Auto polo was invented in the United States with rules and equipment similar to equestrian polo, and of course used automobiles instead of horses. The sport was popular at fairs, exhibitions and sports venues across the United States and several areas in Europe from 1911 until the late 1920s.
The reported “first” game of auto polo occurred in an alfalfa field in Wichita on July 20, 1912 using four cars and eight players (dubbed the “Red Devils” and the “Gray Ghosts”) and was witnessed by 5,000 people. The official inventor of auto polo is purported to be Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson, a Ford automobile dealer from Topeka, Kansas who devised the sport as a publicity stunt in 1911 to sell Model T cars.
The popularity of the sport increased after its debut in July 1912. Multiple auto polo leagues were founded across the country under the guidance of the Auto Polo Association. The first large-scale exhibition of auto polo in the eastern U.S. was held on November 22, 1912. The event was held at at League Stadium in Washington, D.C. By the 1920s, New York and Chicago were the principal cities for auto polo in the U.S with matches occurring every night. In New York, matches were held at Madison Square Garden and Coney Island.
Internationally, auto polo was regarded with skepticism and caution. In 1912, the British motoring publication The Auto described the new sport as “very impressive” and a “lunatic game”. The writers hoped it would not become popular in Britain. Hankinson himself promoted auto polo in Manila in the 1910s. The events were sponsored by Texaco and he recruited teams in the United Kingdom. Auto polo was further spread when auto polo teams from Wichita toured Europe in 1913 to promote the sport. In Toronto in 1913, auto polo became the first motorsport to be showcased at the Canadian National Exhibition. The sport did not become popular in Canada.
What was Auto-Polo?
(From The Kansas City Star Magazine – November 14, 1971, by Floyd L. Hockenhull)
The game was played on a football field or in a fairground or park where goalposts were set up. As in polo on horseback, the aim was to drive a ball through the goal, or to keep the opposing players from doing so.
Two men formed a team, the driver and his mallet man. The ball, a regulation basketball, was lively upon impact of the mallet and hard to follow and to keep in a team’s possession.
The driver’s skill was a top factor in winning. He had to manipulate his car into leaps forward and backward, to make twists and turns so sharp that sometimes the car rolled over, to race down the field to the opponents’ goal, to protect his own goal and to shimmy back and forth to block the ball driven hard and fast by the other team.
No car but the Model T Ford of the early 1900s had the forward speeds and reverse and brake applied by foot pedals, plus throttle operated by hand, and the transmission system that made such maneuvers possible.
The skills of the young drivers and their mallet men of Natoma’s auto polo teams synchronized like gears of a smoothly-running machine.
As the driver whipped his car back and forth, stopped and twisted and turned, his mallet man, standing on a step at the car’s right side, leaned and turned to hit the ball or to take it from his opponent. To block a drive by the other team, he used arms, legs, all his body. And at game’s end, he usually was bruised and often was bloody.
The mallet man, too, frequently was thrown from the car. He had little to hang onto. Although the driver used no seatbelt and in rollovers often was thrown out, his seat and a rollbar on the car gave him more protection.
All the players wore heavy leather leggings. These helped to prevent sprained and broken legs. Some, such as Ray Hall, wore helmets but others at first scoffed at helmets – then after they got hurt they changed their minds. Red Lyon was a driver who came to be a believer: He wore this helmet every game after being knocked unconscious by a blow on the head in a free-for-all tangle of cars and players.
Playing time was 60 minutes. Quarters and halves, with rest periods between halves, were as in football. The teams changed goals at the half.
The game began with each team at its own goalposts, the ball in the center of the field. At the drop of the referee’s red flag, the cars came charging, the drivers striving to block the car of their opponent.
After a score, the team that made it had a try for an extra point as in football. This field-goal try was from the 25-yard line. On the 10-yard line, the opposing team lined its car crosswise of the field and attempted to block the ball. The result usually was another noisy scramble, often a collision.
The auto polo cars had no mufflers and the roar of the engines, the screech of skidding tires, the shouts and screams of the spectators, helped keep interest at fever pitch.
The auto polo cars were designed largely by Natoma’s first Ford dealer, R.A. “Dot” McEwen and his right-hand man, Ray E. Hall.