Next to the Commander Car in the driveway is the "Section 8 Truck," a four-wheel-drive 1984 Chevy SUV painted camouflage with some splashes of blue and red. There's a prop machine gun, made from a chainsaw and an air-conditioning vent, mounted to the top of the truck. "Section 8 is a military term for a mental illness discharge," Mel says, adding that it's not an autobiographical reference. "This thing drives like a bat out of hell."

Mel's other art cars include an old Dodge van accented with a sun visor (made from a Chevy Caprice hood), plastic bubble windows (made from washing machines), and a bus stop bench below the front grill. There's also an old Woody station wagon adorned with a big lion's mane sculpture he made from old table legs, and his latest project, a silver, 1979 Trans-Am he calls "The Phoenix."

The Phoenix has been heavily modified to the point that it hardly resembles a Trans-Am anymore. Most of the parts are from other cars. The fenders came from Volkswagens, the spoiler is an RV airfoil with some motorcycle shocks added to it, the luggage rack's from a Ford Taurus, and the headlights are Honda. "All my stuff's made out of recycled materials," Mel says. "I try not to put a lot of money into them. It should be inexpensive. It's art."

Jose Benavides
Jamie Peachey
Jose Benavides
Richard Fletcher poses with the "Fletch-O-Rama" exhibit at the Scottsdale International Auto Museum.
Jamie Peachey
Richard Fletcher poses with the "Fletch-O-Rama" exhibit at the Scottsdale International Auto Museum.

Location Info


Arizona State Fairgrounds

1826 W. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85007

Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks

Region: Central Phoenix


See an art car slideshow.

Phoenix Cars Swap Meet
5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 6 and 7, Arizona State Fairgrounds, 1826 W. McDowell Rd., Classic, collectible, and art-inspired cars and trucks for show and sale (along with 1,500 booths of hard-to-find car parts and accessories).

Classic Car Auction at Scottsdale International Auto Museum
January 13, 14, and 15, 9119 E. Indian Bend Rd., Place a bid (or drool over) a collection of muscle, exotic, and collector cars.

Street Fair/Car and Bike Show in Casa Grande
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, January 21, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, January 22. More than 250 classic, custom, vintage, low rider, street rod, and competition cars.

The Mesa Super Show
3 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Mesa Convention Center, 201 N. Center St., One of the year’s largest showcases of classic, custom, and special interest cars and bikes.

On Tuesday evenings around 6, Mel gets in one of his art cars and cruises to the McDonald's on John Wayne Parkway, where he meets up with other local car enthusiasts, including dwarf car maker Ernie Adams. "I've taken all the cars there. I like to take them for rides," Mel says. "But everybody knows me here. They've seen all the cars. It's not like going into Phoenix, where they chase ya. When I go into town, they're behind me, they'll pull alongside me . . . they're taking pictures, and you're trying to turn, and they're jockeying around trying to see all the sights."

But that's exactly what Maricopa Mel loves about driving art cars. "The value is in people's expressions, and them wanting to take a picture," he says. "I let them. Especially the kids. They love it."

He took up art cars as a hobby about five years ago. "After I built that first one, it became like an addiction," he says. "I just couldn't stop. It didn't help that I had a neighbor who had a couple cars I could work on."

Now, Mel has a work shed filled with donated and recycled materials. He buys used cars in all sorts of conditions (never for more than $500), makes sure they run, and transforms them into one-of-a-kind roadsters. He says the cars also function as a form of dust control.

"People come tearing down this road, kicking up huge clouds of dust in front of my neighbors' houses, but when they see the cars on my property, they actually slow down to look at them," he says. "My neighbors keep asking if they can park one of my cars in front of their house."

Ever been sitting at a stop light and have a giant hot dog pull up next to you?

One of the first art cars was the Wienermobile, created in 1936 to promote Oscar Mayer meat products. Dozens of versions have been produced since the original, and there are eight Wienermobiles on the road today.

Other companies have made quirky marketing cars over the years (exterminating company Truly Nolen's yellow mouse cars; Red Bull's giant cans on Mini Coops), but some of the earliest art cars made out of sheer artistic expression came from the psychedelic '60s. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey's communal group, the Merry Pranksters, were known for their colorful, hippie-themed VW Bus, known as "Further." Blues singer Janis Joplin had a similarly-painted Porsche 356, covered in murals that included starry nights, butterflies, and portraits of her and bandmates. John Lennon had a 1967 paisley Rolls-Royce.

Much of modern art car culture sprang up in Houston during the '80s and '90s, where artist Ann Harithas (who later founded the Art Car Museum) was curating art car exhibitions. In 1988, the first Art Car Parade took place at the Houston Orange Show. An art car competition is now part of the regular festivities (Jose Benavides won a "Best in Show" trophy there in 2003 for his Madonna car).

In 1997, Harrod Blank and artist Philo Northrop founded the annual Art Car Fest in San Francisco. Blank also started promoting the art car exhibits at Houston's Orange Show and helped organize the art car theme camps at Burning Man. For the past five years, he's held an annual Art Car Show in the Douglas/Bisbee area.

"I think Arizona . . . it could be the number one state," Blank says, "definitely for art cars on exhibition. As far as working, contemporary art car artists, I'd say Arizona could be the number three state, or up in the top 10."

When Jose Benavides creates an installation, it's more than likely going to be something that moves, or that you can drive, stand on, or even add to. At the Mesa Arts Center opening weekend, he had a public art project called the "Guitar Car" parked not far from his Madonna car. Benavides created a guitar-shaped, wire mesh skeleton around a beat-up Chevy and set up a table where people designed their own guitars and then affixed them to the body of the car. About 300 people participated, and the car was finished over the weekend.

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