Arks and Speedways

By 1919 Europe was emerging from a devastating war, the economic situation was dire and money was tight. For those trying to make a living on the fairground things didn’t look good. Travelling the heavy, elaborate and expensive rides that were taken out of storage when the shooting stopped was never going to work.

It was time for a change and, arguably, this began with a ride called The Whip, which first saw the light of day in America in 1914. The Whip was based on a flat track and the way its cars were pulled around was very different from anything seen before.

In a country not afflicted by conflict American innovation came easily and The Whip was the first of a number of fast rides that were to dominate the fairground for the foreseeable future.

Hold on tight, here we go!!

Another American example was a ride called the Caterpillar (1922) that was a modern Circular Switchback variant. Still a favourite today it features a hood that occasionally covers all the cars as go around, much to the delight of lovers everywhere.

Also a product of 1920s America were the Dodgems and these are just as popular now as they were the day they were introduced. Dodgems in particular would become highly influential on the fairground during the inter-war years in Europe. Being based on a simple framework they represented a new breed of rides that were relatively cheap, weighed a fraction of the old Scenic Railways and were easier to transport, construct and dismantle. These were key ingredients for hard times.

Initially, the new lightweight rides were imported from Germany and France, but it wasn’t long before British manufacturers were up and running, despite the state of the economy. Chief among these were old hands Orton & Spooner, who had been serious ride builders since about 1910. In 1929 the newly formed R.J. Lakin Company built something called The Swirl (a smaller, faster version of the Whip) and from there would go on to become a major competitor to Ortons.

In one sense, however, all this was a distraction. It would take more than a war to end the public love affair with the roundabout and it was the roundabout that was about to rule again.

The “Ark” was originally a German ride that arrived in Britain in the 1930s. In keeping with the new way of doing things it was relatively cheap, lightweight and came without frills. More than that, the new continental roundabouts were faster than anything seen before and speed was the magic ingredient that allowed Arks to dominate.

There was nothing new about the Ark because it was a smaller, modern, version of the Circular Switchback that ruled the roost earlier in the century. Like previous rides of its type it travelled over a circular track with steep “hills”.

Rides of this type were called Arks because the early imported machines were fitted with wooden animal figures upon which the riders sat. Orton & Spooner (famous for Scenic Railways) and the R.J. Lakin Company were quick to bring their own Ark versions to market.

Early British Arks had three “hills”, were 42-feet wide and were by no means elaborate. Animal mounts were made in the German style and a little splash of Art-Deco gave these machines high visual appeal.

There probably wouldn’t have been much else to say about Arks if it were not for the competitive nature of British fairground. Over time they increased in size and became more decoratively elaborate in an attempt (perhaps) to capture the essence of the old Scenic Railway. It wasn’t long before Ark fronts were displaying huge painted scenes and “interiors” were boasted a dazzling profusion of colour.

“Four-hill” and “five hill” Arks appeared with grand three-arched fronts and as the economy picked up in the 1930s designers and artists alike moved into overdrive. The Coronation of George VI in 1937, for example, provided a ready-made excuse to order larger machines and call them “Coronation Arks”. Themes changed too. The original so-called “Chariot Racer Ark” built by Lakins featured a huge display-front illustrated by a chariot race theme, with the animal mounts being replaced by horses and chariots. This idea was to be imitated time and again.

Arks became Speedways when motorcycles were introduced for the riders. The idea was to exploit the contemporary craze for dirt track motorcycle racing in Britain, more commonly known as Speedway. Speedways were the early preserve of Orton & Spooner and may be seen as their response to the “threat” posed by the Chariot Racer-style machines. Speedways also featured racing cars and aeroplanes, both popular themes in wider society.

Meanwhile, something called the Waltzer was emerging to add a little variety to the Ark idea. Although patented in 1922 the ride that became the Waltzer wasn’t properly introduced until c.1930, courtesy of a designer called Thomas Jackson. Waltzers have absolutely nothing to do with the dance of the same name, being an Ark variant based on fast movement and violently gyrating “tubs”, first seen on rides like the Whip. More precisely, the “tubs” are free to rotate independently while the roundabout spins.

Lakins took on Jackson’s original idea and, arguably, made the Waltzer the success it still is, although it struggled to compete for attention for those who were already Ark owners. Like the Arks, the Waltzers of the 1930s were given the full treatment by the fairground artist and often held their own with the Arks in this respect.

At this point in time fairground was on the up, both in terms of its popularity and the sort of creative innovation being used to put on such a good show. It wasn’t just the Arks and the Waltzers that were rolling off the production lines of Europe at this point, but other fairground icons like the Moonrocket, Jets, the Dive Bomber and the Autodrome.

But once again this momentum was all spoiled by war and it was this that precipitated the end for the two protagonists of the Ark era. When peace was finally restored to Europe Orton & Spooner decided to move into general engineering, while Lakins closed in 1952.