Things you never learned in driver's ed:
--Installing a giant Zippo lighter on the roof of your car will turn the vehicle into a "chick magnet."
--When traveling through Chicago in an oversized Mr. Peanut, don't trust the height signs on underpasses.
--If you're behind the wheel of a 5-ton cat, expect to hear endless jokes about litter boxes.
--The secret to parallel parking a 25-foot lobster is to be the only car on the block. Also, remember to feed all the meters.
Such are the rules of the road for product mobiles, America's wackiest form of transportation. After virtually disappearing in the 1970s, motorized hot dogs, telephones and other objects are enjoying a renaissance.
Dozens of these wheeled advertisements now prowl the countryside, handing out samples, sponsoring jingle contests and sometimes raising money for charities at Super Bowls, fairs, store openings and any other event that draws a crowd.
The new generation of mutant cars is more technologically advanced. Gadgets include chocolate-scented exhaust, global positioning navigation and big, electric-powered tongues. In road tests by Car and Driver and others, highway speeds topped out at 100 mph.
The birthplace for many product vehicles is a nondescript warehouse in Santa Barbara, Calif. Inside, electric saws whine and Led Zeppelin blasts from a stereo as workers tinker with the Hershey's Kissmobile, which is in town for its annual physical. Nearby, a massive Styrofoam cat head rests on the floor, awaiting reattachment to the Pfizer Revolution Mobile, which displays a huge dog and cat to advertise an anti-flea medication.
This is Prototype Source, a company that used to specialize in assembling concept cars for the likes of Volkswagen and GM, but now devotes half its time to building product mobiles.
In 1992, owners Bruce Brackman and Dorian Duke helped redesign the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, sculpting a scale model and testing it in the California Institute of Technology's wind tunnel. That led to the Hershey Kissmobile. And once the chocolate car hit asphalt, requests began pouring in.
In Brackman's dusty office, file cabinets brim with sketches of surreal vehicles, most of which will never see daylight. "We're lucky if 10 percent get past the concept stage," he says, noting that price tags run as high as $500,000. Among the rejects: an amphibious crustacean that could crawl out of the ocean onto the highway; a humongous pantyhose container; a motorized tub of Country Crock margarine; and "The Vault," a towering glass box in which game-show contestants were supposed to catch cash blown around by electric fans.
Moving an idea from paper to pavement usually takes six months, but technology eases the workload. For the Pfizer mobile, Prototype Source sculpted a small cat and dog from wax, then mapped the surface with lasers and fed the data into a computerized router, which carved exact replicas -- 100 times bigger -- out of giant blocks of Styrofoam.
Brackman's favorite project is the Planters hot rod. Finished in 1999, it features a hulking Mr. Peanut with a rotating head and a foot-wide monocle. Behind the eyeglass, a video camera tapes spectators and projects their images onto a big-screen TV. Other flourishes include taillights from a 1959 Cadillac (Prototype Source always borrows lights from existing vehicles so it doesn't have to get Department of Transportation approval), exhaust pipes that glow red at night and a trunk big enough for a baby elephant.
The hot rod gets about 14 miles a gallon and is built on a GMC truck chassis that Brackman considers "bulletproof."
Alas, Mr. Peanut himself isn't quite as invincible. Entering a mismarked underpass in Chicago, the big legume lost his hat. (Planters found a local boat repair center to rebuild the fiberglass chapeau.)
"It's important to have a network of body shops," says Scott Moller of Marketing Werks, a Chicago public relations agency specializing in mobile publicity campaigns.
Goofy things happen when product mobiles meet their fans.
"You'd be surprised how many freeway exits we miss because people pull up alongside to snap photos or give us the thumbs-up sign -- and we can't change lanes,' says Tom Frederick, a driver for Clawde, "the world's largest anatomically correct lobster on wheels," a 3,000-pound crustacean mounted atop a Ford pickup to promote Red Lobster restaurants.
There's also no shortage of spectator wisecracks -- although they're usually the same ones. "My swimming pool is full of butter, come on by," people tell Clawde's drivers.
Zippo car helmsman Dave Murray knows the drill. "Without fail, people ask me for a light," he says. And then there are the Wienermobile remarks, which typically are unprintable.
But just as often, drivers turn the tables and create jokes of their own. Wienermobile crews open their windows at intersections and ask motorists if they have any Grey Poupon.
And the Meow Mix cat, with a motorized tongue that flicks back and forth through the radiator grill, cruises into drive-thru restaurants and orders a milkshake. Purina has toyed with the idea of converting a Volkswagen Beetle into a kitten and having it trail the large cat.
Perhaps the biggest hazard to operating a product mobile is the fender-bender. The Hershey's Kissmobile has been hit about half a dozen times, says Brackman. (Maybe motorists get distracted by the smell of chocolate wafting from an industrial crock pot hidden in the back?)
But pedestrians also take a toll. People constantly poke and scrape at the vehicle's three giant kisses to see if the foil wrapping is real. (It isn't. To simulate the genuine article, Prototype created a huge papier-mache chocolate, clothed it in industrial foil and then made a mold.)
Another logistical issue: getting gas. It can take a full hour, not because the tank is bottomless, but because people mob the vehicle whenever it parks.
"Every time you stop your vehicle, you have an event," says Tom Lindell of Colle & McVoy, the marketing group behind the Pfizer mobile.
Well, usually. When humorist Dave Barry was allowed to drive the Wienermobile through Miami a few years ago, pedestrians barely noticed the 27-foot frank. "You'd have thought these people got hourly visits from the Wienermobile, the way they ignored it," he wrote.
Other drivers tell a different story. The Zippo car is a total babe magnet, says driver Murray, echoing remarks made by more than a few product mobile chauffeurs: "It definitely helps with the action after hours."
Another bonus is seeing how many faces light up in the presence of such playful vehicles. "It's a blast," says Gretchen Garber, a former Kissmobile crew member who now oversees other drivers. Garber recalls two little boys visiting the vehicle and then returning with a gift of candy canes, telling her, "You probably get tired of eating chocolate."
The road crews end up feeling like celebrities. People wave, honk and even clap when they enter restaurants.
However, the attention can be wearying. Drivers quickly learn to stay in hotels that are within walking distance of restaurants, so they can leave the vehicle behind and dine in peace.
Product mobiles have legions of fans.
"They beautifully combine America's passion for all things automotive with its passion for shameless hucksterism," says Dan Neil of Car and Driver magazine.
For advertisers, the cars offer a way to break through the clutter of ads on TV, radio, the Internet and print, says Marketing Werks' Scott Moller.
"Eventually, they could become passe," says Peter Breen, editor of Promo magazine. "If people start seeing a couple of these vehicles a day, heads will stop turning."
Rivenburg's e-mail address is roy.rivenburg(at)latimes.com
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