Ah, polo, that sport of kings, where players race down the field atop horsepowered beasts. Behold their mallets and wheels, whirling throughout the chukka; inhale the earthy scent of mown grass, leather, and gasoline; listen to those bumping bodies, as the transmission’s planetary gearset reins in speed. You’re less likely to find this game played before Pimm’s-sipping crowds, however. It is auto polo — a short-lived sport thought to have been created as an advertising stunt to sell Ford Model Ts in 1911.
Invented, or at least popularized, by the Topeka car salesman Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson, auto polo quickly spread across the United States. Five thousand people supposedly attended the first round, played between the Red Devils and Gray Ghosts on an alfalfa field in Kansas. League matches popped up in the following years, and within a decade it was possible to spectate the sport at Madison Square Garden and Coney Island. Auto polo then went international. King George V enjoyed a match in England; French teams raced around the Place de la Concorde; and touring exhibitions introduced auto polo across continental Europe.
The rules resemble those of polo’s equine variety with a few key differences. Eight players were divided into four cars, each with a chauffeur and a malletman. Fields measured somewhere around 300 by 120 feet, and, without the need for grass, the sport could be played indoors, making for prime wintertime viewing. Unfortunately, referees had no choice but to officiate on foot, and their jobs resembled those of rodeo clowns facing down mechanical bulls. Instead of helmets, players were protected by primitive roll bars while hunting after a basketball. The sport led to other mechanical innovations too: cars were modded, stripped of doors and other superfluous comforts; dozens of how-tos were published for further kitting out your rig, such as with this fan-shaped brace “designed for protection when the car turns turtle”; and where we now might find hoods, or polycarbonate bumpers made to crumple on impact, many players attached iron guards to their chassis for fending off attacks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly — and despite the Alabama State Fair proclaiming the sport “a game with eternity” — auto polo began to peter out in the late 1920s due to the high risk of injury and sometimes death. (As the humorist Art Buchwald reported about the task of searching for experienced players to put on a match: “there are plenty of arms and legs, but [the organizer] had difficulty finding heads that went with him”.) With speeds reaching 40 miles per hour (64 km/h), matches frequently resembled proto–demolition derbies, driving costs up as drivers and their vehicles had to be frequently disentangled. A team in 1924, for example, counted 538 punctured tires, 66 fractured axles, 1564 bent wheels, 10 deformed engine blocks, and 6 totaled vehicles.
Below you can browse glass negatives of an auto-polo match played at Hilltop Park, New York, thought to have taken place in 1912, and two additional images from Coney Island. For those with the itch, we recommend the older (and enduring) sport of bicycle polo instead.
Oct 3, 2013