Polo is frequently the go-to sport when it comes time to lampoon the cultural tastes of the aristocracy. While it might seem ridiculously posh to flog horses across a field bearing mallets, imagine how much cooler the entire enterprise would be if those old money mavens were hanging out the doors of Rolls-Royce Cullinans and Bentley Bentaygas instead? This is the future that was nearly bequeathed to us through the brief popularity of “auto polo.”
Picture the brutal violence of the ancient chariot races, only with each team charging at the other at near top-speed in pursuit of a basketball-sized sphere, and you’ll understand why the sport’s glory days were limited to the earliest era of the automobile.
In this contest of near-total madness that pitted teams of early motorists against each other in tight quarters, competitors were driven to the point of dismemberment—or death—to satisfy the bloodlust of audiences as eager for the accidents as they were to see any points scored.
It’s All Fun and Gore
If that all sounds a little too dramatic to be true, a brief survey of the auto polo landscape at its pinnacle quickly confirms its brutality. “‘Play to win, regardless of injury to the other fellow,’ is the slogan of auto polo,” proclaimed an article in The Southeast Missourian from 1922, a full decade into a sport that combined the delicate ballet of a demolition derby with the terrifying prospect of being ejected and then run over, perhaps intentionally, by the other team. “Owing to the very frequent need of a physician,” the article continued, “each set of players has a doctor and a nurse as a part of its outfit, both of whom are sometimes needed when a player has been seriously injured.”
The concept of organized auto polo can be traced back to a Topeka-based Ford dealer seeking to juice sales in 1911, but Ralph ‘Pappy’ Hankinson’s efforts merely formalized what had been going on in farmer’s fields, abandoned armory buildings, and exhibition halls across the country since at least the turn of the century. The rules, such as they were, were simple: The pitch had to be at least 300 feet by 120 feet, the goals at each ended must measure 15 feet wide, and each team had to have at least a pair of cars in operation during play (with a referee studiously trying to stay alive in a vehicle of his own).
As for everything else, well, chaos reigned. Every car had a driver and a “malletman,” with the latter wielding an ultra-long, three-pound stick as he dangled from the doorway of his speeding steed. Initially, auto polo vehicles ran the gamut of what was available with either steam or gasoline drivetrains, but it wasn’t long before teams began modifying stock cars for improved polo prowess. Common upgrades included chopped tops, reinforced radiators, excised doors, and roll cages, designed to keep the cars alive as long as possible, and hopefully the occupants, too.
As one might expect, turning teams of early autos loose in tight quarters in pursuit of the same tiny ball resulted in carnage for both sheet metal and human bodies. With malletmen hanging gamely off the sides of each vehicle like delicate fruit, the polo players would relentlessly bash into each other with their sticks and indeed the cars themselves. The luckiest occupants were flung free from the collision; the unlucky were pinned beneath the wreckage.
As a spectator sport auto polo was unmatched, with crowds of up to 5,000 showing up to witness what they hoped would be a bloodbath. “The greatest complaint most of the spectators seemed to have was that somebody wasn’t killed,” reported The Miami Herald in 1924, “because there were so many head on collisions, locked wheels, spills, etc. … that the gallery didn’t think it fair.”
The Decline, And Rise, Of Car-Stick-Ball Sports
Auto polo spread to Canada and Europe, where audiences thrilled to the death-courting antics of 40-mph ball-bashing in vehicles with handling and braking too primitive to provide drivers with any type of accuracy. Eventually, however, the sheer human and mechanical attrition spelled the sport’s death spiral.
With the Great Depression looming, few could afford to wreck expensive automobiles on a regular basis, let along replace the thousands of broken wheels, hundreds of tires, and dozens of axles and engine blocks teams chewed through in a single season according to coverage from The Hartford Courant in 1925.
Although it disappeared from the mainstream just prior to America’s dip into economic doldrums, auto polo would be revived in several other forms, most notably motor-polo or “motoball” using motorcycles, and auto ball, which saw drivers in junkers use either a racquet to whack their way to points, or instead chase down a four-foot-diameter ball with the bumpers of the vehicles themselves.
Although motoball embraced the derby aspect to the fullest, the auto ball was embraced in countries as diverse as Germany, Yugoslavia, and Brazil, and it continues to this day as the equivalent of car-sized soccer using enormous transparent balls
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