Creating a one-off show car from raw materials and a pile of mechanical parts is an act that requires the eyes of an artist, the hands of a craftsman and the desire to turn a crazy idea into reality.
Practicality need not be an ingredient in the dream car recipe – these creations are, after all, designed more for visual punch than a need for basic transportation. The passenger compartments often do not have enough room for an adult’s legs. The giant, shiny engines never run very long (if at all), for fear of discoloring the chrome finish or cracking the frame. The driver’s forward vision might be completely blocked by a towering supercharger. No one questions a show car’s utility if it has enough eye appeal.
Fifty years ago, in 1959, a pinstriping artist named Ed Roth set the custom car world on its head by building his Outlaw T-bucket roadster from lightweight and easy-to-form fiberglass, a composite material just coming into widespread commercial use. The engine was a heavily chromed ’49 Cadillac V-8, and a ’29 Ford gave up its frame for the project. Although it was a simple design when compared to his later works, the seamless fiberglass passenger compartment, wing-like front fenders supporting quad headlamps, and airbrush paint scheme made Roth a hit on the show circuit. The iconic Outlaw remains so popular that kits have been produced from the original molds for the purpose of creating replicas.
A year later, “Big Daddy” Roth debuted his Beatnik Bandit, a two-seater with a jet fighter-style glass canopy, fiberglass body, and shortened ’55 Oldsmobile chassis. In theory, a driver would control the mirror-finish Oldsmobile V-8 by way of a console-mounted joystick.
In 1965, inspired by this lofty new school of design, 16-year-old Dan Woods built a Roth-style vehicle he called Milk Truck. He created the body from fiberglass laid over a wooden frame, much of which was fabricated in his high school shop class, then transported home on his bicycle. The frame was lifted from a ’29 Ford. A ’57 Pontiac 389-cid V-8 with Weiand supercharger was hooked to a ’55 Pontiac automatic transmission, and Cragar mag wheels wore wide, drag racer-style Goodyear tires. The square body was painted purple, and the “milk” lettering was performed by none other than Ed Roth, whose team of customizers Woods soon joined.
Woods began working on a follow-up to Milk Truck – a light-blue companion piece he called Ice Truck. The project was interrupted by his service in Vietnam, but Woods completed Ice Truck upon his return and unveiled it in 1970. After several years of abuse and neglect, both Milk Truck and Ice Truck have been restored by hot rod builder Dave Shuten.
In 1967, Indiana natives Glen Yeary and Steve Tansy were touring a Coca-Cola plant in Kokomo, looking to buy some old bottle dispensers. Their visit led to the creation in 1970 of the Coke Machine, a rolling tribute to America’s favorite soft drink with a 327-cid Chevrolet V-8 fed by four four-barrel carburetors – each with its own ram-air intake. Genuine Coca-Cola products went into the creation of this caffeinated dream car, including a radiator-mounted spigot, bottle caps, wooden cartons, bottles (tinted red for tail lamps), ice chest and dispenser doors. Model Products Corp. sold thousands of small-scale replicas of the Coke Machine during its decade on the show car circuit.
Although his notoriety as a popular culture icon faded in the 1970s, Ed Roth never stopped creating innovative show cars and encouraging others to do the same. In 1995, as he enjoyed a resurgence of celebrity in the custom world, he produced a tribute to his first futuristic canopy car in the form of Beatnik Bandit II. Similar in layout to the original, this second two-seater featured an onboard trip computer, a modern Chevrolet 350-cid V-8 and an unusual array of six headlights.
One of Roth’s competitors for the public’s attention in the 1960s was George Barris, the self-proclaimed car customizer to Hollywood’s stars and creator of TV’s Batmobile. When Redd Foxx was transformed in the ‘70s from raunchy Las Vegas comedian to popular television star through NBC’s “Sanford and Son,” Barris created a one-off vehicle to match Foxx’s bigger-than-life personality. The Li’l Redd Wrecker was a tow truck with a handbuilt metal body and hydraulic tilting cab – covered in a bright red paint scheme, of course. It featured a crushed velour interior, center-mounted steering wheel and mid-engine 750-horsepower supercharged V-8.
Modern-day pupils of Big Daddy’s outrageous style include Fritz Schenck, a New York-based builder who has gained fame for creating some Roth-influenced dream cars. When Schenck is not busy working on spaceship-like designs (such as his recent dome-topped Roswell Rod), he modifies and paints “normal” cars and motorcycles. Schenck’s Margarita Chiquita started life as a 1960 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but is now a ‘60s-style chopper with “ape hanger” handlebars, a narrowed gas tank, a custom green paint scheme with orange and purple flames, and twin exhaust pipes that exit somewhere above the rider’s head.
Nostalgia for the 1950s street rod movement still inspires some unusual automotive creations. Like “Big Daddy” Roth, Jerry Bowers was a sign painter who dreamed of building crazy cars. In the late 1980s, he traded some work for a ’49 Ford F-5 school bus and transformed it into a chopped, lowered, and shortened machine riding on a custom Cadillac Eldorado chassis. The “Shortcut High School Bus” has toured the country encouraging students to study hard and graduate. Bowers and his wife Brenda recently volunteered the bus to serve in Operation Iraqi Children, where it raises money to send clothes, school supplies, and toys to young people in countries where American soldiers are serving.
New ideas for wild dream cars continue to be born even today. Joe Harmon, an industrial design student at North Carolina State University in Durham, chose to explore the versatility of wood as a 21st century automotive material through his graduate project. “Splinter” was inspired by Harmon’s admiration for the de Havilland Mosquito, a World War II-era twin-engine fighter-bomber made entirely of wood. He figured that if England could build a 400-mph plane 70 years ago from laminated plywood and primitive glue, he should be able to use composite wood technologies and modern adhesives to create a rigid and reliable 200-mph car. The jaw-dropping result looks like a cross between a Lamborghini Gallardo, the Batmobile, and a finely crafted armoire.
Not all dream cars spend their lives on the show circuit – some of those breakthrough designs actually go into production for the public to drive. Such was the case in 1934 when a young Chrysler Corp. introduced its radical Airflow sedan. Based on a prototype known as the Trifon Special, the Airflow was the first mass-produced American automobile styled in a wind tunnel. The unusual aerodynamic shape turned off many potential buyers, and Chrysler ended sales of the Airflow at the end of 1937.
Roth’s Beatnik Bandit and Beatnik Bandit II, along with a faithful reproduction of his Outlaw (built by Fritz Schenck), will represent “Big Daddy’s” body of work during the Breakthrough Designs display at the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair. The exhibit will also include the Ice Truck, Milk Truck, Coke Machine, Li’l Redd Wrecker, Margarita Chiquita, Shortcut High School Bus, Splinter, and Chrysler Airflow.
The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 10,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 2,000 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5.
For more information, contact the Lowe’s Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.