This picture comes from the May 1945 issue of National Geographic – and depicts a Cushman 30-Series scooter. The caption explained that “Dropped by by parachute to beleaguered troops, they provide speedy transportation behind enemy lines.”
This was one of three pictures showing female workers supporting the troops fighting at the front: driving a farm tractor; manufacturing pumps for drawing up underground water; and, in our Snapshot, what seem to be final adjustments to the engine of the scooter.
The Cushman company was started in 1903 in Lincoln, Nebraska, by Everett and Clinton Cushman and incorporated as Cushman Motor Works in 1913. They began production of their four-stroke Husky engine in 1922. Cushman produced engines for farm equipment, pumps, lawn mowers and boats, and began making Auto-Glide scooters in 1936 as a means to increase the sale of Husky engines during the Great Depression. The caption to our Snapshot goes on to confirm that the Series 30 was used by the military (“Both Army and Navy use these fast little motor vehicles, and the company turns them out in colors specified by the two services”). Other sources tell us that it was the Model 53 that was designed specifically for dropping by parachute with Army Airborne troops and was known as the Airborne, whilst the 30-Series was most often used on military bases and for messenger services.
The history of Cushman’s involvement with the military is worth a rather more detailed look. When the US joined World War II, Nebraska towns began looking for military contracts and for other ways to support the war effort, and Lincoln, Nebraska was no different. The Nebraska Advertising Commission pledged $50,000 to bring in wartime work, and Lincoln itself lobbied at government level to achieve the same.
In 1940, Lincoln was considered as a location for the Martin Bomber plant, but Lincoln was considered too small and thus to have an insufficient pool of labour – and the plant went to Omaha.
But the Cushman plant was of interest to the authorities. Having made scooters since 1936, they had a head start in the race to manufacture supplements for cars and trucks for the Army. With so many men serving overseas, women were hired at 43 cents an hour for jobs that men would have done for 53 cents an hour.
The Cushman was powered by a single-cylinder, kick-started, 4.6-horsepower petrol engine with a two-speed gear box and magneto ignition. Top speed was 40 mph. Although our picture almost certainly shows a standard Model 32 scooter, Cushman also made a Model 34 with a sidecar and a Model 39 with three wheels.
The scooter in all its models was a successful product for Cushman, with a total of 15,000 being supplied to the military. And a curious fact is that Cushman was the only US manufacturer allowed to sell motorized vehicles to civilians during the war, because of their energy-saving qualities.
After the war, Cushman continued to sell scooters to the general public. The most successful model was the Eagle, in production for around 16 years, that resembled a motorcycle with its exposed engine and top tank. Other Cushman models were used for Post Office, golf and commercial delivery work, and four-wheel vehicles were made as late as 2002. Small and light duty, these were used for ice cream sales, shopping mall and stadium maintenance, and by the New York Police Department.