Disneyland Autopia Mark VII First Drive: Tomorrowland’s Yesterday


When Disneyland first opened its doors in 1955, its namesake provided a simple mission: “Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.” Perhaps no original attraction better encapsulated that ideal than Tomorrowland’s Autopia, which offered adult parkgoers a childlike feeling of discovery while providing many young “drivers” their first taste of driving themselves. Two decades after its opening, a young boy named Peter Menotti grabbed the steering wheel for the first time, took off down the track, and fell in love.

“At the end of the track there’s the turn to the backstage area,” Menotti, now in his mid-50s, remembers, “and I always said one day it’s gonna be open and I’m gonna drive right off the track and all the way to Burbank and take a car home with me.”

That’s not exactly how it worked out. For one, Menotti lives in Westchester these days, near Los Angeles International Airport. For another, his Disneyland Autopia Mark VII wasn’t driven here, and it certainly didn’t look like this.

“By chance, I saw one on eBay in 2001 from Hollywood Trading Company, and I went down there with my truck,” Menotti says. “They had stacks of ’em. Somebody didn’t treat them right. I picked the best one of the bunch.”

In 1998, Disneyland cleaned out some of its warehouses and decided the 180 old Autopia car bodies had to go. The park had recently entered into a new sponsorship deal with Chevron, which saw the cars rebodied like three of the talking Chevron Cars from the company’s contemporary ad campaign. The old Mark VII bodies, which had faithfully transported park visitors for three decades, were on the block. Disneyland kept the chassis and engines, though, so what Menotti dragged home was a fiberglass body with an engine compartment lid, a silver grab handle, and foam headrest and dashboard pads. Disneyland employees stripped the Mark VII badges from the rear fascias and even removed the body number tags from the engine compartments.

“For three years, it was: smoke a blunt and go sit in the car in the backyard and pretend I’m driving it,” Menotti says.

But Menotti wanted to do more than pretend. He’d been an Autopia addict for decades. Growing up in Southern California, a trip to Disneyland was a normal weekend activity. Although the park had dozens of rides, only one mattered.

“Just give me my C ticket,” Menotti says, referring to the old ride ticket system Disneyland used to employ. “Give me everybody else’s C ticket, and leave me at Autopia. It’s all I wanted to do.”

Rebuilding an Autopia car, though, cost C notes, not C tickets. All told, Menotti estimates he’s into it for $45,000. As much as a decent new SUV, yes, but worth it to own one of only 20 known remaining Autopia cars outside Disneyland and one of only nine that run. “It’s worth every penny,” he says. “Every Saturday when I take it out, the smile on my face is worth it.”

The starting point and biggest challenge was the same one that stumped the original Disney Imagineers in the early 1950s: the chassis.

“Walt did not want to buy a stock bump car,” legendary Disneyland designer and builder Bob Gurr, 90, says. Menotti and Gurr have become friends over the years as restoration progressed, though they didn’t know each other when the project began.

The original cars went through several redesigns. A team from Disney’s set-design and machine shops had the first go, then Jonny Hartmann’s Hartmann Engineering Company of Montrose, California, was called in to try again when Walt Disney didn’t like what his internal team came up with. Hartmann Engineering, which Gurr calls “a lawnmower shop in Montrose,” came up with a better chassis, but Disney didn’t care for the body. Hartmann wanted to do the entire project or none of it, so Disney turned to ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena for help.

ArtCenter wasn’t about to do it on the budget Disney proposed, but equally legendary car designer, ArtCenter instructor, and MotorTrend contributor Strother MacMinn knew a recent graduate named Bob Gurr who could use the work. The Autopia Mark I was designed on nights and weekends with the help of students.

“I’ve never been to engineering school,” Gurr says, “but I had auto shop, and I hung around racetracks.”

The chassis he came up with was a simple box frame of square steel tubing with round tubing for body supports. Built by MAMECO Automotive Engineering in Newport Beach, California, and covered in a fiberglass body designed by Gurr and laid by Glasspar down the street, it would underpin 32 cars, four police-themed cars, a custom car for Disney himself, and three promotional cars.

That’s not the chassis that would’ve been under Menotti’s Mark VII, though. With every body iteration came a new and (usually) improved chassis. A wraparound aluminum bumper was added after early drivers began crashing; it was supposed to protect the cars from each other and the low concrete walls along the edges of the track, but it quickly proved inadequate. The professional designer turned amateur engineer would discover the forces involved were much higher than anticipated.

“Opening day, people were jumping over the wall and commandeering cars before they got to the head of the line,” Gurr says. “Walt was giving [actress] Gale Storm a tour and said, ‘Oh, Bob can watch your kids.’ I figured I’d have ’em in my pocket if I took ’em for a drive on Autopia. We’re going along, and the kids kept yelling, ‘Hit ’em, hit ’em,’ so I put my foot down and knocked [another driver] over the wall. It was Sammy Davis Jr. I never did catch up with him to apologize.”

You see, Autopia didn’t get its guide track until 1963 after eight years of operation. Until then, it
was a free-for-all, save for the four high-speed police cars meant to chase down rule breakers and assist stranded motorists.

“I’ve seen so many things,” Gurr says. “I’ve seen spinouts. Spinouts and head-on collisions. That’s why we added the track in ’63.”

Along the way, Gurr tried as many chassis designs as he did bodies. Mark IV had a drivetrain that could be removed from the vehicle for service by pulling a single pin. Mark V had a Gurr-designed fully independent suspension. Mark VI was built by Arrow Development, a ride-development firm, as a lightweight replacement for “the big, fat, ugly thing,” but it fell apart “almost immediately.” The original concept of a solid-mounted rear drivetrain and a beam front axle on a center pivot did the job, making most of the advancements “a colossal waste of money,” Gurr says.

Mark VII’s big advancement was its “cow-belly frame.” Bowing out in the middle, it could flex without breaking like the straight sections of tubing used previously. Critically, it was clamped together, not welded. Now, no matter how hard a collision, the frame would survive. That’s how Mark VIIs lasted 30 years, and that’s why today’s Mark VIIIs still ride on Mark VII chassis.

Not that any of this was much help to Menotti as he began the restoration. Disney wasn’t about to share the plans with him, and Gurr no longer has access to the details, either, so Menotti was left to figure it out on his own. Nearly every other restored Mark VII that drives has been grafted onto a golf cart chassis, but Menotti couldn’t stomach it. He wanted it to look like the real thing, and the body just didn’t sit right on the golf-cart-based cars.

Lucky for him, he knew a guy. A friend got a contract to make prototype scale models of various Disneyland vehicles, including the Autopia cars, and he passed Menotti a simple set of cutaway plans with top-down and profile perspectives. It was to scale but didn’t include measurements. Still, it was a start, and he knew where to get the rest. Off the family went for more of those weekend trips to Disneyland, where Menotti would ride Autopia over and over, using every opportunity to take measurements and get pictures under the body. Once he had the wheelbase, “I could use the scale drawing to basically do all the math backward.”

The next problem was finding someone to build it. Two shops tried, but neither could meet Menotti’s detailed demands. In desperation, he called former Autopia car owner Chip Foose, but he “charges as much as my house.” Still, Menotti got a recommendation for a sandrail builder named Cody Crisp, who was willing to tweak the design until the car sat right.

Menotti didn’t stop there. Like the original Mark VII, his car has the engine and rear axle hard-mounted to the chassis, but the front suspension is a custom affair. The original used a beam axle with the center pivot point and steering tie rods on springs to keep them from breaking when someone slammed the guide wheels into the track’s car-corralling center rail.

Menotti didn’t need the guide wheels, so an early iteration of the frame hard-mounted the front axle, too, but the ride quality was terrible. It wasn’t much of a consideration at Disneyland, where they only drove on smooth, well-maintained concrete, but in the real world, it was teeth-chattering. A custom control-arm suspension was designed and fitted with coil-over shocks and springs lifted from mountain bikes. Steering was handled by a VW Beetle steering box, which Menotti thought came closest to the feel of the original rack-and-pinion box.

As to the matter of making the cars go and stop, way back when, Gurr went through multiple engines looking for the right one, starting with one pulled from a Gladden Mustang mini motorcycle. It vibrated like crazy and “shook the carb right off every few weeks,” Gurr says, but the real problem was the inconsistent governor. Gurr wanted all the cars limited to 7 mph except the police cars, but the Gladdens were all over the place. He eventually settled on a 7-hp Kohler K7 motor with a bang-on governor. In the ’90s, it would be replaced by a Honda engine with stop/start technology, a partnership that evolved into Honda taking over as sponsor of the ride in 2015.

Menotti’s restoration needed to be simple and reliable, so he went with an 8.5-hp Briggs & Stratton with the glasspack muffler and a Comet centrifugal clutch. Gurr designed his own centrifugal clutch back in the day to alleviate an overheating problem, the tooling for which cost more than the entire car.

“Walt always looked the other way about what these [Mark VII] cars were gonna cost,” Gurr says. “A stock bump car would’ve gone for $1,500, and these cost about $5,000 each. It was the cheapest car we ever built, because it never broke.”

Even today, Autopia cars use a spring-loaded brake that applies when you take your foot off the throttle. It’s what makes the gas pedal so stiff. Menotti needed something that would stop on a dime for real-world driving where you can’t just bump into the car ahead, so he went with a go-kart’s disc brake setup on the rear axle. It has to be adjusted every few weeks because at 600 to 700 pounds, the Mark VII is much heavier than a go-kart.

Then there’s the really custom stuff. Menotti played with custom gear ratios, settling on 10:1, which gave him both a smooth launch and an estimated 15-mph top speed, though 5 mph is really the sweet spot. The steering wheel was trickier, as only a few have made it out of the park, and they go for $1,000 or more on eBay. Menotti, who owns a 3-D printing business, was able to borrow one to scan, print, and coat with rubber.

Mark VII badges are equally expensive and hard to come by, so Menotti scoured the internet for high-res photos, traced the design in Adobe Illustrator, and had a custom button maker create a replica. Gurr says it’s pretty close to the one he designed.

A similar solution was necessary for the tires. Goodyear stopped providing the custom, staggered-width tires for Autopia years ago, so Menotti had to use the Carlisle tires the park uses today. They don’t look right on the Mark VII, though, so he traced the Goodyear sidewall logo, printed stencils, and painted them on himself. On his next set, he’ll sand off the raised lettering first.

Menotti would’ve preferred a blue car, but for the sake of authenticity, he decided to paint his car its original color. After sanding through 10 layers of paint from 30 years of refurbs, yellow was the answer; 1955 Chevrolet yellow, as it happens, as Gurr was a big GM fan and loved the colors on the ’55 Chevys.

Although it looks like a ’68 Corvette, Gurr says it’s entirely a coincidence. The Mark VII and the third-generation Corvette were designed at the same time, neither aware of the other. Gurr and Chevrolet designer Henry Haga would later compare notes after both cars were released and concluded they just had the same taste. For Gurr, the real challenge was making it look right with riders on board. His self-imposed mandate was “as real proportions as you can get with an adult and a small child.”

They also used the same design techniques. Gurr styled all his cars on paper then with a full-size clay model, just like Detroit did. He decries modern cars designed in CAD for lacking surface definition, which shows up as wavy reflections in a smooth panel.

Finally finished, Menotti’s car is the star of the neighborhood. Every Saturday he takes it out, and every Saturday he ends up giving rides to local kids and stopping for pictures. The only rule is, no one drives it but him. Well, and Gurr. And MotorTrend.

Sliding behind the wheel feels like going to Disneyland for the first time as a kid. The nostalgia hits so hard you’re smiling before you’ve moved an inch, and you never stop. Driving around a parking lot, it’s clear Menotti’s attention to detail paid off. The ride is better than a golf cart, the steering is quick and precise, and the modern motor really gets it moving. Having a brake pedal is odd, but the car gets a little intimidating at double the original top speed, so you’re happy to have it.

Gurr never expected to see one of these cars outside the parks. “That’s why today is such an interesting day,” he says. “[The Mark VII] was my favorite. I got to do all the things on it, and it still had to look bitchin’. Of all the things I’ve designed, this is the only object that has a group of people who adore it for what it is. That is the best feedback a designer could ever get.”

“Adore” is the right word for Menotti. He jokes about being buried in it, encased in concrete, “like that woman with the Ferrari.” He might be serious.

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