Deja Vroom!!!

Get Dave Kleespies talking about his job and you're listening to a driven man.

On second thought, make that a "pedaled" man.

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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."

Not that the original ultimate consumers--kids age 3 to 6 years--gave a darn.

"With a pedal car, nothing limited you but your imagination," says fellow restorer Will Cook, a Deer Valley antiques dealer who began specializing in pedal cars more than a year ago. "When Wagon Train was on TV, we'd put cardboard over the back of our car and suddenly it was a Conestoga wagon. Then, when Combat was on, we'd get in there with our guns and it was a jeep."

Cook claims that most of his customers fall into one of two categories. There are those, like himself, who simply enjoy having the equivalent of an axle-grease-stained security blanket under their roof. Then there are those nostalgic speculators, "collectors with an overabundance of money," who see the cars as investments.

Pointing to a Fifties-era Garton hot rod that tripled in value overnight after Hallmark issued a miniature version as part of its Kiddie Car Classics collectibles series, Cook maintains pedal cars are in for the long haul. "The prices of pedal cars are not going to go down," he says. "A pedal car is not a Beanie Baby."

The American toy industry hitched its pedal car to a star about a hundred years ago, shortly after their full-scale counterparts first rolled off the assembly line. Originally a high-end toy (collectors claim that Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and other centers of early 20th-century wealth are where you're still most likely to find these much-coveted early models today), the cars initially sold for then-astronomical sum of $100--and more. While the Depression eventually threw the brakes on that kind of extravagance, the industry switched gears, marketing enough lower-priced--but stylish--economy models to create gridlock in middle-class suburbs nationwide.

By the mid-Fifties--at which time the pedal-car field was dominated by a handful of manufacturers doing business under dozens of different names--cars like those made by the Sheybogan, Wisconsin-based Garton Toy Company were selling for $17.95. Eleven years later, Ford dealers offered a limited-edition "Midget Mustang" for just $12.95. In restored condition today, that same car would sell for in the neighborhood of $600.

The unofficial block-watch monitor of that neighborhood is John Rastall, editor of Big Wheel Times. The pedal-car bible, Rastall's Frasier, Michigan-based kiddie-car newsletter has for the past 13 years tracked what Rastall claims is one of the country's fastest-growing collectible markets. "Back in '86, there was nothing out there on pedal cars, so I began this as a lark," says Rastall, who formerly edited a classic-bicycles newsletter. "But when they stopped making these things, I had a hunch. Since I started doing this, I've seen prices on some stuff go up 20 times."

In the process, he's seen an entire cottage industry--call it Mini Motown--spring up around the pedal-powered curios.

One of the benefactors of this new baby- boom vroom is Glendale restorer Mike Ballengee. Owner of Smilin' Jack's, the Valley's only retail pedal-car emporium, Ballengee also carries replacement parts for industrious enthusiasts who prefer to buy one of his unrestored bodies and do it themselves. Be forewarned, however, that it might be cheaper to refurbish the family Rolls: A set of decals for a Fifties Good Humor truck will set you back $75 alone.

Currently in the process of making a customized limousine for one of his clients, Ballengee concedes that there are certainly cheaper hobbies than collecting vintage kiddie cars. "It's easier to restore a pedal car than a real car, and it takes up less space," he says. "By scale, though, it's pretty much the same price."

But how do you put a window-sticker price on sentiment? For customer Adam Vainauskus, the decision to spend nearly $500 to restore a 1961 Murray V Front he'd had as a child was a no-brainer. "It has a lot of good memories for me," says the Air Force crew chief about the car that has traveled with him from his childhood home in Detroit to its most recent home in a Glendale shed, via Los Angeles, Tucson and several Phoenix addresses. "I had it since I was 1; now I want to give it to my son on his second birthday." Vainauskus admits he did draw the line at $300 stenciling, opting instead for less-expensive stickers.

Whether the younger Vainauskus will share his dad's love of the open driveway remains to be seen.

"Look at the generation of kids today," says Dave Kleespies. "When I was a kid, we played outside; everybody rode bicycles, pedal cars or roller-skated. What do kids do today? They stay in the house playing with Game Boy or the computer."

Laughing, he tells the story of one modern youngster's bewildered reaction to his handiwork. "She got in the car, looked down and had no idea what the pedals were for. Then she asked, 'Where's the button? How do you turn this thing on?'"

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com

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