The Bobs
The Bobs

In the course of his research on Belle Vue, Robert Nicholls uncovered the fact that The Bobs were bought by John Henry Iles, (the man who controlled Belle Vue towards the end of the 1920s), "from a Mr. Church of Buffalo, U.S.A., for a cost said to be 20,000". It has also been widely reported that the name came from the fact that the original cost for a ride was one shilling, known as a bob.

The Mr. Church in question was almost certainly Fred Church, a mechanical engineer born in Ontario, Canada. In the world of roller coaster builders Fred Church is one of the legends. After university Church worked for Webster Manufacturing and Engineering in Chicago. The company designed and fabricated replacement parts for amusement park rides. Church himself was working on side-friction roller coaster car designs.

While working in Chicago, Church met and worked with a man called Tom Prior who was the publicity director for two large amusement parks: White City and Riverview Park.

Tom Prior left Chicago in 1911 to work in Venice, California at the Kinney's Venice in America Amusement Park.and soon after Church joined him. That year, Prior and Church built a coaster on Venice Pier called "The Race Thru the Clouds". The ride, designed by the great John Miller, stood 90 feet high and had 4,000 feet of track.

It was around this time that Prior and Church turned their collaboration into a business relationship and became partners in the Venice Amusement Company. Tom Prior died in 1918 but his son Frank took his place. Prior and Church's second coaster was the Big Dipper which was also on Venice Pier.

Church had been working on the development of a new kind of coaster car, one capable of negotiating even sharper turns. He did this by using articulated couplings and the cars themselves were two seaters that he described as being similar to bobsleds. Church patented his new system and in 1921 he added another coaster to the Venice Pier which he called "The Bobs". Prior and Church made a number of Bobs style of coaster, incorporating the articulated cars, and almost certainly that was the origin of the name of the coaster at Belle Vue.

The Prior and Church partnership came to an end in 1928 and Church moved his operations to the Rye Playland, in Rye Beach, New York. It was here that he built one of his greatest coasters, The Airplane Coaster (right). It opened on May 26, 1928, and consisted of many spiraling hills and dips. The Airplane Coaster cost under $200,000 to construct. High maintenance and public statements from the locals deeming the ride as "too dangerous and terrifying" finally sealed the fate of this ride in 1956. It was demolished in November 1957.

Another of Church's masterpieces was the Cyclone Racer (see below) built at Long Beach, California. The Cyclone Racer opened on May 30, 1930. While it was a Fred Church design, it was actually built by Harry Traver, another engineer with links to Belle Vue. This marvelous coaster can still be seen in classic movies, as it was often filmed for amusement park scenes. The final rides were taken on Sept. 15, 1968 and demolition was started the next day. The coaster was removed primarily to make room for a roadway leading to Long Beach's newest attraction, the Queen Mary steamship. Plans are still being tossed around today about possibly rebuilding the coaster in the Long Beach area.

Conventional wisdom is that only two of Church's coasters have survived to the present day. Information that I have uncovered indicates that in fact there are 3.

One is at Belmont Park, San Diego, California (see below).

Another is at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Park, in Santa Cruz, California. This Giant Dipper was built in 1924 by Arthuer Looff to a Church design.

However, there is also The Dragon Coaster that is still operating at the Rye Playland. It was designed by Church and for a number of years Church had is base of operations at Rye.

The Bobs ride that Iles purchased for Belle Vue rose to a height of 80 feet and fell down slopes of 45 degrees creating a car speed approaching 61 miles an hour. At one time it was picked by the Guinness Book of Records as the World's fastest ride. By today's standards the Bobs was a tame ride. The Rattler in San Antonio, Texas is a wooden roller coaster that stands 179 ft high and has a top speed of 73 mph. Of the steel roller coasters, though, the Fujiyama in Japan rises 259 ft and the cars reach speeds of 86 mph. By the standards of its era, though, the Belle Vue Bobs was a thrill.

Left, a wonderful view of the Bobs at the top of the lift hill. In the distance on the left you can see the Elephant House and beyond, in the mist, is the Central Grammar School on Kirkmanshulme Lane. On the right, behind the Bobs, is a glimpse of the Kings Hall.

- The End of an Era -

Whilst Fred Church is almost certainly the designer of Belle Vue's Bobs, there is a very good chance that the actual construction of the coaster was done by Harry Traver.

What follows are extracts from an article first published in the magazine of the European Coaster Club, "First Drop". It is reprinted here with the permission of the magazine publisher, Justin Garvanovic. The article was written by John McCard.


My Recollections - A Personal View

When we arrived at Belle Vue at the Hyde Road entrance, we paid at the kiosk and entered a lovely tree lined walk. Then the zoo appeared and buildings including Kings Hall which was used for boxing tournaments, etc.

Then the amusement park...and the Bobs.

The first thing that struck me was its dark, mountainous profile against a dull Manchester sky. Its almost total lack of paint, except for a few flaking blue and white bits on the cross members, its unbelievable track shape, no long, white painted flat, straight bends and normal dips, but unimaginable twists and fan curves of almost impossible angles. Even from 200 yards away you could hear the noise as the beautiful caterpillar insect-like train crawled up the pull-up with its Red Bobs name with white background hung on the top chain cog mechanism like a warning to those below - this is no standard straight bend coaster - this is the Bobs!

The train then reached the top and the front part started, slowly at first, to fall violently to the left, on its side while the rear was still attached to the chain. Then it was loose like a wild living thing, roaring with the sound of thunder as the 80 foot pull-up flexed momentarily over toward the park then righted itself again. It then went behind some arcade stalls, then up, up and round on those sweeping tracks. Oh yes, an artist created this one. The profile from where I stood could have been drawn by the sweep of a pen or a paintbrush, an old master in the sky, its frame was itself the frame of its structure, its form a perpetual moving mass of multicoloured blur. The train roared around its tracks, surrealistic and menacing - no Dali creation could match this. No 'click-clack' of train upon red tracks from above, but the sound of thunder, the sound perhaps of screams of terror were there, or maybe a banshee somewhere, mixed in with the storm's gale, the lap of the Gods up there in the heavens, the ride of the Valkyries - Church the creator of a wonder to behold.

My First Ride

Three shillings and six pence, I think, it cost me that first time, just over 15 pence in today's money? I then passed between an open gate and walked up the concrete steps to the open part of the loading platform. Then I remember all those signs. 'Do not stand up', 'Keep arms and limbs inside the cars', Hold your hats', 'Secure all loose articles', 'No smoking' - only the wheels smoked! There were about 16 riders that ride, waiting to board because the train was out running.

I first heard it, like distant thunder, then in a flash the train was there on the track just above my head at the back with the notices nailed onto its bends. Church purposefully built the track into the back of the station where there was no roof. This was where you boarded; the sight and sound of a train above you enough to make you wish you hadn't gone up those steps, it was built in menace.

The sound was terrifying. The sight was awesome. Was I going to ride this? Then onto the lower fan curve, same again, like a high speed action replay, the sound became distant, the storm nearly over.

Then the train appeared from the tunnel, a half empty train with white faced people, some taking a while to get out, some unbalanced and disorientated momentarily, the car seats checked and then with a low rumble the beautiful train came to us. I just got in where I was standing, 3rd car from the front (red one). I sat on my own, there was a lap bar of sorts which locked, when I pulled it down the operator locked it manually (the Paratrooper type ride has similar locking bars). He then checked all the others, some people gave the operator their glasses and bags - some had obviously ridden before! A short wait, no more riders, so the train started off. Even here it was fast, running within the structure, all around the smell of hot grease and timber, snaking round to the pull-up. Then the pull-up was there, the clacking of the ratchets, the slow rumble of the wheels, the pull-up seemed to go to a point, at infinity, I looked down, below me "ants" were enjoying themselves below. Then we were at the top and the front part of the train started, slowly at first, to fall very steeply sideways and down on its side - the back was still attached to the pull-up. Then it was loose like a wild, living thing, the force of this sudden feeling of power was amazing, like a whipping of your whole body, slammed hard against the side of the car. My stomach was left somewhere up on the Bobs sign. We dived at awesome speed, the sound of wind and thunder all around; it was always that roar, that sound, that I remember most.

Then up, a click from below, my picture taken. Now came the record breaking drop, twisting to the right down to ground level. The second drop had the trains reaching 60mph plus, then up twisting to the left, slammed one way then the next, knocked senseless as the train fought to constantly change direction. The rest was just a blur really, I remember one 'ordinary' dip somewhere in the middle, I remember the train coming into the station at great speed, I wonder how many readers who rode the Bobs can remember the whole ride?

I visited Belle Vue many many times after that, I even had a free pass to get into the park because I pestered them so much. It is worth pointing out that a rider normally weighing 100lbs will weigh 400lbs when going down the second drop of the Bobs, but when reaching the top would only weigh 18lbs - amazing G forces.

Safe? Yes

Throughout its history I found the Bobs developed a reputation of being 'unsafe' or 'dangerous'. It is odd, but several of the other Bobs coasters also had this reputation. CYCLONE RACER, AIRPLANE COASTER are two that come to mind. I think it was partly to do with the profile of these coasters and the BELLE VUE BOBS had an un-painted look about it. Like I say, people in the UK are used to seeing brightly painted structures, not drab brown, which gave it a sinister look adding even more to the ride's menace.

For much more Roller Coaster news, pictures and features visit the European Coaster Club.

1. The Airplane Coaster and the Cyclone Racer are shown here with the permission of Ken Rutherford. I discovered them whilst perusing his web site Ken's Classic Coaster Postcards. Anyone interested in coasters, old postcards or amusement park history should visit this site.


2. The close-up photograph of a train on the the Belmont Park Giant Dipper is shown here with the permission of Sue Dargusch of Belmont Park. Their web site provides some basic information about the park.


3. The wide view of the Belmont Park Giant Dipper is shown here with the permission of Jim Winslett, coaster fan and proprietor of the Out by the Sea B&B, in Crystal Beach, Texas.


4. I found the photograph of the Giant Dipper on Venice Pier on the excellent site by Jeff Stanton which tells the history of Venice, California. He has a very comprehensive page on Prior and Church that is well worth a visit.

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