“DOODLEBUG” IS ONE OF THOSE quaint old terms that seems to have been around forever, and crops up in the news repeatedly: this past year saw the discovery of an orphaned kangaroo by that name and deep dive on the actual insect. At this point, though, the word can be used for any number of meanings from someone who simply likes to draw, to a person who wastes all sorts of time.
So what exactly is a doodlebug? All of these things.
1. A simpleton or time-waster
The term “doodle” actually dates back to the 17th century when it was used as a pejorative to describe simpletons. Over the next couple of centuries it increasingly came to be used as a verb meaning to waste or fritter away time, and it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that it seems to have taken on the specific association with drawing and scribbling. The term “doodlebug” seems to have arisen in 1800s, initially meant to once again mean, “idiot.” Today, the term has evolved to describe someone who incessantly draws.
2. An actual bug
The other most frequently used meaning of doodlebug is probably as a description of an actual insect. Doodlebugs, as they refer to an actual creature are usually associated with ant lions in their larval form. These squat little bugs, who mostly live in loose sand where they create pit traps, earned their goofy nicknames not because they are thought to be stupid, but instead because of their unintentional drawings. When the (frankly kind of scary-looking) ants move through the sand, their big butts drag behind them, leaving behind scribbly little trails. While ant lions are the most well known as doodlebugs, the term has also been used to describe other insects like pill bugs and some beetles, although this seems to be earned simply thanks to how goofy the nickname sounds.
3. Someone in the business, reputable and otherwise, of locating oil deposits
This usage of doodlebug actually started as an insult but seems to have been coopted as an affectionate name for those bold souls who head out in search of black gold. Dating back to 1940s America, the a “doodlebug” initially referred to devices that were said to be able to locate oil deposits, although in in the day, they were mainly just scams as miraculous oil detecting technology did not actually exist. The snake oil salesmen who peddled such devices came to be known as doodlebuggers. However, as the technology progressed, and more reliable methods of finding underground oil actually emerged, doodlebuggers came to mean people who head out into the wild and use actual methods (usually seismic mapping) to try natural resources trapped underground. It seems to be a much more affectionate nickname today.
4. A World War II-era drone bomb
Long before we were afraid of drone aircraft zooming silently overhead, there was were V-1 flying bombs, otherwise known as “doodlebugs.” This Nazi missile looked like a small plane, but inside was nothing but machinery and death. During World War II, the large bombs were deployed against Britain with devastating effect before countermeasures were developed that made the bomb planes essentially obsolete. The bombs got their misleadingly whimsical nickname from the sound their pulsejet engines as they flew overhead.
Alternately they were also known as “buzzbombs.” The nickname would later be applied to other experimental aircraft as well.
5. A self-propelled rail car
In the early 20th century, short rail lines and tracks that were in light use would employ single, self-propelled train cars that were known as “doodlebugs.” These autonomous cars were a welcome alternative to large locomotives and carriage cars, and often ran on gasoline or electricity. The nickname supposedly popped up when the first of these cars hit the tracks and a rail person described it as a “potato bug” (see above) which morphed into doodlebug.
6. A DIY tractor
From the Great Depression on into the World War II, material resources were scarce in America’s heartland, but that didn’t stop them from working! During this period a specific variety of homemade tractor began to pop up on farms across the country. Generally using old cars as the base, inventive farmers would crop and chop the vehicles into makeshift tractors most often called, doodlebugs (they were also known as Friday tractors and scrambolas, among other names). The conversions became so popular that custom kits even began being sold through catalogs.
6. Brogan Doodlebug: Frank Brogan Offered “Minimal Motoring” in Small Numbers
Minimal motoring” – small, no-frills, basic transportation – has never satisfied the American automobilist. In 1912, a cyclecar craze began in Europe and quickly spread to the United States, where more than 200 manufacturers sprouted and shriveled within 18 months. After Ford stopped producing the Model T in 1927, upstarts like Martin, Littlemac, American Austin, and Bantamattempted to fill the economy car void. But the public preferred large used cars over tiny small ones.
However, as the supply of dependable used cars dried up during World War II, pilot Frank Brogan believed attitudes would change. His B & B Specialty Company at Rossmoyne, Ohio, primarily manufactured a variety of screws, fasteners, and other machine products. But he also created the lightweight Brogan Foldable Monoplane that could be towed from the airport to the owner’s home for garage storage. Later, he designed a motor scooter for his daughter. And in 1944, his wife asked him to design a small car to make shopping tasks easier for women whose husbands took their primary vehicles to work.
So, Frank Brogan crafted a sleek, two-passenger runabout he called the Brogan Doodlebug. It featured a highly streamlined steel body with headlights and windshield posts seamlessly blended in. The topless, doorless three-wheeler measured 96 inches long, rolled on a 66-inch wheelbase, and could be turned around within its own length. With the buyer’s choice of rear-mounted, single-cylinder Briggs & Stratton or twin-cylinder Onan air-cooled engines, the Doodlebug could achieve a top speed of 45 miles per hour and travel nearly 70 miles on a gallon of gas.
Brogan designed the Doodlebug especially for women, so he made sure operation and maintenance were easy. Gear-shifting was automated using a mercury-actuated system similar to fluid drive, which eliminated the clutch pedal. Changing the hidden front tire simply required popping out the grille and unscrewing two bolts. The engine was removed just as quickly—lift the rear deck lid, release three pins, disconnect the gas line, and lift the engine from its position beside the five-gallon fuel tank and battery. Frank Brogan referenced an October 1944 clipping from The Washington Post, which featured Ray Russell’s Gadabout in his patent application.
After photos of the Doodlebug appeared in the nation’s newspapers and popular magazines, Brogan received an average of 200 postcards and letters per month. Requests to buy and distribute came from every state and 20 foreign countries. Brogan hand-built 30 Doodlebugs and sold them for $400 each before realizing he lost $100 on every car he turned out. Tooling for mass production required $150,000 that he didn’t have, so he suspended Doodlebug sales. Instead, he used the same chassis design for the three-wheeled Errand Boy delivery scooter, and developed the four-wheeled Brogan-Truck pickup and delivery van. Brogan-Trucks featured one steerable wheel upfront and three independently sprung wheels in the rear with power transferred via chain to the center rear wheel. The odd configuration eliminated the need for a costly differential. Brogan-Truck prices started at $450, and Frank Brogan sold more than 200 of them. But he still wanted to build passenger cars.
More information on Frank Brogan and his inventions is available from the second link below/
- What the Hell is a Doodlebug?, Atlas Obscura, 13 January 2016, by EricGrundhauser https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-the-hell-is-a-doodlebug
- Frank Brogan Offered “Minimal Motoring” in Small Numbers, The Old Motor, 23 June 2021, by Robert D Cunningham https://theoldmotor.com/?p=185496