One of the star attractions of a new exhibit of scooters at a celebrated Los Angeles automotive museum is a 13-foot model that was built in 1947 by a 14-year-old boy in the metal shop of a Madison high school that no longer exists.
Reporting last weekend on the exhibit, “Scooters: Size Doesn’t Always Matter,” at the Petersen Automotive Museum, The New York Times noted the following:
“An Italian-built Piaggio Vespa or Lambretta puttering along cobblestones or darting around a Roman rotary may comprise the time-tested vision of a scooter in its element. Few enthusiasts would envision something like the 1947 Mohs, a one-off, 13-foot scooter built by a then 14-year-old in Madison, Wis., that is on loan to the museum from the original builder and owner. The Mohs is 10 inches longer than a 2011 Mini Cooper.”
The teenage boy who built it grew up to be one of Madison’s most exuberant eccentrics, and he’s still here.
Bruce Baldwin Mohs, 78, who today lives near Riley, is an inventor, businessman, author, world traveler, indefatigable Rotarian, and, always, a colorful character.
He has owned a seaplane, a German restaurant, an auto museum and a replica of the Battleship Wisconsin on which he would cruise around Lake Mendota waving like a politician in the Memorial Day parade.
Perhaps most famously, he invented and owns the Mohs Ostentatienne Opera Sedan, a rear-entry (no side doors) vehicle that dazzled celebrities like Johnny Carson and Lawrence Welk while in 2003 moving a British auto writer to call it “the ugliest car ever made.”
In a sense, it was the opera sedan that launched the series of recent events that resulted in the Mohs scooter being exhibited in Los Angeles.
A car buff and restorer in Shawano named Fred Beyer — he taught auto mechanics at Shawano High School for 36 years — had read Mohs’ self-published autobiography, modestly titled “The Amazing Mr. Mohs.” The opera sedan is on the cover.
Beyer contacted Mohs and arranged a visit to the Mohs home near Riley.
“We wound up being kindred spirits,” Beyer was saying this week.
The visit began with Beyer playing ragtime tunes on the Mohs piano and ended with Mohs sweeping Beyer along to a Rotary lunch. In between, Mohs invited Beyer into his shop, where the opera sedan had been sitting unappreciated for two decades. The scooter was there, too. Both were somewhat in disrepair.
That visit was in 2008. The following year, the famed Iola Car Show was showcasing independent manufacturers, and Beyer wound up restoring the opera sedan for the show, where it was a huge hit. It is currently on display in the Historic Auto Attractions museum in Roscoe, Ill.
Beyer’s association with Mohs began to be known in car circles, and earlier this year, the Petersen Automotive Museum got in touch with Beyer wondering about including the Mohs scooter in the exhibit that launched this month.
The Mohs scooter wasn’t exactly famous, but people who cared about scooters knew of its existence.
Mohs told me this week that he built it in the hours after school while attending the old Wisconsin High School, which was affiliated with UW-Madison.
He started it as a 14-year-old and was 15 when he finished it. In his autobiography, Mohs calls it “the world’s one and only four-passenger-in-tandem” scooter. The year after he finished it, Mohs drove the scooter to Kentucky and back and mentions of it would appear in trade journals from time to time.
When the Petersen museum contacted Beyer earlier this year, he arranged with Mohs to restore the scooter. It was transported to Shawano, and Beyer, working against a tight deadline, finished the restoration in time for the Los Angeles exhibit, which opened last Saturday.
Mohs is delighted that his scooter is once again generating interest. The past two decades have not always been easy — he’s had some health issues, and a ruinously expensive court battle with Century 21 over the use of that name — but Bruce Mohs has endured.
I asked what his family thought about him riding a scooter to Kentucky and back when he was only 16.
“They didn’t know I left town,” he said.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or email@example.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.