Story by Brian Earnest
Rick Sprague never had any secret desire to be a postal carrier.
But he has never been able to hide his affinity for the transportation they once used. In Sprague’s case, the machine of his affections is the Westcoaster Mailster, a memorable little three-wheeled glorified golf cart that puttered around U.S. residential areas hauling mail during much of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Sprague got ahold of his first Mailster when he was only 13, and he’s never really let go. He’s now on his fourth one — which is also the nicest he’s had. It’s a retired 1963 model that once delivered mail somewhere in Pennsylvania.
“I was always into min-bikes and lawn mowers and stuff when I was a kid, and I had my hands on small engines for many years,” laughs Sprague, a resident of Racine, Wis. “And I learned over time how to fix a lot of things.
“I had never heard of [a Mailster], but then I got one when I was a kid, probably 13 years old. The Post Office in town was selling some of them for $200 apiece and a kid in my neighborhood bought one, but the kid’s dad didn’t want him to have it. I got it from him. I think I gave him his 200 bucks back for it. My dad didn’t know I had one at first — I kept it away from the house for the first few days. But he let me keep it.”
Sprague never drove that Mailster on the road legally. It was more of a toy than transportation, but it was plenty of fun to tinker around with and gave him an appreciation for the unique three-wheelers that continues to this day.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened to that one. I never had a title for it or anything,” he recalls. “I had it for probably a good 2 years, then it disappeared. It might have been my dad getting rid of it, I just don’t remember. It took a beating. I used to put a couple guys in back of it and tie the doors shut so they wouldn’t fall out and I’d drop the clutch and do wheelies! Luckily, I never tipped it over. You do a lot of things without thinking when you're a kid!”
Six or seven different companies wound up making the three-wheeled mail cars, and Sprague owned a Cushman version for a time. It was very similar to his first Westcoaster. The biggest difference at the time was that Sprague was old enough to drive it on the street. “It was the same-size frame,” he says. “I was probably in my 30s at that time, and I used to ride this Cushman three-wheeler back and forth to Kenosha to a friend’s house, probably about 10 miles ... That took a beating, too! My dad convinced me to get rid of it, and I sold it to a guy for 200 bucks just to get it out of my hair.”
Sprague’s third Mailster was “a basket case” that he bought about 7 years ago. He worked on it for a while and had some fun with it, but “I could never get it running right. I couldn’t figure out the shifting mechanism. I couldn’t get it fixed, so I ended up putting it on the internet and selling it.”
The apple of Sprague’s eye these days arrived on a transport truck about 5 years ago after he found an ad for it online. The Westcoaster was more than 50 years old, but had been restored and repainted and didn’t need any major repairs. It carries cheeky “U.S. Male” lettering on its side, but otherwise could be mistaken for an actual working mail truck — albeit one that is operating in a bit of a time warp.
“I’m taking it easy with this one,” Sprague laughs. “I’m 63 now and I don’t do all that dumb stuff you do when you’re a kid!”
3'S A CHARM
Prior to the 1950s, mail carriers operated much like paper boys, delivering mail on foot or delivery bicycles. In some cases, carriers were driven in groups to areas to start their rounds, and then re-supplied with mail along the way if necessary.
The USPS needed a faster and more efficient way to get mail into people’s hands during the population boom following World War II, however, and in 1950 the city of Miami, Fla., began experimenting with three-wheeled scooters. Some were electric, others were propelled by one- or two-cylinder gas engines. The three-wheeled scooter idea caught on and soon the Post Office Department was testing a bunch of different vehicle prototypes to outfit its carriers in urban areas. More than two dozen designs were apparently tried, including some right-hand-drive setups. The Mailsters turned out to be inexpensive and handy little rigs and soon were being operated in places like Tampa and St. Petersburg. By 1957, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and other locales were also experimenting with three-wheelers. By 1960, more than 5,700 Mailsters were operating nationwide with plans to add many more.
One of the companies involved was the West Coast Machinery Co. of Stockton, Calif. It built golf carts, trash collecting vehicles, resort cars, airport freight haulers, small farm utility trucks and other specialty vehicles. It called its mail delivery truck the Westcoaster. The truck was basically a beefed-up three-wheeled golf car capable of hauling around up to 500 lbs. of mail. It was powered by a 7.5-hp Onan opposed two-cylinder engine that was located under the driver’s bench seat. The Mailster had a safe speed that topped out at about 35 mph, depending on the terrain and nerves of the driver.
The trucks had a three-speed manual transmission that shifted on the column. The turn-key electric starter operated just like a regular automobile, and most seemed to have mechanical chokes that could be used for cold weather starting. There was a gas heater in front, but most heating units probably didn’t get used much in warmer climates. They had fiberglas bodies with metal doors that slid into slots in the body. The Mailsters stood about 74 inches high and stretched 115 inches from nose to tail and weighed in at about 2,600 lbs.
With three tiny wheels and minimal horsepower, the drawbacks to the little three-wheelers were obvious. You had to be very careful going around corners, and you were helpless in snow and ice. At one point, the Post Office Department actually considered forcing their drivers to wear crash helmets. The Mailsters never earned a reputation for great reliability, either. Among their more common maladies were clutch issues, balky fuel pumps and broken front axles.
By 1967, the Mailsters began to give way to delivery Jeeps. The four-wheeled trucks were simply better in almost every way, if not quite as interesting to scooter fans like Sprague. “The Westcoasters were built in California and I can’t believe Wisconsin ever bought any, but they had them here,” Sprague chuckles. “I know Racine, where I live, they only had them for 2 or 3 years because they were useless when it snowed, but they did use them here.”
DELIVERING FOR CHRISTMAS
Ironically, Sprague acquired his snow-challenged vehicle during the heart of the Wisconsin winter five years ago. He knew he’d have to wait a few months to give the ’63 Westcoaster a proper trial run. “It came up on eBay and at that time the guy that had it lived in Pennsylvania,” he says.
I won the bid at Chistmas time. I remember because I was off work for Christmas time… I paid 2,500 bucks for it, and then when the owner got his money I got hooked up with uShip, and had this thing shipped from Pennsylvania to my house for I think $450. I couldn’t go there and pick it up for myself and bring it back for that.”
The engine in the Mailster had been re-done at some point, according to Sprague, and the truck’s body had been patched up, sanded and repainted in its traditional USPS livery – sans the spelling of “Mail.” For the most part, all Sprague has had to do since then is jump in the scooter and have some fun. “It was all restored at one time, I’m not really not playing with any junk,” he says. “They took the body off and put it all back together. I’m mechanically inclined a little bit and I’ve gotten to know more and more things over the years on these things … The hardest thing was the carburetor. I had some trouble with it because of the reformulated gas we have here. I had it fixed once, then I had it fixed twice, then I got lucky and found one new-old-stock in a climate-controlled warehouse in Florida. I got that carburetor home and put that on there and it started right up. One good thing was I joined an online group called Westcoasters USA. These these little things are all over the place and the owners know where to go to [get parts and repairs].”
Sprague will pilot his mail truck in an occasional parade and hit a few car shows now and then. Most of his trips are to his weekly Wednesday cruise-ins at the local McDonald’s during the warm weather months. “At my age, I think I’m looking for attention [laughs],” he says. “I have a Dodge Coronet and I prefer to take my little scooter up to McDonald’s.”
His days of 20-plus mile road trips in a three-wheeler are probably long gone, but Sprague doesn’t let his Mailster sit for long in the summer time. He makes regular grocery runs while staying off the busy streets — or ones that have potholes that haven’t been repaired. “It feels like a golf cart, because it’s got the little wheels,” he says. “You feel every little bump in the road. It’s not a comfortable ride. If I had two guys in the back, I’d be struggling. I’ve got a real steep hill to get to the south side of town, and I try to avoid that hill. I don’t even want to push it.”
“I’ve got an extra set of lights on her. Two are for brakes and two are for directionals, and then I have four-ways on there. I put strobe lights on in case I pul over I can talk to somebody with the strobe lights on.”
He knows no matter where he takes his Westcoaster, he’s going to get some smiles and puzzled looks. A lot of folks aren’t quite sure if he is an on-duty mail man. “I like to take it to the grocery story, and I have no trouble parking right up in front with the motorcycles… Yes, it’s titled as a motorcycle, because it has three wheels," he says.
“There’s not one person I meet who doesn’t like it. I have one guy who really wants to buy it, and he just says ‘name your price.’ But I can’t sell it. I’m having too much fun with it!”
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