Currently reading: The company making cars for the youngest petrolheads
A Skegness firm is fuelling a future generation’s four-wheeled passion with ride-along machines
John Evans
News
5 mins read
22 November 2020

Among the raft of new electric vehicles arriving in the coming months is one based on no less a car than the ’57 Chevy, that much-revered star of road and track. To be built in the UK by Jolly Roger, based in Skegness on the North Sea coast in Lincolnshire, the electrically powered model will bring iconic 1950s American motoring to an emerging audience.

Designed to withstand the harshest weather, the new vehicle boasts a tough glassfibre body reinforced with steel and protected by a durable gel coat. The compact body permits only two people of limited stature to occupy the interior, sharing a bench seat. Advanced features include autonomous steering that leaves the occupants free to play an interactive game, fitted as standard.

Dave Watson, director of Jolly Roger, has high hopes for the new model. “Knowing how much customers like our cars and vans – Spydero and Classic Camper are our biggest sellers – we’re very excited about the launch of the ’57 Chevy. It satisfies a desire for a return to the past and a cosier, more secure world.”

As if you hadn’t guessed, the new car is, of course, a kiddy ride – a fixed, coin-operated sit-on such as you find outside supermarkets and at theme parks. Which means you could forget it and move on to more serious stories, except that the popularity of the Chevy’s sibling models suggests that toddlers continue to be delighted by cars – a fact that bodes well for the future of our four-wheeled friends.

Which is why, one early October day, I find myself on a marathon drive from London to the Jolly Roger factory in Skegness to learn more. Along the way, I’m buoyed by the prospect of coming face to smiley face with vehicles in the company’s line-up, such as Hank’s Hot Dog Van and Hank’s Ice Cream Van. Also Bykero, a kind of sporty Sinclair C1; CBeebies character Bing and his Talkie Taxi; and IX Pod, a futuristic city car that could actually work if only it weren’t immobile.

Meanwhile, there are three-seat models City Fun Bus and Eco Freddy, a garbage truck, to relish. Both offer impecunious grown-ups the prospect of three rides for the price of one, except that, kids being kids, the right of each to sit at the front is likely to be vigorously and expensively enforced. And then there’s the shockingly pink, Shopkins-based Melon Car – what the industry calls a cutie car ride. Moving on…

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Site of the first Butlins holiday camp and of a seafront packed with amusement arcades and kiddy rides, Skegness is the perfect location for Jolly Roger. So I look forward to entering the company’s technicolour reception, replete with gaily coloured rides chiming nerve-jangling catchphrases. But what I find is an entrance that’s worryingly deserted until Watson arrives with the news that most of his staff are still on furlough. Never mind; as he takes me on a Cook’s tour of his factory, it’s clear that, in Covid-free times, Jolly Roger is a thriving concern.

Completed and part-completed new rides fill the various departments. In one corner, production manager Roy Balmbra – with 25 years’ service under his belt, one of the firm’s longest-serving employees – remains hard at work producing glassfibre bodies ready for gel coating. Close by, in a room all of its own, is a scale replica of a race car in mid-development. Designed in Poland but to be produced here, the model is intended for older users and will house a video game.

Jolly Roger was founded more than 30 years ago but for the past 15 has been owned by self-service machine operator Photo Me. It claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of kiddy rides, producing 1200 per year, mainly for export to the US, Canada, Australia and the Middle East.

New vehicle-based rides cost from around £3500 plus VAT for one of Hank’s vans, rising to £6000 for the International Speedway Carousel, a thrilling three-car ride that any aspiring Lewis Hamilton or Jamie Chadwick would be thrilled to helm. Elsewhere around the plant, used rides await refurbishment.

“Our rides can last up to 30 years, so repairing and maintaining them is an important part of our business,” say Watson. “Chinese manufacturers charge lower prices for their rides but can’t make the business work, because they build them to fail and to be thrown away. We’ve survived by building rides our customers can rely on to earn money all year round with minimal maintenance and for a very long time.”

One thing bothers me, though. Watson is 60 years older than most of his toddler customers. How does he keep tabs on their changing tastes?

“Until my 60th year, I did the business plan,” he says. “Then, when I turned 63, there was a big change in the marketing department…” He shows me a photo of his daughter, three-year-old Alice. “She’s my first child and my chief market researcher.”

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What does Alice think of one of Jolly Roger’s most exciting creations, the Spydero, a two-seat roadster with ‘alloy’ wheels, ventilated disc brakes, red calipers, sporty dials and, the crowning glory, a Plexiglass cover through which can be viewed the rear-mounted engine? It looks suspiciously like a Bugatti Veyron, which is why the car maker asked Jolly Roger to change the design of the radiator grille. Is it a bit boyish for the girls?

Watson explodes my ignorant gender stereotyping by saying that little girls are more likely to be drawn to the Spydero than little boys, who prefer the firm’s train rides. “Girls are less fearful. They will try anything.”

However, like the boys, their interest lasts only around a minute and a half before they get bored and try to break the ride or pinch any poorly tied-down features. “It’s why we’ve had to reinforce the Spydero’s windscreen frame (the kids love pulling on it) and remove the clutch and accelerator pedals,” explains Watson. It seems that, just like grown-ups’, children’s love of cars has its darker side, too.

Meanwhile in Leeds...

Squaring up to Jolly Roger on the other side of the arcade is arch-rival Kiddy Rides. Based in Leeds and in business for more than 25 years, it has a range of rides that include the Rally Car, which looks like an Audi TT but has one seat, so there’s no room for the navigator.

No problem: there’s always the Mk2 Rally Car, a Mini-like model with two seats. It reappears elsewhere in the range as the Mk2 Police Car, although its two steering wheels represent something of a security risk for any hapless copper trying to take his ‘tea leaf’ to the nick.

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Peter Cavellini 22 November 2020

 A pound well spent?, yeah, when a child is cranky, putting them on one of these for five minutes soon changes the mood, takes the stress off for the grownups too.

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