Cowboys on Wheels (Sep, 1940)

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Cowboys on Wheels



BOUNCING over bowlders, zooming up steep embankments, plunging down gullies, two mechanical mountain goats, created from automobile odds and ends, carry Walt and Ken Wilhelm, of Yermo, Calif., on daring expeditions into the Mohave Desert. Aboard these remarkable vehicles, called Lena and Prowler, the two brothers chase jack rabbits, rope coyotes, hunt game with bows and arrows, explore remote corners of the desert, search for fossils, trail outlaws, and rescue lost travelers.

They think nothing of starting Lena or Prowler across the desert, leaping out and riding lickety-split over cactus and across the frequent washes on sleighs or toboggans attached behind. By slipping a U bolt over a spoke of the steering wheel, either car can be directed in a straight line or a wide circle. Sand banks and bowlders offer no obstacles to the huge tires. Near Yermo, I once watched Prowler roaring driverless around a circle nearly two miles wide. The car plunged down narrow gullies, slithered through sand, overrode needle-pointed cactus spines, returning in ten minutes to our side.

When the car approached, both men fitted blunt arrows to their bows, and as it passed Walt fired quickly at a large rice-straw target slung behind the back seat. As the broad-head struck the bullseye, the automobile motor stopped dead and the car coasted to a halt. “We never go out unless the disconnect switch is in working order,” Walt explained. “Once we were thrown out while riding over rocks and the car crashed into a narrow canyon.” The thump of an arrow provides force enough to slap the target against the projecting switch installed underneath it.

Only once has this bow-and-arrow shut-off failed them. During an early hunt for fossils at the edge of Death Valley, they mounted the toboggans and took off for a slow survey of greasewood on a flat mesa. Noting the car approaching near-by badlands, Ken prepared to loose an arrow, but his bow broke.

“What happened to the car?” I inquired.

“She’s still there—a mess of junk.”

That was loss number one. A few months later, while playing around the treacherous potholes of Soda Sink, Walt felt the tires sinking. Leaping to the soft earth, Ken and he rolled half a city block to hard ground. When they returned thirty minutes later with timbers, the car had disappeared in quicksand.

Both Ken and Walt will tell you they assembled their unique desert cars for the thrill of bumping along off the beaten path. That is the truth but not the whole truth. Both brothers are enthusiastic archers. In the desert, they are able to practice incessantly, now shooting at a bounding jack rabbit, again loosing arrows at an artificial deer which Walt built not long ago. Driven by a gasoline motor and eccentric gear, it jumps up and down in the brush exactly like its prototype. So expert has their desert practice made them that last summer Ken set a new world’s record for distance shooting. He is the first man in all ‘ history officially to send an arrow farther than half a mile.

For nearly twenty years, the Wilhelms have been exploring the Mohave in various kinds of vehicles. Gradually, they evolved their present cars. You could buy the parts for either Lena or Prowler at a junk yard for $200 or so. But you’d work six months putting them together. It took the brothers exactly twenty-four days merely to fasten the tires to the rims. They started with huge, twelve-ply truck tires. Boots, countersunk and held firmly over blow-out holes by carriage bolts, went in ahead of the tubes. Using hydraulic jacks, they struggled until they pushed the thick beads onto the narrow rims of twenty-inch wheels. So tightly are the beads wedged that flats never bother them. “The tire walls are very strong,” Walt explained. “They’ll carry us anywhere; and by forcing the tires on narrow rims, we anchored them so they can’t turn and tear the valves out.”

In each of the machines, they installed two gear boxes, giving them many speeds forward and in reverse, too. Carrying only eight pounds of air in the tires, they can push up a steep, rocky hill with the engine turning fifty revolutions to one of the rear wheels, or they can speed along the smooth highway at a two-to-one ratio. The big tires take up most of the shock in rough going. “You oughta see Ken when he’s in a hurry,” Walt told me. “He’ll jump straight off an embankment, going fast enough to land on his wheels.”

Sometimes, but not always. Once, Ken tried this stunt while chasing a coyote, and straddled a hillock, breaking the motor block in half. After walking eleven miles for help, he decided to armor-plate the motor. Now, both Lena and Prowler are protected by a heavy sheet of boiler-plate, bolted against a cushion of wood beneath the pan of each engine.

Another time, the Wilhelms were grinding cross-country in Nevada, fifty miles from the nearest crossroads, when the welds holding a disk wheel to the flanges broke under the pounding vibration. Should they try to repair the damage, or walk three days for help? Walt took down their .30/06 rifle and shot three holes through the disk to form an approximate triangle. Next, he shot three holes in the flanges, outlining a similar triangle. Finally, they bolted the wheel back into place and drove slowly to a distant mine. Here, using salt and fine sand as a flux, they brazed the metals tightly with the metal from used rifle shells.

On several occasions, the adventurous pair and their desert cars have been pressed into service by the local sheriff for hunting outlaws, and on other occasions they have headed into the Mohave on errands of mercy. The most spectacular of these trips was a sixty-mile journey through snow and over two mountains, carrying food to a dozen starving miners. As an aid to keeping in touch with each other when roaming through desert wastes, the brothers recently added the latest pieces of equipment carried by Lena and Prowler: a pair of midget short-wave radio sets. If either brother is in difficulties, he can send out an SOS with the assurance that the other machine will soon put in an appearance, taking gullies and rocks in its stride. When the going gets really tough and there is obviously danger of Lena or Prowler sliding down a hillside to disaster, the boys halt. But not for long.

Selecting two straws—one longer than the other, they draw lots. The one “winning” the draw takes over the wheel and drives. Climbing a steep mountain one morning, they approached a sharp switchback. Out came the straws. Ken won. Before they got out of their fix, it was sunset. Yet they set out for more sport like it next day.

1 comment
  1. David Cheney says: January 9, 200812:44 am

    I was just looking over the article on the Wilhelm Bros. I grew up in Yermo right behind Walt and spent a lot of time out in the desert him. Walt and Ken were truly American heroes. They traveled out West as children on a covered wagon. The stories are endless. I saw these guys shoot collar buttons off each other’s heads with arrows. Walt once told me that he cheated when lighting a match with an arrow because he glued sand paper on the shaft of the arrow.Contrary to Myth Busters opinion I have seen Walt split an arrow with another arrow. Ken grubstaked the family business by going into the logging camps in Canada and upper states and fighting the toughest guy they had for all the money they could come up with. Walter and Earl Stanley Gardner wrote “Pay Dirt” and “the Desert Is Yours” Walt wrote “Last Rig To Battle Mountain”. Areally great story !

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