Shriner Cars: Who's Got the Hidden History?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
SHRINERS ON PARADE: An ancient tradition? (Photo: Jim Motavalli).

My daughters and I take part in the Memorial Day parade every year. It’s not because I served in the military but because I own a classic 1963 Dodge Dart convertible, complete with parade boot. The roomy bench seats are perfect to carry veterans of foreign wars.

This year, as every year, I am greeted by the remarkable spectacle of hell-bent-for-leather Shriners in tiny red cars, buzzing about and making tight figure-eight patterns on the road — all the while keeping their fezzes in place and dealing with what must be intense circulation cutoff in their legs.

This was the first year I actually wondered where this Shriner tradition comes from, and the first time I researched it. Or tried to. There’s very little out there. From the official history, I learned there are 400,000 Shriners in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and (go figure) the Republic of Panama. There are 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children, providing help for orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and both cleft lips and palates.

The fez “has been handed down through the ages,” first cited in 14th century Arabic literature. The governing body, established in 1876, was called “The Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for the United States of America.” But nothing on the cars. It was getting frustrating.

Car & Driver had fun running the cars around for a test drive. Finally, I found the only company in the U.S. that still makes custom go-karts, for the Shriners and others. Dave Robb, national sales manager of Go Kart Works, told me he has “no idea how far back the cars go.” But he did say that there will soon be an electric model, to compete with the 5.5- and 6.5-horsepower gas motors (Briggs & Stratton is popular) in most of the kart/cars running around now.

I talked to a Shriner at the parade, but he didn't know where the whole idea originated. Does anyone out there know more about the history of Shriner cars? Please post your comments below. This important story needs to be told! Do I have to become a Shriner to get the inside scoop?