive shaft. Instead of wheels, however, it connects to a chain drive lever assy. Through this, the forward and reverse motion of Jumbo's legs is attained. The actual direction in which he goes is determined by a hydraulically operated blocking clamp that allows his small wheels to rotate in one direction and lock on the return stoke. Each brake is governed by the location of the leg as to whether it is needed or not. Because diagonal legs are always going in the same direction there are always two of them 'powering' the elephant. No direct power goes to the feet, but rather the body moves above braked tires. The steering is pretty much the same as an auto, with obvious changes made in the lengths of shafts to accommodate the legs' back and forth movement. To drive Jumbo is about the same as an auto, the exceptions being the steering is not as efficient as turning causing a scuffing action because of the forward movement of the leg, speeds are about 4-6 mph, and the seating is 8 feet off the ground. It is obviously easy to master, as I do not drive him unless I have too, a 16 year old young lady (shown in the photo) does all that stuff now. Does a darned good job of it, too.
"Some particulars of Jumbo are: He's 12 feet long and 8 feet high, weighs about 2700 lbs. (an original sales brochure I have says he weighs 1400 lbs. 'unladen') and is made up of nearly 149,000 different parts (all but the bearings, engine, tires, etc. being custom made rather than something you could get at the supplier). He cost between $3,000 and $4,200 (depending on which magazine you believe, Life or Popular Science of 1950). According to the original driver, the drug store chain ended up spending somewhere around $7,000 to put him in operation here, what with duties, shipping, insurance etc., and this was in 1951. According to press releases then, he was capable of doing 27 mph, and the driver told me they had him up to 17 once, but his brakes decided to lock and he went right over the head. Anne had him up to 15 or so, but it was on a hill and was really free-wheeling rather than under his own power. It took about 1100 hours over the winter and spring to get him presentable. Fifty years of fabric 'skin', all hand sewn, and hand carved tusks pretty much finishes the lot. The head and rump are given shape by paper mache over a tubular frame, and the entire insides are constructed the same way. The legs are actually hydraulic rams put to a very different use and are topped with an equalizing set-up that makes sure Jumbo is level no matter where the location of legs may be.
"I've been very lucky in having interested so many people in my project to give Jumbo a new life, most notably I've located the original designer of the concept giving Jumbo movement, a man who supplied parts that went into making him, and Mr. Harrison that sent along copies of a brochure that they use in their advertising. (Coincidentally, a relatively new brochure of which I have a copy, still uses the elephant motif.) Many newspapers, magazines, and librarians have helped me to search out anything that may reveal more about them, such as where the English models were used and eventually where they ended up. There seems to have been one in Germany some 18 years ago and owned by a salvage dealer. Mr. Radburn, the designer, said he came over one time to see if it was possible to rebuild one that he had, but he never heard from him again so that one may be lost forever. As I mentioned on the phone, I am trying to interest some people in England as well as here in setting up a one-time parade as part of the Mechanical elephant's rebirth. There are some obstacles, most obvious being finding a way to get Jumbo back over there. Pan Am said it would cost about $7,000 to fly him over and back, but I figure the historical significance, novelty of all the remaining elephants in a big parade in London, and the story of why and when the elephants are, will be enough to interest a production company in showing Mr. Stuart's story. I am an optimist most of the time, that is why I'm certain this will all come to pass. These machines are unique, totally different and quite probably will never be repeated."