Fez vs. Fez vs. Fez

Fez vs. Fez vs. Fez Fez vs. Fez vs. Fez
Comparison Tests

'There are 10,000 horses in Norco,’ Shriner Lee Cleveland said about the perils of driving his little car in that California town’s Fourth of July parade, ‘and 9990 of them are in front of us.’

Every time there’s a parade in virtually any town in America, expect to see a contingent of Shriners in it, driving tiny cars. These “motor patrols” usually consist of up to a dozen middle-aged to undeniably old guys wearing fezzes in miniature Corvettes, shrunken pickups, itty-bitty Indy cars, or whatever (including minibikes and motorcycles). They whirl around the street in formation—or something approaching formation. They drive the motorized midgets in figure eights, they loop around themselves, and they look cheerfully ridiculous at all times. In sum, they’re both beloved and completely taken for granted.

There’s nothing technically sophisticated about a Shriner car. There is no established Shriner-car land speed record at Bonneville, and “classic” Shriner cars don’t bring huge sums at a Barrett-Jackson auction. But at the same time, they’re a part of America’s ingrained car culture, and until this— ahem—“comparison test,” they’ve gone virtually unnoticed in the media. And no one had bothered to put them on a racetrack and figure out what they could do.

Car and Driver invited three Shriner motor patrols from around Southern California to Willow Springs International Motorsports Park on a chilly weekday morning, and they were there before we were—circling their RVs into a sort of Shriner village at the base of the “Streets” course and unloading about 30 twerp-mobiles. The 20 or so Shriners were wearing shiny jackets identifying their units, and what hair they had was gray. After all, younger Shriners have to work on weekday mornings.

Today, fraternal organizations whose members wear goofy hats seem like throwbacks to old episodes of “The Honeymooners” or “The Flintstones.” But Ralph Kramden’s Raccoon Lodge and Fred Flintstone’s Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes never had the real-world responsibility of sustaining 20 pediatric hospitals scattered around the U.S. and one each in Montreal and Mexico City. The Shriners Hospitals for Children specialize in orthopedic, burn, and spinal-cord-injury care, and they treat—without any charge—all patients under 18 without consideration of their parents’ financial condition or connection to the Shriners. It’s up to the 400,000 or so Shriners organized in 191 clubs to keep those hospitals solvent. That took, the Shriners say, $721 million during 2007.

“It’s all about showing the fez,” said Cleveland, 71, a member of the Corona Riverside Shrine Club. He explained the rationale behind the little cars quite simply: “Everything we do is for the hospitals.”

All Shriners must first be at least third-degree Master Masons—the highest degree of Masonry. “We’re the party-animal Masons,” one Shriner explained in a glancing comment as they unloaded their dinky cars. “We like to have a good time.” In fact, that’s not just a casual comment but the reason the first chapter of the Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine was formed in 1872 in New York City. It was a few Masons who liked to extend their lodge-meeting camaraderie into the local taverns who decided on the fraternity’s Near East theme, conjured up the bylaws (there are a lot of bylaws) and rituals (and there are a lot of rituals) and decided the fez would be the official headgear. From the outside, it all sounds determinedly goofball.

For the record, despite significant grilling, none of these Shriners would admit to fixing any elections, fluoridating anyone’s water supply, or otherwise secretly controlling the world. That’s because they don’t have nefarious power, or perhaps it just proves how sinister the conspiracy really is. It’s your call.

But when the Shriners established the children’s hospitals in 1922 as their official charity, their fundraising took on urgency. And marching in parades—about as close as the early 20th century had to putting up a Web site—was their way of letting the public know about the hospitals and recruiting new members. So Shriners dressed as clowns and marched. They juggled and marched. Often they simply put on their fezzes and marched. And at some point no one now recalls—but probably during the ’20s—some Shriner came up with the idea of driving around in the equivalent of modern go-karts.

The boom in go-karting during the ’50s and ’60s—when the back pages of Hot Rod and Popular Mechanics were filled with small ads for mail-order kart kits and minibikes and when Sears carried karts in its catalogs—fueled the expansion of the motor patrols. By the ’70s, companies such as F.W. & Associates, Mini Kars of America, and Klipper Karts were selling complete minicars with fiberglass bodies over steel-tube go-kart chassis with plastic seats and Briggs & Stratton 3-hp engines.

Dave Robb, national sales manager for Go Kart Works, claims his company is “the last of the custom go-kart builders” with over 400 body molds available and powertrains featuring Honda and Tecumseh engines up to a spooky 6.5 horsepower. Prices start at about $1600. Robb says his sales to Shriners tend to be NASCAR-style cars or Model T antiques. Adding an element of mystery to this, Robb wouldn’t divulge exactly where the cars are built, only that the factory is “in Illinois.” Search parties are currently scouring the Land of Lincoln in search of the facility.

Their free-form nature means no one has a real handle on how many Shrine clubs have active motor patrols—each club is free to start or discontinue a motor patrol and pick whatever vehicles its members would like to drive. There’s no formal direction from the national governing Imperial Council or the Imperial Potentate himself. Lou Gross, who handles public relations for the Los Angeles Al Malaikah Shrine, recalls that at a recent national convention in Anaheim, California, the little cars took up entire blocks of the city. And it takes a lot of little cars to fill a city block.

As innocent as Shriner motor patrols seem to be, they’re not without danger. After all, the cars weigh at least a couple hundred pounds, and collisions between them aren’t unknown. At a Shriner parade last August in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a motor patrol in full-size dune buggies was performing when one driver lost control and plowed into a crowd of spectators. A total of eight people suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the incident, video of which is prominent on YouTube. No word on whether they were rushed to a Shriners’ hospital.

At Willow Springs, keeping a couple dozen Shriners on task proved a challenge in itself. These are, after all, guys constantly looking to amp up the fun no matter what they’re doing. Merely let slip a zany pun, and they’ll spin their cars for hours. Their collective sense of humor seems geared more toward slapstick than irony. Show them a plastic pocket protector, and they don’t see geek kitsch but something that could do a dang good job of protecting their pocket. And had one of their fellow Shriners gone end over fez during our test (it nearly happened dozens of times), we’re certain there would have been plenty of laughter amid the bloodshed.

Still, we were able to generate numbers on representative Shriner cars through a series of miniaturized tests. There could be a motor patrol out there with sophisticated equipment and a true performance edge—but it wasn’t at Willow Springs that day.