By Maureen Neeley
Are you looking for the “answer to your needs for safe, dependable, low-cost transportation?” Derrick, Diana and Bodhi Muska apparently found the “answer” in their vintage Electric Shopper purchased in August 2020 from a friend who mentioned it would be an easy and fun project. Basically, he lied.
Nevertheless, the family bought this rusty hulk of a three-wheeled life-size toy-like vehicle. It was originally produced in the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Known as Electric Shoppers, Autoettes, Marketeers and other clever brand names, these cute rickshaw knock-offs were popular in Long Beach for gadding about town, marketing and running errands. Several local companies manufactured them, priced from $300 to $700. Steered with a tiller (rather than a wheel like a golf cart) the little cars were promised to zip around at 25 mph.
Popular into the early 1970s, the vehicles lost their caché once their nebulous status as neither car, bike nor pedestrian created legal trouble. Electric Shopper drivers couldn’t use the street safely (no bike lanes then) and pedestrians were getting tired of dodging them. LBPD were forced to cite the oldsters who used these roadsters while grocery shopping and running errands. With fewer avenues to drive, owners let them languish in yards, garages and sheds. Until now. Lately, collectors of mid-century kitsch have rediscovered them; clubs and Facebook groups provide access for restoration ideas and help.
As the Muskas found out, though, ideas and help only go so far. Initially thinking they could complete this Electric Shopper renovation as a family quarantine adventure with relative ease, they entered a rabbit hole of challenges. For instance, how does one take four 6-volt batteries and transform them into 24 volts that connect to an electric motor? Then connect the tiller to the power wheel and the forward-reverse speed controller? Oh, and by the way, the front lights, back-up lights, and horn all need different voltages.
Not naturally gifted with an electrical engineering brain, Derrick often found himself at his wits end, especially since they were trying to use the original parts. His 10-year-old son, Bodhi, recalls that they identified this head-exploding Derrick as “Shopper Derrick.” After numerous sparking and smoking incidents, Derrick and Bodhi decided they had to bite the bullet and swap out some original parts for new ones. Even then, it took six weeks of noodling the electrical configurations for Derrick to wake up at 4:00 a.m. with the answer. He grabbed Bodhi out of bed and they succeeded in getting the Shopper running after the third try.
While Derrick and Bodhi were tinkering with the inner workings, Diana was restoring the exterior. She discovered an original teal paint chip under a tail light and found a local body shop to match it, along with outfitting the canopy with a jaunty yellow and white stripe.
Today, they cruise to local spots like Ubuntu, Honeybees, Starling Diner, KB Donuts and Ma ‘N Pa Grocery. They haul their donations for the BHCA monthly food drives in the Shopper and drop off kids for Scouting events. Using the numerous bike boulevards in the City really helps, as the Shopper tops out at about 19 mph on a two-hour charge.
Derrick, Diana, and Bodhi primarily see their Shopper as a smile-generator. Neighbors often flag them down to chat or to reminisce about their own experiences with similar electric vehicles in the 1960s. Tooling around in a quiet, open-air electric cart means the Muska's get to slow down and smell those proverbial roses.