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If you’ve ever been to the circus, you’ve probably seen the infamous clown car trick. A colorful little automobile rolls onto the stage and, suddenly, the door opens and 20-plus clowns climb out. They carry suitcases, hula hoops, inflatable toys and other random props. One after another, they squeeze out of a car no bigger than a Fiat.
How do they do it? Is it witchcraft? Magic? Maybe there’s a trap door under the floor. Maybe it’s all an optical illusion and your eyes are playing tricks on you. It simply can’t be real… or can it?
It turns out there’s a practical secret behind this classic act. Today, we blow the top off the clownish trick and discover the truth.
Everything You See Is Real
Contrary to popular belief, what you’re seeing isn’t an optical illusion. There are no mirrors or trap doors and the car is, in fact real. Some people believe that the vehicle is specially customized to make it appear smaller than it actually is, but this isn’t true either. In most cases, clown cars are decorated production vehicles like Volkswagon Beetles, Fiats and Mini Coopers. If they do look any smaller, it’s because you’re seated far away from the stage where the act is taking place.
The Secret Formula
So what is the secret to fitting all those clowns into one tiny car? One word: stripping. No, not the clowns — although that would be a hilarious feat. The production staff prepares the clown car by stripping it of its interior. In any other situation, this car mod would be a terrible idea. In the circus, however, it allows more space for all those clowns to fit inside.
Everything from seats to door panels comes out until the inside is completely gutted. The team removes the barrier to the trunk and bolsters the springs so the car doesn’t drag. Then, they paint all the windows, leaving a small slot for the driver to see through.
Even without all the interior components, the vehicle is fully functional. The driver sits on a milk crate and steers while the 20 to 30 other clowns squeeze in and try not to breathe.
Filling the Car
Even without the interior, fitting that many people into such a tiny space is rather mindboggling. How do they accomplish such a feat? Well, the clowns have apparently been working on their flexibility because each one contorts himself around the other. They curl and twist and gather close to save space. Some roll up on the floor while others press themselves against windows. The audience has no idea because they can’t see through the windows.
Just how many clowns can you fit in one clown car? An American Standard Clown is five feet and eight inches tall and weighs 158 pounds. At this size, each one can compress himself to occupy just three cubic feet of space. Therefore, a clown car the size of a 2011 Ford Focus would theoretically fit 40 clowns. However, the performers must have some breathing room— plus space for props — so your typical compact car will fit between 14 and 21 clowns.
Exiting the Clown Car
The entire clown car act only lasts a few minutes, which means the clowns must exit the vehicle quickly. More importantly, they must climb out in a way that amuses the audience and makes them laugh. They mustn’t show signs of struggle and the line must keep exiting the car until the very last clown emerges.
The clowns perfect this performance by memorizing the order in which they enter and exit the vehicle. One by one, they file out to showcase their props, jokes and silly costumes. It’s a simple trick, but it does require some skill, not to mention lots of practice. You have to imagine they spent days — if not weeks — playing human Tetris to find the best arrangement.
Keeping the Tradition Alive
Circus performers have been delivering the clown car trick since the 1950s and many continue to showcase it today. Year after year, these talented clowns amuse and mystify audiences with their little secret. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll see the same car twice. While they do have sturdy frames, these vehicles take quite a beating night after night. Most need replacing within two or three years, so there will always be another clown car to marvel at when you visit the circus — and you will marvel. Sure, you know the trick, but you have to admit it’s still pretty impressive.