Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fun With Scooters Part 1:
The Powell Streamliner


Last February Vintagetvs posted the above photo over on Shorpy with his original title "The Wild Ones" and captioned "Not even Brando could make that scooter look cool. From the negatives I found at a Whittier book store." The photo itself was named "three-guys-on-a-vespa.jpg"

In mid-December Rivet Head posted a copy with no caption that—as of this date—was reposted on 11 other sites, including my favorite Belgian photo blog Jalapeno in the eye (occasionally NSFW).

It next appeared on the track east, with a link back to the original Shorpy post, but also with a different caption. The new caption, which has been copied to an additional 23 or so sites, says "Young men on a homemade scooter." Well, young they may be, but homemade it is not, nor (with apologies to Vintagetvs) is it a Vespa.

The scooter is an early 1939 Powell P-39 Streamliner as made by the Powell Manufacturing Company in Compton, California.

1939 Powell
Powell P-39 Streamliner

Hayward and Channing Powell graduated from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1924 and immediately started manufacturing radios. In 1926 they formed Powell Manufacturing. Around 1938 they started manufacturing motor scooters, and by 1941 were producing small motorcycles. During World War II the factory switched to war work, and when the war ended they resumed scooter resumed production. Starting in late 1954 and continuing through early 1957, Powell manufactured pickup trucks and station wagons.

1956 Powell
1956 Powell pick-up (with an incorrectly painted hood) carrying a 1954 Powell P-81 scooter

In the 1960s they began building trail bikes, changed the name to Powell Brothers, Inc., and moved the company to South Gate, California. They ceased production in April 1979.

Maybe Brando couldn't make that particular scooter look cool, but a number of Hollywood stars (and wannabe stars) were photographed on Powell P-39s, P-40s, and P-41s.

Lou Costello       Lou with sidecar       Dolores Moran

 Frances Gifford in the sidecar   The Three Stoogies*     Sally Wadsworth

    Claudia Drake        Joe E. Brown       Broderick Crawford

    Charles Korvin        K. T. Stevens         Gail Patrick
  (on Lou Costello's scooter)     & Peter Van Eyck

And three unknowns just because:

  Claimed to be a U.K scooter     Party Hat         Shiny Chrome
  girl, but no source cited

*Often mistaken for a Crocker Scootabout, but no. That diamond shaped cutout on the front of the motor housing is a Powell thing, not a Crocker thing.

As far as I can tell, the single Powell Streamliner that has been seen by the most people anywhere is this one:


As the ad copy states, this P-40 participated in the September 2, 1940 Labor Day parade in Los Angeles, appearing before some 400,000 spectators—which must have been a hoot since the vast majority of the 100,000 strong marchers were Roosevelt supporters. It was the first public display of the scooter-borne ad medium created by the Los Angeles-based Bentley Advertising Company. Clymer Motors, being the "World Distributor" of the Crocker Scootabout, did not seem too apologetic for showing the advertising device attached to a Powell rather than a Crocker. After all, they also represented Powell, as shown by this flyer advertising used Powell P-40s.


This would have been after the Powell factory had switched over to war production, as no new scooters were being produced.

Floyd Clymer was, of course, the famous auto dealer and enthusiast who at the age of 11 had been the world's youngest automobile dealer (REO, Maxwell, and Cadillac) in Berthoud, Colorado in 1907.

At least two Streamliners made it to Hawaii:


The image on the right was taken from a one second appearance in a 16mm film shot on VJ Day in Honolulu. Watch the entire three-and-a-half minute clip here. See if you can spot the Navy gray Divco truck.

This screed isn't intended to be a treatise on all things Powell. Rather, it's just a brief look at the Streamliners of the late 1930s and early 40s. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there was a post-WWII afterlife for the Streamliner design. Sort of. Maybe. Or maybe not. Check back for Part 2.

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