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A few weeks ago, while driving along Rancho Santa Fe from San Marcos to La Costa, my wife and I encountered a number of what appeared to be street-legal, licensed bumper cars. There were a number of them, each with a driver, tooling along at the speed limit. They were just like the amusement-park bumper cars, including the vertical metal pole with the flat metal contact that in the bumper-car ride connects to the wire grid on the ceiling to provide electricity. They had small wheels, and for the short time I watched them I could not determine where the engine was. What can you tell me about them?

-- Larry in La Costa

We're working a little short-handed this week. Grandma and the elves took off in the motor home headed for D.C. They're so wound up from the election results, they think now's the time to make one of Grandma's dreams come true. See, she figures things in Washington are all messed up because our representatives have crummy diets. Too much of that lobbyist-bought foie gras and pheasant, or maybe Tex-Mex barbecue-sauce poisoning. She wants to be the chairman of the new House Maize and Beans Committee, overseers of the congressional menu. Now that all the Republican chairmen are moving their aides and furniture out of their cushy offices, she figures she can find an empty one, slap a sign on the door, and in the bipartisan confusion nobody will notice. Well, screwier things have happened on Capitol Hill. But in the meantime, we're flying on one wing.

That's our excuse for turning this question over to you Alicelanders. We grilled Larry extensively about the details of the bumper-car encounter, and he seems legit. Or as legit as I can expect, considering our 40-, 50-year history of pulling this "Straight from the Hip" scam on the reading public. Anyway, we checked with the sheriff's office and various other agencies in the San Marcos area to see if we could confirm a local bumper-car sighting. No surprise, we couldn't. At least no one would admit to it. Then it was on to the DMV in Sacramento. As soon as I started asking about legally licensed bumper cars, you could hear the crank-call alarms going off. I'm sure we're now on some Homeland Security watch list. Do you all feel more secure knowing that? The government hopes so.

Okay, where was I? The DMV, yeah. No way in hell a bumper car could be licensed in California. Other details aside, the vehicle wouldn't have a VIN, and in California, no VIN, no license. A vehicle identification number is put on the chassis and other body locations by the manufacturer. You can't have a VIN assigned after the fact. But golf carts, go carts, bumper cars don't need VINs.

We did check online, and you can buy used bumper cars -- we found a deal, ten of them for $50,000. You probably could find some engine jockey out there to convert the cars to battery power. Of course, if you have a lot of back-yard space, you can pick up the entire ride, building and all, for about $150,000 and change.

Since I can't give you facts to answer Larry's question, I'll try to divert you with a different fact to keep you from complaining. If you build your own car out of parts from, say, a VW, a Volvo, and a DeLorean on a Chevy chassis, you might call the finished product the Bobmobile, but the DMV will look at the VIN and declare it just an ugly-looking Chevy. So there's your fact snack for today.

There's always the chance that the bumper-car drivers took plates off other vehicles and stuck them on temporarily for their little jaunt down Rancho Santa Fe. That's the only sane explanation. (The trip was totally illegal, by the way, unless they somehow had a special permit.) But we still need to hear from somebody, anybody who can confirm the sighting of these unidentified driving objects. Then we need to know what the heck was going on. We need your help; who knows when Grandma and the elves will be back.

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