SAN FRANCISCO—When Rahsaan Morin pulls up to the curb, people often run out of nearby stores at the very sight of him. They "start feeding the meter," says Mr. Morin.
It's easy to see why: He drives one of those three-wheeled vehicles commonly associated with the parking police.
Some people are ditching their cars for a different type of transportation: retired parking-patrol vehicles-those 'meter maid' cars. WSJ's Cari Tuna reports.
He bought his first three-wheeler, a former San Francisco parking patroller, for $1,600 from a friend in Oakland. He found another on Craigslist for $2,000 and tricked it out with a stereo and roof rack for his surfboard. He uses it to make deliveries for the catering company he owns.
Paranoid parkers quickly sense peril. "They look at you, and they're not quite sure what to do," he says. "But they smile and laugh and breathe a big sigh of relief once they realize they are not getting a ticket."
The shock value is part of the allure of owning a meter-maid vehicle, as people call the tricycles. A fringe of motorists across the U.S. are ditching cars for retired three-wheeled utility vehicles. They troll websites and government auctions to find used models that they can get for between $500 and $7,000, depending on model, condition and upgrades.
Margie Bell, who works at a Crayola crayon plant outside Nazareth, Pa., uses her bright-yellow three-wheeler, which once belonged to the New York City Police Department, to pull Crayola-theme floats in holiday parades.
The idea started out as a joke. In 2007, she wanted a fuel-efficient car and said, "Heck, I'd even drive one of those meter-maid cars," says her husband, Roland Bell. That night, he found one on eBay that the two bought for $1,900.
Some people turn used meter-maid vehicles into hot-dog stands and ice-cream trucks, says Daniel Lanigan, a dealer of specialty concession equipment in Bridgeport, Conn., who sold a three-wheeler-turned-hot-dog-cart for $7,000 last month and has another for sale. "They make very cool vending vehicles," he says.
San Francisco, in particular, has an active meter-maid-motoring community. Yvette Huginnie, a high-school teacher who lives in San Francisco, drives a retired meter-maid trike originally from Florida, which she painted with multicolored polka dots and outfitted with a clown horn. "It's very much an expression of who I am," she says.
Alec Bennett, a San Franciscan who owns five used three-wheelers, has created a website, sillylittlecars.com, for fans of the trikes. The three-wheelers are "the greatest city cars," he says. They're cheaper than autos and are covered by inexpensive motorcycle insurance, says Mr. Bennett, a photo-booth builder by profession.
A driver in cities like San Francisco can park a three-wheeler at the curb like a motorcycle, making it a breeze to find a parking spot on crowded streets. "Like Smart cars but smarter," says Mr. Bennett, because Daimler AG's two-seater Smart ForTwo minicars, though shorter than meter-maid cars, have to parallel-park because they have four wheels. (Parking rules vary by city.)
Three-Wheeling in San Francisco
Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal
People came in costume to a party for meter-maid cart enthusiasts in San Francisco, Ca.
Common meter-maid models include the Go-4 Interceptor from Westward Industries Ltd. and the Truckster from Cushman Inc. Though data on how many people own used meter-maid cars aren't available, three-wheeler owners say the vehicles have become more popular in recent years as the price of gas has risen.
The vehicles have a small but "cult-like following," says Famous Rhodes, director of parts and accessories at eBay Motors. From January to early October this year, 38 Trucksters and 6 Interceptors were sold on eBay, with the Trucksters fetching an average $1,243 and Interceptors going for an average $4,162. Sellers hailed from 24 states, from Arizona to Wisconsin, eBay says.
Cushman introduced a three-wheeled vehicle with an enclosed cabin—later known as the Truckster—in the early 1950s, according to Textron Inc., which now owns Cushman. Trucksters became popular among municipal police and parking-patrol departments in the 1960s, says Jim Frederick, a Cushman-scooter enthusiast who has compiled a history of the company.
Cushman stopped making the three-wheelers in the early 2000s. Since then, Go-4 Interceptors—costing about $20,000 new—have become the three-wheeler of choice for municipal patrollers.
Three-wheelers can get up to 50 miles per gallon, drivers say, but they have their limitations. Trucksters have top speeds of just 30 to 50 miles per hour. (Interceptors, which have more powerful engines, have top speeds of 40 to 70 mph.) Spare parts for Trucksters can be hard to find.
But the attention alone may be worth it. "It's a crowd pleaser," says Mr. Morin, the caterer, who owns seven three-wheelers, including a van and a dump-truck variation. "You have to be in a good mood when you're driving them, because people just ask so many questions."
Mr. Bennett has helped organize two "Cushman Crawls" in which owners paraded through San Francisco on a route that included the hairpin turns of the famously crooked Lombard Street. One three-wheeler rally in 2008 drew about a dozen drivers, some of them in fake police uniforms.
Playing on a vehicle's past life can also help find a parking place. "Everyone says to me, 'I'm just leaving! 'I'm just leaving!"' says Sam Frangiamore, a San Francisco software developer whose white Truckster used to belong to the Salinas, Calif., police department.
The downside of mistaken identity is vandalism. Mr. Bennett says his girlfriend's Interceptor was repeatedly sprayed with graffiti until the couple put a giant Barbie-doll head from a thrift store on the roof.
"Not a single problem ever since," says Mr. Bennett.
Write to Cari Tuna at email@example.com