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Route 66's Muffler Men

The Titans along US 66

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Muffler Men on Route 66: These gigantic fiberglass statues from the 1960s and 70s that have survived the winds of change and evoke a period of grandeur. They are typical examples of Route 66 roadside kitsch with their extreme size and colors. They bring back the nostalgia and memories of the golden days of road trips.

Route 66, US

 

 

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Muffler Men

What are they?

Muffler Men are gigantic (18 to 25 feet tall; 5.5 to 7.5 m) statues moulded in fiberglass and polyester resin on steel frames.

Their design was similar, not to say identical: sqare jawed man with both arms outstretched, the right hand up and the left one facing down. They were always holding something, and very often it was a car's muffler, and that is why they are known as "Muffler Men".

They were attired in different costumes: some were lumberjacks with axes in their hands, others were cowboys holding rifles, there were indians, pirates and even an astronaut holding a space ship.

There was even a female version, the "Uniroyal Gal" built specially for the Uniroyal Tire Co., but these are very rare and hard to come across nowadays.

They were built to serve as eyecatcher advertising along American roads, highways and streets.

The History of Muffler Men

The Pioneer: Bob Prewitt

Bob Prewitt was a cowboy who liked to go to rodeos in the late 1950s, and he was also an entrepreneur. He realized that the steel and metal trailers used to transport horses in the rodeo circuit were too heavy and cumbersome. So he set out to make a lighter fiberglass horse trailer.

He added a fiberglass horse as a model inside his trailer -a real living horse would have been too much trouble to take care of- and was very successful, not with the trailers, but with the horse, he got dozens of orders for fiberglass horses.

He set up his company, Prewitt Fiberglass Animals on 4519 Manhattan Beach Blvd. in Lawndale California and made fiberglass cows, calves, bears, roosters and cowboys riding bucking broncos.

In the early 1960s he got an order for a giant Paul Bunyan from a restaurant in Sacramento, California, so he built a mold and made the statue. When he was ready to deliver it, the customer cancelled the order so Bob drove down Route 66 seeking a possible customer, he found it at the Paul Bunyan Café in Flagstaff, Arizona (which we describe below).

Paul Bunyan

Bunayn is part of America's folklore, he was a giant lumberjack with herculean strength and accompanied by his loyal "Babe"n the Blue Ox.

The loggers in the North American forests created the myth and the oral tradition was put down in paper and made popular in 1916 by author William B. Laughead (1882-1958).

Business boom

Enter Steve Dashew who operated a boat building business (they too are built in fiberglass and polyester) in Venice, California. They were looking for a way to keep their company busy during the winter low-season, so they approached Bob Prewitt in 1963 and bought his animal molds and the big Paul Bunyan.

Dashew's company, International Fiberglass at 4054 Glencoe Ave. Venice, California soon began selling more and more of the titanic Paul Bunyans. Back in the 1960s, these statues sold for $1,800 to $2,800 each (in 2019 dollars this is equivalent to 14,000 to 22,000).

In 1966 Dashew applied for a patent (US patent 3368827) covering a trailer that improved transport and emplacement of these large "display devices", simplifyng the process of placing them in an upright position at the desired location. The image below shows the patent's design:

A trailer patent, for transporting and erecting a Muffler Man

Muffler Man on a trailer a drawing from a patent
Muffler Man patent sketch.

Dashew produced hundreds of these Muffler Men and also continued making animals (including dinosaurs, tigers and Yogi Bears).

Demise of the Muffler Men

But then came the OPEC oil embargo in 1973: the Arab oil exporting companies retaliated against the U.S. and western nations by stopping oil exports to the United States.

Oil prices quadrupled, which led to higher gas prices. Gasoline was scarce and expensive. The embargo coupled to inflation and high interest rates caused the 1973-75 recession.

The gas guzzling cars of the 1970s were very inefficient so the embargo helped promote the use of more fuel efficient cars: from Japan and Europe.

Car dealers, gas stations and auto repair shops were hit by the recession and the market for outsized fiberglass titans shrank abruptly.

Dashew was also hit by the economic crisis, he stopped producing in 1974 and sold the company in 1976. The molds for the large statues were destroyed shortly after.

The Muffler Men on Route 66: where are they?

We will describe the extant Muffler Men that you can still see along Route 66, starting in Illinois and heading west.

They include several classics that have stood for many years and also some recent additions:

Illinois

Wilmington's Gemini Giant

810 East Baltimore St., Wilmington, IL

This giant is located in the town of Wilmington, see this Location map showing its position.

The famous Gemini Man is a "Muffler Man", which was a popular type of roadside advertising in the 1960s. It is a 30 foot-tall (9.2 m) fiberglass statue, one of several that are located on Route 66.

Gemini Giant, viewed close up in Wilmington, Illinois

Gemini Giant close up in Wilmington Route 66
Gemini Giant on Route 66 in Wilmington, Illinois

Its name comes from the Gemini Project, a NASA space program:

Project Gemini

NASA ran this program from 1961 to 1966 it employed the Gemini spacecraft which could carry two astronauts (its predecessor, Mercury could only carry one. Apollo carried three).

The 12 missions flew in low Earth orbit trajectories and developed the techniques later used during the Apollo Moon missions such as working outside the spacecraft (extra-vehicular activity), orbital docking and rendeazvous maneuvers (EVA), and pioneered the orbital maneuvers necessary to achieve space rendezvous and docking. With these new techniques proven by Gemini, Apollo could pursue its prime mission without doing these fundamental exploratory operations.

The "Space Age" period was one of great excitement and novelty, technology captured everybody's minds. This "muffler man" was a modified Paul Bunyan, who switched the ovesized axe for a 9 foot long silver space capsule.

The shirt, jeans and boots were all painted green (not at all the color of the Gemini space suits - which were a of a metalized silver color). And the space helmet resembles a welding mask, very unlike those used by the astronauts.

It was named by one of Wilmington's schoolchildren, Cathy Thomas who suggested the name "Gemini Giant" in a contest to name it. The Launching Pad closed in 2013 and reopened recently.

The restaurant originally opened as the "Dairy Delight" (or Dair-Delite) and was run by John and Berenice Korele but changed its name in 1965, it adopted a "Space Age" name: The Launching Pad.

It was therefore fitting to have a giant Muffler Man dressed up like an astronaut. It cost $3,500 back in 1965 (about $26,000 in 2018 dollars adjusted for inflation).

See it below and compare its size to the car driving along Route 66.

The Gemini giant from afar in Wilmington, Illinois

The Gemini giant  from afar in Wilmington Route 66
The Gemini giant from afar in Wilmington, Illinois. Click to enlarge image

Drive west along Route 66 to Atlanta, here is the second Muffler Man on Route 66:

Atlanta: Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog

This giant is located on Route 66 in Atlanta, Illinois.

Route 66 Attraction

115 SW Arch St. Atlanta, Il

This Map shows its exact location.

The Muffler Man holding a hot dog (a giant hot dog) has quite a unique story behnid it.

Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog in Atlanta, Illinois

Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog in Atlanta Route 66
Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog in Atlanta, Illinois. Click to enlarge image
View of the Hot Dog Giant when it was located in Cicero Illinois

Hot Dog Giant in Cicero Illinois, Atlanta, Il. Mykl Roventine

Standing 19 feet tall, Atlanta's "Muffler Man, holding a hot dog" is also known as Paul Bunyon (yes, Bunyon with an "o" and not Bunyan with an "a") is a relatively newcomer to town, because its original location was closer to Chicago: it came to Atlanta from Cicero, Illinois.

From Cicero to Atlanta

Atlanta's Muffler Man originally stood on Route 66 in Cicero Illinois (6150 W Ogden Ave., Cicero - map).

It was installed at the Bunyon's hotdog stand in Cicero, (see image).

This stand was owned by Hamlet Stephens and he purchased the giant fiberglass statue to promote his business back in 1966.

To avoid copyright issues, he deliberately spelled its name "Bunyon".

This "Paul Bunyon" held a gigantic hotdog in its hands and stood over Stephens' stand for 38 years.

In 2002 the stand closed and in 2003 the Bunyon Giant was moved to Atlanta. Stephens died in 2012 but his work lives on.

The original building is now a "Tio Loco" Mexican food outlet as you can see below in the "Then and Now" photo sequence:

Original site of the Hot Dog Muffler man nowadays in Cicero US66

Original site of the Hot Dog Muffler man nowadays, Cicero, Il. Click for street view

Vintage view of the Hot Dog Muffler man in Cicero US66

Vintage view of the Hot Dog Muffler man in Cicero, Il. From the wayside exhibit in Atlanta Illinois

Drive westwards into Springfield to visit the third Muffler Man:

Lauterbatch Muffler Man

1569 Wabash Ave. Springfield

Erected in 1962 (See location map), the Gigantic Tire Man was first displayed as advertising in the tire business owned by Russ Lewis on State and Laurel in Springfield Illinois. He sold it shortly after. to the McGaughey Brothers, owners of the Roundup Cafe and Motel in Farmersville, on Route 66 south of Springfield.

The Roundup had it until the motel closed in 1978 when I-55 was completed and their business lost customers; the Lauterbach giant still survives (having changed the tire for an American flag) in the parking lot of the Lauterbatch Tire and auto service.

Lauterbatch giant Muffler Man in Springfield, Illinois

Lauterbatch giant Muffler Man in Springfield Route 66
Lauterbatch giant Muffler Man in Springfield, Illinois. Click to enlarge image

Kansas

Galena: Freckles

Frecs, the muffler man

"Frecs", the Muffler Man

Entering the town of Galena, Kansas from the East, coming from Joplin Missouri, you should take the original Route 66 (the 1926 - 1961 alignment) which is the continuation of Missouri's "Old Route 66 Boulevard".

In Kansas its name changes to "Front Street" and it enters the Galena from the northeast.

Route 66 crosses the the railway using the Historic viaduct built in 1923, which is over 200 ft. long. The bridge predates Route 66 by three years, and was chosen to become part of its alignment when the Mother Road was created in 1926 as a safe way across the tracks.

At the foot of the bridge, on the western side of the road (to your right if you are coming from Missouri), is the "Muffler Man". This is a map showing its location.

Technically this statue is not a Muffler Man in the pure sense of the word: this 19-foot tall muffler man was built by Renee Charles because there were no muffler men on Route 66 in Kansas.

Charles named it Frecs, short for Freckles, after his miner grandfather. Ths statue holds a miner's pick axe in its left hand.

It is, in his words, a poor-man's version of a Muffler Man, but it is worth the effort, as it gives Galena and Kansas their own kitschy Muffler Man.

Drive on and head west and then south into Oklahoma.

Oklahoma

Tulsa's gigantic statues

In Tulsa has two oversized statues, one is colossal, the other is a Muffler Man:

Golden Driller

Golden Driller, 76 ft. tall. Greg McKinney

Golden Driller

An Oklahoma State Monument: Americana and Kitsch

21st St. and Pittsburgh Ave. Tulsa County Fairgrounds.

The first Golden Driller was built for the 1953 International Petroleum Exposition as a symbol for the "Oil Capital of the World". It was such a success that it was used again in 1959.

Its owner and sponsor, the Mid-Continent Supply donated it to the Tulsa County Fairgrounds Trust Authority and built the current and permanent version for the 1966 Expo.

It is 76 ft. (23 m) tall and designed to withstand winds of up to 200 mph. It contains 2.5 miles of steel rods and mesh and is covered in concrete. Its hand rests on a real oil derrick.

It is said to be the largest free-standing statue in the world and weighs 43,500 lb.

See its Google Street View here.

It isn't a Muffler Man beause it is made in concrete, yet its purpose was to serve as an eyecatcher to promote the 1953 Oil Expo.

There is however another gigantic statue in Tulsa, and this one is a "real" Muffler Man and a modern one too!:

Buck Atom: Space Cowboy - a Muffler Man

1347 E 11th St. Tulsa

This old gas station has been refurbished and is now a shop selling Route 66 memorabilia: Buck Atom's Cosmic Curios.

The store owner, Mary Beth Babcock conceived Buck Atom, the Cosmic Cowboy when she operated a downtown boutique (2006 - 2016), and she made him something real: a modern day muffler man.

The brand new statue is 21 feet tall (6.4 m) and is the work of Joel Baker (he owns American Giants, a company that restores Muffler Men) and artists Mark Cline and Chris Wollard. They worked together to create the statue.

Buck Atom, a modern Muffler Man in Tulsa Oklahoma
Buck Atom, the Space Cowboy Muffler Man in Tulsa AZ.

Arizona

As we mentioned further up, the first Muffler Man to be made was the "Paul Bunyan" that Bob Prewitt sold to the Paul Bunyan Cafe on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Flagstaff's Muffler Man

218 S Milton Rd, Flagstaff, AZ

Lumberjack postcard

A vintage 1960s postcard of the Lumberjack. ebay.com

The original location of this Muffler Man, was at the restaurant which is now known as Granny's Closet (see its location map).

This cafe was built in the early 1960s and at that time it was named "Paul Bunyan Café", later it was renamed as "The Lumberjack Café.

Next to its main entrance stood a 20-foot tall fiberglass lumberjack (6.1 m).

The postcard depicted in the image proclaimed: "The Lumberjack Cafe Welcomes you to FLAGSTAFF 7000 feet above the sea - 7000 sights to see Delicious Pancakes, Waffles and Breakfast "Heavenly Fried Chicken" Famous $1. 66 Dinners LOOK FOR THE BIG 20 FOOT LUMBERJACK PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY - COME SEE US SOON".

The phrase "LOOK FOR THE BIG 20 FOOT LUMBERJACK..." is a clear indication of its advertising effect, a landmark to attract new customers.

Present Location

However you won't see it on the sidewalk of Milton Road. The giant has moved to the Skydome at the Northern Arizona University (NAU); now it is the mascot of the NAU lumberjacks.

Nowadays, as you can see in the image below, his jacket and cap sport different colors (See a street view).

Muffler Man at the Northern Arizona University
Muffler Man nowadays at the NAU, Flagstaff, AZ.

Now head west and drive to Los Angeles, California:

California

Chicken Boy in Los Angeles

5558 N Figueroa St. Highland Park, Los Angeles, California/p>

This "Statue of Liberty of Los Angeles" is a statue placed on the rooftop of a Design Studio and Gallery. It has a human body and a chicken's head that measures 22 ft. tall (6.7 m).

It dates back to the 1960s when it was the sign of a restaurant that sold fried chicken, located on Broadway, LA. It was an adapted big-man fiberglass statue onto which the chicken's head was placed. More recently it was moved to its present location.

The Chicken Boy

The Chicken Boy a giant statue with a hen head, in Los Angeles, Route 66 California
View of The Chicken Boy statue in Los Angeles. Google
Click on image for Street View

 

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Sources

Banner image: Dead Man's Curve, Laguna New Mexico by Perla Eichenblat.

Bringing Back American Giants, NCPTT, Ariel Bailey, July 18, 2018.