Tom Lohr loves holidays—just not Christmas. He is still bitter about not getting the GI Joe Gemini capsule as a present in the mid-60s
Giants walk among us. Two-story tall fiberglass figures dot American byways, attempting to lure motoring customers into restaurants, mechanic shops, or other venues that need a giant, helping advertising hand. These titanic pitchmen got their start in 1962 when a boat maker in California decided to diversify and use his fiberglass making capabilities for the world of marketing. With the interstate highway system still in its infancy, most auto travel was via two-lane highways, and placing a huge plastic figure next to your business was a guaranteed way to draw travelers' attention. The original muffler man was a lumberjack for a restaurant in Flagstaff, Arizona. Using the same body molds and changing out the head molds, the maker of these beasts was able to produce numerous variations of the Goliaths. Besides the pioneering lumberjack, versions included: a Native American chief, cowboy, a ordinary looking man often referred to as a “dude,” and a half-wit that resembles Alfred E. Neuman. The first lumberjack had the left hand facing down and opposite hand up so he could hold a giant axe. Later, the dude version was often used with the same body holding a muffler for car shops, sparking the iconic figure's generic name of Muffler Man.
Thousands of the colossal commercial communicators were erected during the 1960s and early 1970s, but as interstates began to bypass smaller towns, they fell out of favor and the manufacturer closed up shop. Today, most of the surviving kitschy sky scraping statues are still out there selling food or services, a few are school mascots and others part of private collections. Muffler Men are experiencing a renaissance, prompting many to get a makeover and some much needed restoration. Nearly every state in America has at least one, some have several. Most go unnoticed except to locals, but others have ridden their fiberglass enormity to fame. Here is rundown of the ten most famous Muffler Men in America.
1. Chicken Boy
Only a lumberjack with a chicken head could become the most famous of all muffler men. A chicken restaurant owner purchased a lumberjack and had an artist modify the head to represent the yardbird he was pushing. All was well, and Chicken Boy was a Route 66 icon, until he found out that while fiberglass figures live forever, humans do not. The owner died in 1984 and Chicken Boy's future was in jeopardy. He was given to a local artist that kept the feather-headed mutant in storage for about 20 years. A community effort to raise funds eventually helped Chicken Boy stand tall again in the City of Angels. He, along with his bucket (of presumably chicken), tower above an art studio at 5558 North Figueroa, Los Angeles California, aka Route 66.
2. Gemini Giant
While Chicken Boy is Route 66's west coast representative, the Gemini Giant stands guard on the famed route's eastern terminus. If one motors along the mother road from its start in Chicago, it won't be long before you cruise into Wilmington, Illinois. Directly along the route is a closed and drive-in restaurant called The Launching Pad. The space race was in full swing in the 1960s, and the program that occupied most of the decade was called Gemini. American was immersed in the nation's space efforts it and fostered the birth of a muffler man wearing a space helmet (albeit a funky looking one) and holding a rocket. While Chicken Boy may have his own following, the Gemini Giant is undoubtedly the most photographed muffler man.
3. Tall Paul Bunyon
What do muffler men do when they retire from advertising? They go into the entertainment business. Illinois is home to two of the most famous muffler men, and Atlanta, Illinois is the home of the renown hot dog holding titan. He once peddled eats at Bunyon's Hot Dogs in Cicero just outside of Chicago. His hot dogs were popular with the locals and noted as being some of the area's best. But like many establishments along Route 66, it finally came time to shut the doors. While the owners of the stand packed up and moved on, Tall Paul Bunyon ended up in Atlanta on Arch Street, also known as Route 66. If you want to find him, just drive along Route 66 and look for the muffler man with the big wiener.
4. Nitro Girl
The makers of muffler men were no sexists. Standing 20 feet tall and selling tires is not just a man's job. In an attempt to mix things up, the makers of these marketing monstrosities produced a female version called Uniroyal Gals. Uniroyal is a tire manufacturer, and the girls were designed to hold one hand on their hip and one hand in the air grasping an enormous tire. Far fewer of these were produced than the male type, and even fewer survive. For followers of muffler men, spotting a Uniroyal Gal is a rare treat. If you see her, she may be scantily dressed in a bikini or in a skirt and blouse. Her outer garments are removable to allow advertisers to choose a level of fiberglass skin coverage or to let her keep cool in the summer. All look eerily like a female icon of the day, Jackie Kennedy.
Nitro Girl makes her home in Blackwood, New Jersey and stood modestly dressed outside a tire store since 1964. In 2007 she got a complete makeover. She now sports a star spangled skirt, and a costume that seems to be a Super Girl/Wonder Woman hybrid and was renamed Nitro Girl. The once conservative tire pitch person is now the queen of flash. Her new persona has proven to be so popular the store she represents sells bobbleheads of her likeness. A Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Jackie Kennedy bobblehead.
5. La Salsa Man
Muffler men are also commercial chameleons, masters of disguise. Some have changed personas over the years to keep their jobs and out of the landfill. Malibu, California's La Salsa Man is one that has made a remarkable transformation. He stood above a hamburger joint since the late 1960s, donning the white hat, shirt, trousers and cap of a typical soda jerk. Then it was decided to make the place into a Mexican restaurant. In a sort of reverse Michael Jackson transformation, the soda jerk got a permanent spray tan and a quasi handlebar mustache to become hispanic. The hamburger he once held in his hand was split with one half fashioning the brim of his sombrero and the other half into a tray he now holds. In no time at all, the meek hamburger boy was hawking spicy Mexican dishes proving that he will stop at nothing to keep his job.
6. Big Pal
Just because La Salsa Man took his persona south of the border doesn't mean there aren't any humungous hamburger holders out there. In Tennessee there is a chain of hamburger joints called Pal's Sudden Service. While a few locations have spilled over into neighboring Virginia, most are in the Volunteer State. The first Pal's opened in 1956, but it wasn't until the second location opened that it hired its enormous employee. Big Pal has kept true to his roots and lured customers into his store teasing them with a giant version of what awaits inside.
7. Boardwalk Pirate
Sometimes even the best of men go bad, muffler men are no exception. While rare, one can sometimes spot one of these rogue roadside renegades decked out in regalia of one of the world's most sinister professions: a pirate. Red Beard and Blue Beard had their reputations (and beards) to make the famous, but if you are a stationary summertime swashbuckler, location is your only ticket to notoriety. The pirate version of muffler men is much like a lumberjack, only he can be accessorized, and the buccaneer just off of the Ocean City Boardwalk is well outfitted. He has a patch over his left eye, a peg leg, earrings and cradles a cutlass in his arms. Typically, he would strike fear into the hearts of men...only he works at a miniature golf course. Not exactly a profession that would shiver your timbers.
8. The Patriotic Muffler Man
Sometimes you can fight city hall and win. It helps if you are a 20 foot tall giant. That is what a lumberjack muffler man had to do in Cheshire, Connecticut. A local tree company (now a business that sells doors) decided to place one on site in 1980. Unfortunately, the locals didn't like the looks of Paul Bunyan lurking around their quaint cookie cutter neighborhood. Like senior citizen members of a home owner's association that drive around in their golf carts salivating over a violation, the city government invoked a ordinance that states no sign can be over seven feet tall. That's a problem when the dude on your lawn stretches over two stories. Solution: replace his axe with a flagpole dangling an American flag. Seems there is no ordinance on how high a flag pole can be. This muffler man stuck it to the man with a flamboyant display of patriotism and to this day proudly waves the stars and stripes.
9. The Carpet-Clutching Muffler Man
Sometimes all it takes is your fifteen minutes of fame to propel you to national stardom. In Jersey City, New Jersey, a lumberjack traded in his axe for an LED marquee made to look like a roll of carpet to hawk wares of a local rug dealer. He was all too happy living in obscurity underneath the Pulaski Skyway, and then it happened. The intro to the popular HBO series The Sopranos show the lead character cruising along the roads in New Jersey, and who flashes by his window? None other than our humble carpet-clutching muffler man. His cameo has made him one of the most recognizable muffler men in America, and in the world of reruns and instant streaming fame is never fleeting.
10. Sunny the Big Man
Western Tire and Appliance was known as “the store with the big man on top” for decades. It attributed its nickname to the muffler man on the roof of the building that served as an unmissable landmark. When the store shuttered in 2004, a glass shop quickly purchased that giant and held a contest to name him. He was subsequently dubbed “Sunny the Big Man”. Normally, he would stand unknown in the far flung regions of the west if were not for his extensive wardrobe. On the whim of his owners, Sunny changes costumes. He has been dressed for prom, as a baseball player and as Santa Claus. One never knows what Sunny will be wearing. While he may not be a fashion industry trendsetter, people cannot help but to make an occasional trip to Main Street in Farmington, New Mexico to see what this cool colossus of clothing will be wearing next.