Just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Elise Manlove was sitting in the Old Western Saloon — a bar in Point Reyes Station — moments after spotting a “for sale” sign on a dusty orange 1994 Cushman Truckster parked out front.
Or, as anyone who’s ever lived in San Francisco calls it: a meter maid car.
Manlove’s friend dared her to guess the price and buy it if it was less than her guess. She went along with it, and after guessing above its $800 price tag, she followed through and bought it.
In 2018, Manlove started Her Urban Herbs, a flower business that designed florals for weddings and popped up with arrangements at art walks around the city. She’d built a bike flower cart, but her business was doing well and when she saw the little car she knew it would be perfect for a mini flower truck.
“It’s just so cute. It’s perfect for selling flowers,” Manlove said. “It’s really hard to be profitable renting a space in the city. It’s small and I can take it to events. My actual car is a big truck. It’s much easier to get around in the little car.”
Now, Manlove sells flowers around the city out of the car, which she said has been perfect amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Especially since COVID, a lot of people want to have flowers in their home, especially in their home offices,” she said. “It’s been really nice to be able to do that for people during this time.”
When she first got the car, it needed a lot of maintenance (meter maids typically cost anywhere between $1,000 and $4,000 on the secondary market depending on the vehicle’s condition, which should tell you what kind of shape her $800 purchase was in). After doing some research, she found mechanic Jerry Caldwell in the Bayview who among the meter maid car community is referred to as “the master,” “the expert,” and “the guy” for these vehicles by just about everyone I interviewed. Caldwell owned one himself after a neighbor gave it to him in the mid-1980s and he put his name on the side to advertise his business. Word got around, and since plenty of mechanics throughout the city won’t touch them — largely due to tough-to-find parts — Caldwell became the de facto expert with referral after referral.
He still owns two himself, though he said neither is currently in working condition. He said he’s been lucky to build up this reputation since his other business has been drying up over the past few years. “Cushmans kind of keep me alive,” Caldwell said. “The economy has changed, so it’s nice having that business. It’s not paying all the bills, but it helps out. I see a few a month.”
Caldwell said the car’s main appeal lies in how easy it is to park nearly anywhere, as the three-wheeled vehicles are classified as a motorcycle and thus can park perpendicular to the street. Couple that with the ability to operate a mobile storefront, and it’s easy to see why they’ve appealed to business owners like Manlove in a city with sky high rents.
In 2015, artist Amos Goldbaum was selling T-shirts out of a handcart in the Ferry Building, lugging it to and from Bernal Heights on BART. His business was growing, and as he created more designs and expanded to sweatshirts, he needed more space. “All of a sudden, I was like I need one of these three-wheeled cars,” Goldbaum said. “I was pulling up ones on Craigslist being like ‘I need this’ and showing friends. After a few weeks, I saw one in Santa Rosa, and I went to see it and ended up driving it home.”
Caldwell worked on the mechanics, his friend painted it with his website on the side and he began zooming around the city in his new mobile shop dubbed the “T-shirt-mobile.” “I love street vendors and I’ve been one for 12 years,” Goldbaum said. “At certain points, people have asked, ‘Don’t you want a storefront?’ but I love the flexibility of being a street vendor. Now more than ever, I’m feeling so lucky for not signing a lease on a storefront. There’s no support for those people right now.”
Once you start looking, many beloved SF businesses have a connection to these little cars. Danny Gabriner of Sour Flour delivered bread to customers for two years in one. “At the time, we were delivering bread by bike so it was a big upgrade for us,” Gabriner said. “It was also good publicity for us since people recognized it around town. Plus, parking was great.”
Restaurateur and chef Dennis Leary of House of Shields formerly used two GO-4 Interceptors to transport goods between his businesses.
Forage SF owner Iso Rabins bought his from grocery market owner Luke Chappell of Cole Valley’s Luke’s Local, and now he says it’s the unofficial mascot of his businesses. He bought it thinking he’d build a grill into the back to cook on, but now Rabins said he’s thinking of making it into a jockey box to pour beer from at his recently opened Oakland beer garden Hofkuche.
When owner Jim Angelus of Bacon Bacon bought one in 2014, he thought it would be the answer to his restaurant’s delivery issues. The solution didn’t last long, since delivery apps became ubiquitous and easier to use soon after, he said, but it was a nice idea. Mostly, it was easy to park anywhere and he said his kids loved going for rides in it while they were growing up. He got rid of it once the kids were grown, but he said he wouldn’t mind having one again.
Avital Ungar had planned to purchase a Vespa to get around town easier when she saw a friend at a party who suggested buying a meter maid car instead. He had his out front and said she could take a test drive. After zipping up and down Clarion Alley in the Mission, she was hooked and spent the next six months researching how to get her own. “I kept saying I can’t believe more people don’t have this,” Ungar said, after finally purchasing a 1999 Cushman Go-4 Interceptor at auction in Vallejo. “They may not be the most safe thing around, but I could park in Nob Hill no problem. I always found motorcycle spots and I could ride in the rain whereas a bike or a motorcycle I wouldn’t have been able to.”
It primarily helps her get to and from places for her business — she has a food tour company called Avital Tours — but she also likes being part of this unique community of owners. “It’s something that’s become a part of who I am,” she said. “One of the core values of my company is ‘embrace quirky.’ It says something about you. It’s fun and different.”
Plus it also holds a lot of nostalgia for her. “It was the first car I ever owned,” she said. “I had my first kiss with my husband in my meter maid car.”
While Caldwell is the fixer in the community, Alec Bennett is the connector.
Bennett had originally intended to buy a motorcycle in the late 1990s, but was worried about how dangerous they were. Instead, he found an old meter maid car and had it shipped from San Diego. He thinks he was one of the first few people to own one in San Francisco when he bought it in 1999.
The car needed repairs and he spent a lot of time fixing it, which led him to realize the need for a central community for owners where they could share tips and advice. Bennett created sillylittlecars.com and while it never became as comprehensive a resource as he once intended, he said the email list is still the best place for people to find the answers to questions about their vehicles. They also now have a Facebook group where people trade stories and exchange information.
By far the most common question, Bennett said, is how to remove the governor, which regulates the speed of the vehicles. Most of them top out at 40 mph, but if you want to be able to drive on the highway (which almost no one I talked to recommended), you’ll need to remove it to be able to go faster.
Bennett said he’s owned six of the vehicles over the years, one of which is still running and one of which still operates as a mobile photo booth. Originally conceived for the 2005 Burning Man festival, he’s since used it for parties and additional Burning Man events. He said he was inspired by trips to Europe, where it’s more popular to have small cars, and he’s surprised the cars have never jumped into the mainstream. “[The cars] can be whatever you want. It’s being underutilized,” he said. “I’m still surprised it’s so niche and there’s not more demand and the only industry that could find use for these is meter maids.”
But they’re not quite as straightforward as Bennett makes it seem. They’re hard to buy (most sell at government auctions). They’re hard to register (most DMV employees end up confused since they see so few of them, most owners said). They’re hard to insure (apparently only one company will do so). And the likelihood of it getting stolen, tipped over or tagged with graffiti are high.
“People don’t like meter maids very much,” Ungar said. “I get tagged all the time. Someone once took a baseball bat to the front. Some people tipped it over once at 2 a.m. For many years, I had to replace mirrors, because people would take them and smash them.”
Plus, most people will still think you’re a meter maid. “Any time you’re on a crowded street, people either drive away from you or ask tons of questions about parking,” Angelus said.
It also might feel safer than a motorcycle, but it doesn’t feel as safe as a car. “One time I got on 101 South by accident, and I had to go one exit and it was terrifying,” Goldbaum said.
But despite all their downsides, everyone I interviewed spoke with such a fondness in their voice, you’d think they were talking about a family member. “I think the city would be a better place with more of them,” Bennett said. “I think they’re a force of good.”
Tessa McLean is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @mcleantessa.