By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Get Dave Kleespies talking about his job and you're listening to a driven man.
On second thought, make that a "pedaled" man.
A What's My Line? panel-stumper just waiting to happen, the Ahwatukee kiddie-car craftsman operates a high-end restoration service, catering to collectors of juvenile pedal-powered jalopies dating back long before the Edsel era.
"Phoenix is not a very good place for finding old pedal cars," says Kleespies, who, with his wife Sno, has run D&S Pedal Car Restorations out of his Phoenix home for the past four years. "Everyone who lives here moved from someplace else, and most of them didn't bring along that rusted old pedal car."
That's why most of the dozens of kiddie convertibles lined up in the Kleespies' storage compound hail from practically every state in the union except Arizona, plus a handful of foreign countries. Salvaged from basements, beneath front porches, garages and even old carnival rides, these racers for rug rats keep Kleespies, if not rich, then at least literally running.
With his home now a temporary pit stop to 130 cars, tractors, fire trucks, rocket ships and other pedal vehicles in various stages of disrepair, Kleespies claims he's got enough work to keep him busy for the next two and a half years. Additional repair requests and orders reportedly pour in weekly as new aficionados rally behind the burgeoning hobby that now boasts an estimated 5,000 collectors nationwide.
A former quality-control inspector who was downsized out of a job, Kleespies fell into the restoration business several years ago after a national pedal-car magazine printed a picture of a 1958 mini-sedan he'd rescued from his mother-in-law's barn. When a reader from Sedona showed up on his doorstep cradling his own cherished heap, Kleespies inadvertently found himself behind the wheel of a new career.
In addition to refurbishing the battered chassis customers ship to him (from body work to chrome-plating, his meticulous restoration process is almost identical to that lavished on full-scale classic cars), Kleespies also keeps client "want" lists, like the one from the insatiable pedal-phile who already has 67 Kleespies cars on display in her Oregon home. Other jobs have included sprucing up a car whose owner had been waxing it in the attic for the past 40 years, as well transforming a '37 Ford into a '48 Chevy woody (a pedal car that was never actually produced) for a woody buff who wanted a miniature "spare." Depending on year, model, scarcity and restoration quality, pedal vehicles now fetch prices from $1,000 to $25,000 in the current collector market, with some models selling for up to 10 times what they were worth just five years ago.
Wandering through a storage space that looks like a cross between a junkyard for the preschool set and the maintenance lot at Disneyland's Autopia, visitors of a certain age are almost certain to downshift into momentary second childhood. Hovering about this landlocked armada of underage motoring are bygone memories of Bactine fumes, melted Fudgsicles and Sputnik--a nostalgic lull abruptly interrupted by the shock of recognition when they inevitably spot the "very same car" in which they careened through their own personal Wonder Years.
"Almost everyone who comes out here sees the one they had as a kid," says Kleespies. "Or the one the kid next door had. At one time, these cars were part of growing up in America."
That era ended about 15 years ago, when rising production costs, increased use of plastic and concerns about potentional safety hazards effectively drove pedal cars off the market. Gentlemen, start your Big Wheels.
Those blobby, plastic kiddie conveyances of the Seventies and Eighties are about the only pedal vehicles you won't find around Kleespies' workshop.
Here's a "Kidillac" ("Just like Dad's!" screamed the ads), a snazzy Fifties luxury cruiser that once sported operative electric lights and a horn. There's the Mobo Bronco, a mechanical horse imported from England during the Forties. And over against the wall is a high-priced relic from the Twenties, when small-fry-size replicas of horseless carriages were strictly playthings of the rich.
Rusted, busted and missing parts (wheels were frequently stripped from the cars as their young owners graduated to soapbox racers), the toy-vehicle trio has seen much better days. But given enough time and money--restoration costs can run anywhere from several hundred dollars for a car in good condition from the Eighties to the mid-four-figure range for a car that somehow escaped the scrap drives of WWII, a fate of many early models--all can be returned to something approaching their original under-the-Christmas-tree condition.
Or as close to that quality as anyone today is ever going to remember.
"There was no quality control when they built pedal cars as toys," says Kleespies, sounding like the far more sober-minded flip side of radio's Car Talk brothers. "Montgomery Ward would call up: 'We want 600 firetrucks,' so they'd bang out 600 firetrucks and get them out the door. Some may have had the right steering wheel, some wouldn't. We have copies of the original catalogue showing how the car was supposed to look. But we know for a fact that Ward's sold cars that never looked the way they did in the catalogue."