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December 10, 2013
Joy riding takes on a new meaning when Ted Mangum takes to the road in what may well be the world’s largest motorized Radio Flyer.
Mangum’s hand-built version of the iconic child’s wagon measures some 18 feet long and is powered by a 460 engine.
The locals wave, honk or give a thumbs-up to their neighbor when Mangum cruises past, his cap turned backwards and a grin on his face.
As he merges onto Interstate 59, drivers slow to get a better look. Passengers reach for their cameras. No one, it seems, can believe their eyes: A man is waving to them from a giant Radio Flyer wagon pushing 70 mph.
Onlookers hold up their cell phones for a photo as he fuels up at a convenience store in Ellisville. Mangum good naturedly answers their questions, including the inevitable “Where’d you come up with this idea?”
“It’s unreal how much fun this is,” he says as he heads back home.
Mangum, a member of Dixie Electric Power Association, has enjoyed working on hot rods and vintage vehicles for most of his life. He taught paint and body work for 17 years at Jones County Vocational School and is active in the Magnolia Cruisers and Pine Belt Antique Auto Club.
An impressive collection of trophies and plaques attests to his skill. Many are Best in Show honors for his “sweetheart”: a 1931 Model A pickup he transformed from a “rust bucket” into a gleaming red beauty.
The success of his fabricated Radio Flyer, however, will be determined not by judges but by the reaction of the children who see it.
“The whole time I was building this, I was thinking about little children,” Mangum said.
He finished its construction only two months ago, but already it has made public appearances for charitable causes, including a March of Dimes benefit in Mobile. And when the mother of a seriously ill 2-year-old boy said her son would like a ride after seeing the wagon on a TV newscast, Mangum jumped at the opportunity. “I’d go around the world to ride that boy in this wagon,” he said.
Even Santa wants a ride. Mangum has agreed to chauffeur St. Nick in 2012 Christmas parades in Laurel, Ellisville and Petal.
Mangum got the idea to build the wagon from a couple in Alaska who built a fiberglass, two-seater version based on a small truck chassis. Mangum wanted his to accomodate more passengers, so he started with a 1987 Ford ambulance equipped with a police package.
“The ambulance only had 26,000 miles on it, so mechanically it was in excellent shape,” he said.
He planned to remove only the top of the ambulance, leaving the sides intact. But that didn’t look right, he decided, so he replaced the entire body with his own all-steel fabrication.
Mangum’s flexible work schedule—he raises poultry for Wayne Farms—allowed him the time to figure out how to build his unique vehicle. The project took about 2,000 hours to complete, he estimated.
“You can just work your brain to death building something like this. I think sometimes I’ve got gears for brains anyway,” he said.
Except for the constraints of tire size and vehicle width, the wagon is built to a 6:1 scale. A real Radio Flyer is 3 feet long; Mangum up-sized his to 18 feet.
To mimic the original wagon’s rounded corners, Mangum split a length of large pipe four ways and welded a piece in each corner. He made a foldable black tongue with a handle that extends 12 feet above the ground.
He raised the driver’s seat about 8 inches, so he can see over the steel sides of the wagon, and installed extensions for the foot pedals. (He’s thinking of raising the steering wheel, too.) The three bench seats for passengers are raised 12 inches from the floor and have seat belts installed.
“I did several trial runs trying to work all the bugs out of it,” Mangum said.
For the wheels, he used moon disc hubcaps—the kind used on drag racers—painted white and topped with a red PVC cap.
Safety measures included the installation of a glass panel, tinted red to blend in, across the front of the wagon to eliminate a blind spot.
A friend experienced in sign work painted the bold graphics, altered slightly from the original Radio Flyer logo, down the side of the wagon.
Mangum debuted his creation at the Houston (Texas) Art Car Parade, held in May. His was one of 25 entries chosen from a field of 300 for a special cruise around the city that included stops at children’s hospitals and schools. When a large group of deaf children posed for pictures with Mangum’s wagon, “that was a thrilling thing to see,” he said.
“If I’d have known that it was going to be as much fun as it is, I’d have built this thing 20 years ago,” he continued. “I have a ball every time I take it out.”
Ted Mangum is available on a limited basis for appearances at benefits and special events. For information, call him at 601-498-3650.
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