Wild Mail Truck: 1965 TAPCO Pony Express

There’s nothing I like quite like a good mystery, and when this odd little vehicle turned up on my desk, it meant that I had to do a bit of detective work to identify what it is, and what the history of the vehicle actually was. Barn Finder Taylor W referred this cool little trike to us, so thank you for that Taylor. What you’re looking at is a vehicle called the Pony Express, and its history was very short, and not so sweet. This one is located in Harbor City, California, and is listed for sale here on Craigslist. The owner hasn’t set his sights high on the price, so this could be yours for $500 OBO.

As I said, the history of the Pony Express is short but sweet, and the short part was all due to one simple misunderstanding. As the story goes, the US Postal Service was looking for a light postal delivery vehicle. At that point, the USPS was also utilizing Cushman Mailsters for the same role, and it was a Cushman that eventually caused the downfall of the Pony Express. The USPS launched a design competition in 1964 with a view to producing a safe and stable vehicle to eventually replace the Cushman. A gentleman by the name of Robert VonHeck designed this vehicle, which was strong, sturdy, far more stable than the Cushman, and powered by a small petrol engine. The USPS was impressed with the design, and Mr. VonHeck found himself the winner of the competition. The prize? A contract to produce 65,000 of the vehicles for USPS use. With a frame constructed of strong 2″ steel tubing and a futuristic design, the USPS felt that they were onto a winner.

Mr. VonHeck needed to be able to manufacture these vehicles, and he needed to start immediately. So, a then German-owned company called TAPCO Inc, located in Van Nuys, California, was contracted by USPS under a patent owned by Mr. VonHeck to undertake the work. They commenced on the project in early 1965, and everything was proceeding as planned. Then it all went wrong. The US Postmaster General was returning to his office in Washington, D.C. when news came through that one of the delivery staff had been fatally injured following an accident in which a 3-wheeled delivery vehicle had overturned. The Postmaster General panicked about the potential ramifications of the incident, and  immediately called and canceled the entire order with TAPCO, with only around 350 vehicles having been completed. The only problem with this decision was the fact that the vehicle involved was eventually found to be an older Cushman Mailster and not a Pony Express. By that stage, the damage was done, and the curtain fell on the Pony Express. What makes the whole thing even sadder is the fact that i’ve seen video footage of a couple of these little vehicles in action, and they are the most stable 3-wheeled vehicle that I’ve ever seen. This particular vehicle is going to require cosmetic restoration, and while the 3-speed transmission is still in place, the engine and rear wheels have both gone. It isn’t clear what sort of engine was originally fitted to the vehicle, but I’ve watched some video footage, and the engines in the ones that I’ve watched sound like they are single cylinder 4-stroke engines, so there may be a number of stationery or motorcycle engines that could be adapted.

The 1965 TAPCO Pony Express had the opportunity to be an enormous success, and to become a common sight across the USA. However, thanks to a single administrative error, production was stopped before 1% of the projected production run had been completed. The only consolation in the whole fiasco was that Mr. VonHeck not only still owns the prototype Pony Express, but he also still owns the patent. I hope that someone gets this vehicle and restores it as a tribute to a brilliant designer who was thwarted by a single mistake.

Like This? Get Our Daily Email

Comments

  1. Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

    The very 1st law of physics with the majority of government agencies oversight: “For every action there is an equally opposite overreaction..”!

    32
    • Al

      Which often leads to inaction and sometimes dissatisfaction.

      And ultimately retraction.

      14
  2. That Guy

    This is a really cool vehicle, and kudos for the great research.

    And those griffin statues need to go on the roof. Both of them.

    15
    • scottymac

      But then Vauxhall (or whoever owns them today) would sue for some kind of emblem infringement

      1
  3. Charlie Mullendore

    My father bought one when I was young, in about the same condition. It had an Onan opposed twin, flathead engine, much the same as was used in countless garden tractors and generator sets. I’m not sure what he had planned for it originally, but it just sat out back of his shop for years and was eventually scrapped. :-(

    6
  4. Ken Carney

    Dunno what I’d do with it, but I like it.
    Might make a great EV for someone to
    make deliveries with such as groceries or
    pizza. With all the improvements in EV
    technology, that would be a viable way to
    replace the missing running gear. I guess
    the $64 question is why the VonHeck heirs just don’t start their own company
    and market these trucks themselves?
    From what I see here, they’re still relevant
    today for use in high traffic urban areas.
    Motorized hotdog cart maybe?

    8
    • Nevadahalfrack Nevadahalfrack Member

      Well, “newspaper delivery” and milkman” are definitely declining niche markets..Wait! “Hey Amazon! Need something for A I deliveries when your drones can’t cut the weather??”

      4
  5. Billieg

    Well, dealing with the Guberment you can’t have any common sense. The more far out you go and the more it cost will win a contract every time.

    5
  6. Rube Goldberg Member

    What the Von Heck? Never heard of it. Classic “what were they thinking”? 3 wheelers are the most unstable vehicles known to man, ever since tipping over your tricycle. I think the Postmaster made a good choice, too bad it wasted millions of dollars in development. I never cared for Cushmans either, thought they were dangerous as Von Heck. Thanks Adam, for the story.

    1
    • Brakeservo

      My Citroen 2CV Lomax was an incredibly stable three wheeler – just like the Morgan! Okay, okay, the layout is reversed but it’s still a fantastically stable three wheel design.

      2
      • Rube Goldberg Member

        Reversing the layout is a whole different matter. It’s why Can-Am,( and Harley with the Penstar) went that route. Still, I don’t like 3 wheelers, because the single tire runs in “grease strip” where all the nails, metal, and bullets are, that nobody else runs over.

        2
  7. Mike

    Well remember Mr Beene starring Rowan Adkins dispises three wheel vehicles …
    So be careful out there …🤠

    2
  8. Bob McK Member

    Be fun to run around town in.

    1
  9. Andrew Franks

    Normal Government stupidity stopped the whole deal. Someone should take this under their wing, get in touch with the family, and see of restoration to operation is feasible. Make that call first. It would be wonderful to save if possible.

  10. stillrunners stillrunners Member

    WestCoaster actually made many as well of the competitor style….have one of those….with the Onan – a division of Studebaker at the time…..if you didn’t know.

  11. Robert Vonheck

    FYI: Indeed, nobody is more sad to see the fate of the nifty TAPCO(Tubular Aircraft Products Co., VanNuys, Calif.) than i its designer/inventor in 1964 when i was age-29. The quality of the ‘PonyExpress’ was far superior to both the Cushman & Westcoaster predecessors, -for example it employed a rugged unique elastomeric/Dual-donut front-suspension, which obviated use of steel-springing (-developed in conjunction with Goodyear-tire Corp.); -which the GSA insisted have an unneeded conventional telescopic/shock-absorber (-even though the rubber torsion-donuts provided ample snubbing-action. The petro-eng, was a 2cyl.-opposed German-Onan air-cooled unit which drove the vehicle to 42mph, through a standard Dana/3spd. ‘three on the tree’ -transmission, and Spicer/Rear-axle. The side-panels were uniquely joined to the roof-panel via an alum.-extrusion; -and the blue&White color was via Fiberglass-gelcoat, -then trimmed via 3M/Retro-reflective stripping. Unfortunately, i don’t see any means by which to attach my interesting photos; -am hoping to interest the usSmitsonian-museum’s Historic/usPostalVehicle-dept. in acquiring my surviving specimen once it is ‘refreshed’ for public-display. usPat.#D-208,853 .
    Sincerely, Robert Vonheck (E: i-n-v-e-n-t-e-c-h@att.net )

Leave A Comment

RULES: No profanity, politics, or personal attacks. Don't post your car for sale in the comments. Click here to get it featured on the homepage instead.

*

Notify me of new comments via email. Or subscribe without commenting.