Sure they’re tacky, but they’re garish, too. Mac’s Motor City Garage revisits the golden age of wacky car-show theme rods, where camp and kitsch collide. It’s fun. Join us.
As curious and unlikely as the whole thing may seem today, themed show rods were a big deal in the custom car world of the ’60s and ’70s. The long and the short of it is that kids dug them. Among the car-crazy teenagers of the time, these way-out rods were powerful attendance draws on the custom car show circuit, and many became big sellers as plastic model kits as well. Here’s a very small sampling of the Odd Rod epoch.
It could surprise no one that George Barris, Hollywood’s King of the Kustomizers, was a leading player on on the themed show-rod scene. His Love Machine, built on a 1966 Dodge Tradesman chassis, cashed in on the ’70s custom van craze with a revolving bed and red velvet everywhere, and the plastic model kit version horrified mothers across America. In 1977, Barris repackaged his creation in red, blue, and silver as the Super Van, and it still exists in that form today.
Originally constructed by Don Bell and Chuck Trantham with a small-block Ford V-8 for power, the Outhouse Rod appeared in the August 1966 issue of Car Craft magazine. Show car impresarios Bob Reiser and Jay Ohrberg later obtained the rod, dropped in a twin-blower Chrysler hemi, and shipped it out to the car show circuit for several years.
In 1971 The Forgotten Man was back in the news, this time labeled the “hard hat conservative,” and this theme rod was a tribute of sorts to the Archie Bunker archetype. Designed by Harry Bradley as an MPC model kit, the Hauler was then commissioned as a full-sized show rod by Autorama promoter Bob Larivee, with George Barris subcontracting the construction to Race Car Specialties. Note the polished aluminum hard-hat top and the hokey triple-stack GMC blower setup, which actually conceals an ordinary two-barrel carb. The Hauler resurfaced on eBay in 2014 complete with its simulated forklift mechanism.
Like many theme rods, the Red Baron was a plastic model kit before it became a real 1:1 auto. The tasteful 1969 design by Tom Daniel included a Pontiac OHC 6, Maltese Cross wheel covers, simulated machine guns, and a fiberglass top styled to resemble a German army helmet. Spotting a winner, car show promoter Bob Larivee then had a life-size version constructed by Detroit builder Chuck Miller for display on the Autorama circuit. There’s also a Mattel Hot Wheels version of the Red Baron, which is considered quite rare and valuable today.
California builder Bob Reiser won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award two years in a row in 1967 and 1968 with the Invader, a beautifully handcrafted custom roadster. However, this is not it. This is his 1969 creation, the Bathtub rod, which featured a Chrysler Hemi with twin blowers and gold-plated bath hardware. The popular plastic model kit of the Bathtub rod was reproduced years later by a Japanese company.