culture

The 400-year old history of Spotto, the yellow car game

We all know and love the game of ‘Spotto’, aka The Yellow Car Game.

The premise is simple.

To keep bored kids alert and entertained on long road trips, parents often resort to a variety of games. From the evergreen ‘I Spy’ to ‘The Number Plate Game’, where players are tasked with finding every latter of the alphabet, in order, on different rego plates. The first person to complete the alphabet is declared the winner.

More exasperated parents might resort to the ‘Silent Game’ where noisy or quarrelsome kids are rewarded with a treat if they can stay quiet for a proscribed amount of time.

And then there’s ‘Spotto’ where kids are tasked with yelling ‘Spotto!’ every time they see a yellow car or vehicle on the road.

But, despite its popularity as a car game, the original ‘Spotto’ dates back to an era before cars ever existed.

According to Professor J Bulmanovich of the University of South-West Sussex, the game can trace its origins back to Britain in the 1600s and the Cotswolds region where the harvest of rapeseed provided the inspiration.

The transportation of the harvested rapeseed from the Cotswold to the docks for shipping to Dublin was often a fraught affair and could take anywhere up to five days. The carters hauling the harvest could fall foul of any number of hazards, including having their cart overturn on less-than-ideal tracks, while the ever-present prospect of bandits raiding the crop loomed large.

That’s why, when the harvest successfully crossed the Irish Sea and into its final destination in Dublin, dockworkers would punch each other lightly on the arm.

While that original punch didn’t really mean anything, superstition soon took hold. The act of a light hit to the arm soon spread back to Bristol where the sight of an empty cart denoted a successful transaction. As the empty carts continued on their journey back home to the Cotswolds, villagers along the route home would punch each other lightly when they spotted an empty wagon.

By the 1700s, the superstition had really taken hold, the light arm hits now part of the routine of the harvest. As the carts departed for the Bristol port, the wives of the men lugging the loads would hit their husbands lightly, as a way to wish them luck, usually accompanied with the words “keep ’em safe”. Upon returning to the Cotswolds, the carters would rejoinder, “I kept ’em safe”.

Soon, children joined in the fun and dubbed it the ‘Yellow Cart Game’. Despite not knowing the superstition behind it, children would lightly hit each other every time they spotted one of the rapeseed carts, often stained yellow by the crop. It soon spread to include all yellow carriages and even barges painted in the bright hue.

The growing influence of sunflower and vegetable oils gradually saw the decline in rapeseed and the Yellow Cart Game that came with it.

But it enjoyed a resurrection in 1829 when George Stephenson entered his steam train, Rocket, in the Rainhill Trials, a competition to select a new locomotive for the journey between Liverpool and Manchester.

Stephenson’s Rocket was painted bright yellow and when the train was set to leave on its initial journey, his wife Elizabeth punched him on the arm. When Stephenson looked quizzically at his wife, she replied “Yellow cart luck!”.

When Stephenson’s Rocket ran away with the competition, newspapers of the day reported the triumph with headlines like ‘One punch secures Rocket victory”. The game was back in circulation.

The advent of the motor car saw the game spread to all types of vehicles and by the 1960s had evolved exclusively to cars, and renamed the ‘Yellow Car Game’.

Today, there are official rules on an official website, Facebook pages and fan clubs. And sometimes the game gets taken a bit too seriously, as was the case in New York in 2005 when two men were arrested and charged with violent conduct after their innocent game of Spotto evolved into a fight on swanky Fifth Avenue.

Do you play Spotto? Let us know your tips and unique playing rules in the comments below.


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