ARTISTIC DRIVEARIZONA'S ART CARS HIT THE ROAD IN NATIONAL CRAZE FOR AUTO EXOTICA

When Gary Metzler decided to unload his 1966 Plymouth Valiant last year, the artist didn't even bother to place a classified ad.

It's probably just as well. Within the constraints of a few lines of newspaper type, how do you even begin to describe a souped-up station wagon that simultaneously suggests an armored hearse, a limo from beyond the stars and a prototype delivery truck for Sanctuary, Cher's new gothic-exotica business?

"I don't believe in doing things the way everyone else does them," explains Metzler, somewhat unnecessarily. This is, after all, the visionary who spent six years affixing wood paneling, ceramic knickknacks, plastic serving trays, religious icons, costume jewelry and other not-readily-identifiable "treasures" to a car and then spraying the whole thing with silver paint and dusting it with multicolored glitter. The awe-inspiring effect is not unlike a gold-spray-painted, macaroni-covered grade-school art project carried to an unimaginable extreme.

A movement that has slowly been gathering momentum, art cars like Metzler's are finally beginning to make inroads into the public consciousness. In recent years, a number of these mobile museum pieces have been immortalized in Wild Wheels, a critically lauded documentary that spawned both a coffee-table book and a series of related calendars. A popular TV commercial even pays tribute to this fanciful, grassroots art genre; a car covered with a crop of Bermuda grass is featured in a current Honda spot. If America is still a long way from having an art car in every garage, Arizona is still way ahead of the curve in this rare phenomenon. The state boasts at least three of the strangest vehicles ever to come down the pike.

Two of them are the work of Gary Metzler, who grows philosophical about his chances of selling the shimmering creation that seems to dominate the entire street of his modest, east Phoenix residential neighborhood. "If someone is meant to have this car," he says, "they'll find it."

To make that certain someone's quest just a little less mystical, Metzler recently purchased a prefab "For Sale" sign that he plopped on the fur-covered dashboard. Metzler scrawled his phone number on the sign--and, in the space allotted for price, jotted the word "LOTS."

How much is "LOTS"?
"That depends," says the 46-year-old Metzler as a smile plays across his well-lived-in face. "How big's your pocketbook?" In actuality, Metzler's current asking price for the artmobile is $50,000. To date, the artist reports, there haven't been any nibbles, except for a local rock-nightclub entrepreneur--who offered Metzler a $10,000 check, with the remaining 40 grand in small bills in a paper bag. Suspecting shady dealings of some sort, Metzler passed.

Ethics aside, Metzler also worried that if people mistakenly believed that he'd sold the car for only $10,000, it could drive down the value of his latest project. After four years, he recently completed covering a 1953 Dodge pickup with wood-bead seat covers, poker chips, deer antlers, decorative muskets and plastic salad bowls. When and if he ever gets around to selling the pickup--which, like the station wagon, has been rebuilt automotively--Metzler figures the tricked-up truck could go for as high as $80,000.

The auto artist previously sold a friend a third car--this one covered in a suedelike paint he'd developed that replicated the nap on Hush Puppies shoes--but is unaware of the vehicle's current whereabouts.

Asked about his creative muse, Metzler shrugs modestly.
"It's always been in my mind, but I never put it together until I came out here," answers the former foundry worker from Detroit, a self-described "outcast" who hitchhiked into the Valley 20 years ago.

"I didn't pick Phoenix," says Metzler. "Phoenix picked me. I came here and I met my lady, and I've been here ever since. My life began here." A sometime photographer, musician and jewelry designer, Metzler is now a full-time househusband, taking care of his 4-year-old son while his wife, a former lounge singer on the Valley's resort circuit, is off at her job as a secretary in a stock brokerage. When not working on one of his cars in the paint-splattered garage, he can often be found outdoors adding ornamental touches to the masks, the merry-go-round horse and the aluminum patio umbrella he's already mounted on the roof of his house, turning the home's white-on-white exterior into a reasonable facsimile of the It's a Small World attraction at Disneyland.

"What do the neighbors think of this?" he asks as he hauls an empty carton of Liquid Nails adhesive out to the curb. "I have no idea. Most of them don't talk to me."

So what kind of artistic passion drives someone to spend endless hours encrusting a car with baby dolls, giant plastic insects, sunflower pinwheels, a TV set and a spinning globe? For someone who is in a good position to know--he himself spent ten years tooling around the San Francisco Bay Area in a 1981 Volkswagen bug equipped with all the aforementioned extras and more, collecting some 50 traffic citations in the process--filmmaker Harrod Blank is surprisingly clueless. "The truth is, I have no idea why I am driving this car," explains Blank in the introduction to Wild Wheels, his 1992 documentary chronicling a coast-to-coast odyssey in which he interviewed kindred art-car aficionados around the country. Instead, he says, "I want to know why other people are driving the cars they drive."

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