Parades were pretty dull until Shriner cars came along. Yeah, you might see the homecoming queen perched on the back deck of a cool convertible, but everybody — young and old alike — loves to see a bunch of grown men in fezzes driving tiny cars.
Shriners International — formerly known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine — started in 1870. At the time, there were several thousand Freemasons in Manhattan, and a good-sized band of them had a regular lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage. Two Freemasons — Walter Fleming and William Florence — wanted to form a new fraternity of Masons that focused on fun and fellowship.
From 1870 to 1922, the Shriners were just a bunch of good-time cats who liked to get together and practice all the rituals of their fraternity. In 1920, though, America was in the depths of a polio epidemic. At that time, the members the Imperial Council Session voted to fund the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children to help rehabilitate thousands of children afflicted with the disease.
In 1922, the first hospital opened in Shreveport, Louisiana. Over nearly 100 years, the idea has grown into a network of 22 hospitals in both the United States and Mexico. Since the Salk vaccine stopped polio in its tracks, the Shriners Hospitals now focus on burn treatment, cleft lip and palate care, orthopedic care and spinal cord rehabilitation.
So What’s With the Cars?
Those hospitals require a ton of money. Together, they have an operating budget north of $800 million. In order to finance them, and the free care that they provide to children, Shriners need to advertise themselves. At first, they did it by walking in parades dressed in elaborate costumes, juggling, or dressing as clowns. But at some point, Shriner Temples adopted tiny cars, and they’ve delighted parade-goers ever since.
Some of the earliest Shriner cars were hand-built affairs, but the Shriner Motor Units really hit their stride in the 1950s and 1960s, when go-karts were all the rage and kits and complete karts were available in mail order catalogs. For example, some Shriner Motor Units used the J.C. Penney Micro Buggy as a basis for their cars:
For a time in the late 1960s, the Rupp Monza SS Chevy Jr. kart was the king of Shriner Cars:
The Monza SS Chevy Jr. was the creation of Mickey Rupp’s Rupp Industries, which made the finest minibikes in production. The Monza SS Chevy Jr. was a standard Rupp go-kart with a fiberglass body that was a dead ringer for the Chevrolet Corvair Monza SS concept car:
The Monza SS Chevy Jr. is the official car of the Kena Shriners Kena 500, based in Fairfax, Virginia. The Kena 500 has 24 of the cars, all but two of which were originally ordered from Rupp Industries.
As blow-molding plastic became cheaper and easier to accomplish, bodies of all kinds ended up on Shriner cars.
This 1970s Econoline van body is part of the motor unit of the Al Malaikah Motor Unit in Los Angeles, California.
The Moolah Temple of St. Louis uses Model A-style hot rods, as well as Jeep CJ-5-esque carts in its Motor Unit.
One of the more controversial depictions of a Shriner Motor Unit was on the cover of the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. The album received notoriety because it contained a poster of H. R. Giger’s Landscape #XX, which was considered obscene and resulted in a lawsuit. Because of that suit, the four Shriners depicted on the cover — driving Oldsmobile Cutlass-style carts — also sued the band for $45 million.
Some Motor Units aren’t satisfied to just drive in formation. They’ll do donuts, ride on two wheels and otherwise entertain the crowd.
One of the more elaborate setups is operated by the Melha Shriners of Springfield, Massachusetts. The Shriner Cars ride up and down a specially constructed ramp system on a 1974 Chevrolet Suburban airport limousine.
It’s a pretty wild spectacle to watch:
While some Motor Units like their vehicles to resemble the greatest cars of the 1960s, others go in a completely different direction:
This example is from the Mendinah Shriners Aviators from Addison, Illinois.
If you’ve ever attended the parade at the Lobsterfest in Rockland, Maine, you couldn’t have missed the lobster boats the Anah Shriners drive:
For more information on any of the Shriner Motor Units, click the links above to reach their websites. For more on the Shriners Hospitals for Children, visit their website.