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."
Using his own jazzed-up jalopy as a sort of mobile bulletin board, Blank eventually received tips on more than four dozen other artmobiles scattered about the country. If there's any commonality to the creators of these rolling canvases (outside of the obvious, deep-seated need to turn their cars into the automotive equivalent of most people's refrigerator doors), it's the firm belief that there's a lot more to auto artistry than suction-cupping a Garfield doll to the window of the family sedan or plastering a "MY KID CAN BEAT UP YOUR HONOR STUDENT" sticker on the back bumper. Blank recently documented 42 of these incredible cars and drivers in a companion coffee-table book that bears the same name as his movie. Blank spotlights a cross section of humanity that might have been plucked out of a DMV line in some alternative dimension. He chats with the unassuming New Orleans housewife who, had she not chosen to meticulously glue thousands of Mardi Gras beads to a '74 Gremlin, might well have been the biggest overachiever in her local crafts class. In Houston, he hooks up with a topless dancer who festooned her '79 Ford station wagon with plastic fruit to protest the lowly role of women in the arts community. In California, a recovering alcoholic reveals that every time he feels like having a drink, he simply affixes another horse figurine to the stable of 1,400 that already adorns his "Coltmobile." And in Amarillo, a widower whose wife was killed in a grisly traffic accident (the vehicle she was driving was pulled under an 18-wheeler) explains how he keeps her memory alive by driving around in a 1960 Corvair appliqud with his late spouse's jewelry.
Although there appear to be few common threads running through these tales, Blank sees art cars as personalities on wheels. "If someone is expressing something that they like--even if it means they're putting trolls all over their cars--that says something about themselves," he says. "It says, 'I like trolls.' And I think that's healthy myself. The more that people begin to reveal and share, the better--you can find people you want to get to know faster."
If this sounds like your speed, Blank suggests that you head for Houston, a city whose annual Roadside Attractions parade actually encourages this sort of automotive outrageousness. Outside Texas, however, you're pretty much on a journey without a map; Blank discovered that there's little geographic clustering of these custom-car commandos. "Considering what a big car culture it has, Los Angeles has surprisingly few of these cars," notes the 32-year-old Blank, son of famed documentary filmmaker Les Blank. "Oddly, there's nothing in Detroit, either. Seattle has a few, and so does Portland, Oregon. As far as I know, Phoenix doesn't have many art cars, either." But awareness and appreciation of this little-documented art form is slowly coming up to speed. Thanks to Wild Wheels' recent debut on home video, as well as a current Honda commercial featuring several vehicles celebrated in the film (including the grass-covered car and another with a model of the Seattle skyline on its roof), new tips are already filtering in.
In fact, Harrod Blank has received so many leads, he's already prepping for a Wild Wheels sequel by completing a second art-car himself. Aptly titled "Camera Van," the vehicle is covered with more than 1,700 cameras donated by a couple of thrift stores--including 36 working slide viewers and 52 cameras that flash or light up. Straying into Allen Funt's territory, Blank has hooked up ten cameras to a control panel on the dashboard, allowing him to take candid snapshots of unsuspecting bystanders looking at the van.
"For years, with my bug, I'd see all these beautiful reactions," says Blank. "People's mouths dropping open, smiling or just totally baffled looks. I'd always wanted to capture that on film, but the minute they'd see the camera, the reaction would immediately change. Now, with my Camera Van, I can catch them in the act."
If Phoenix's low-key Gary Metzler and his minifleet of Hieronymous Boschmobiles represent the purist end of the art-car spectrum, you'll find the creator of Tucson's "Penny Van" revved up and rarin' to go at the other end. Did someone say "photo op"?
"See, I'm the kind of guy who likes to get things done yesterday," says 44-year-old Steve Baker, a former male stripper who now ekes out a living as the Old Pueblo's self-styled "Penny Man." "I'm ready for the big time!"
The hyperbolic Baker's proposed vehicle for success? The 1969 van he's encrusted with 90,526 pennies. And not just any pennies, either. All of the coins affixed to the van predate 1982, the year the U.S. stopped issuing all-copper pennies. But that's getting ahead of a story that starts several years and many pounds of loose change ago.
Bothered by arthritis in his left shoulder, Baker decided to go the folk-remedy route, and fashioned a wristband out of copper pennies. No longer plagued by the painful joint condition, Baker claims his novel jewelry turned out to be just what the doctor ordered--and more. "Everyone went crazy over that bracelet!" he remembers. "Suddenly, I was meeting more people than I knew what to do with. I thought, 'Wow, I'll make a body bracelet--a penny shirt!' After that, I did penny earrings, G-strings, a dime bikini--all sorts of stuff." Eventually realizing that he'd pretty much exhausted the sartorial potential of pocket change (but not before his 32-pound, all-penny jumpsuit was immortalized in the 1990 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records), Baker drastically upped the ante. Eighteen months later, he finished gluing more than $900 worth of pennies to a Ford Econoline Super Van, a ubiquitous vehicle that can generally be found in the parking lots at large public events or tourist attractions in the greater Tucson area. A fitness enthusiast, he's even driven the van to various marathons around the country, where he always runs wearing a penny vest.
"I honestly don't have to work anymore," says Baker, who accepts cash donations via slots in the van labeled "Piggy Bank" and "Spare Change." "If I take that van where there are going to be cameras--Tombstone, a golf tournament, a 10K--I'll wind up with $40 or $50 inside the van within a view hours. People love to take pictures of the van and touch my clothes."
But there are a few folks--event promoters, primarily--who'd like nothing better than to see Baker, his van and his pennies disappear down the nearest wishing well. Baker claims that celebrities are so jealous of the crowds he invariably draws whenever he shows up with his van and full penny regalia that he's often hassled by security, and was even denied entry to one tennis tournament held in Tucson last year. "It doesn't matter how many movie stars are around, the people pay attention to me," says the self-admitted publicity hound. "I buy a ticket like everyone else, but the place is mine--and the stars just can't take that."
In fact, Baker claims he attracts so much attention in Tucson (as a publicity stunt, he once ran for mayor on the "common cents" platform) that he fears he's been overexposed in that city. That's why he's seriously considering jumping in the Penny Van and taking his act 110 miles to the northwest.
"I want to get connected, and Phoenix is the place where I can do that," says Baker, who thinks he'd be a great mascot or good-will ambassador for some major national company--ideally (what else?) JC Penney. "All I need is one big score and the van and I will put Phoenix and Tucson on the map," he says. Back in Phoenix, Gary Metzler stands on the curb outside his bohemian hideaway and stares at the vehicle he has wrought. A penny for his thoughts.
"It gets great mileage--22 miles to the gallon," says Metzler of his mobile masterpiece. "Low mileage, too. Since I rebuilt the engine six years ago, I've only put about 3,000 miles on it."
Aside from frequent trips to nearby hardware stores and secondhand shops, most of that mileage was spent running back and forth to the neighborhood Denny's, a coffee shop Metzler visits an average of five or six times per day.
"I'll sit there for hours, looking at my car out the window," says Metzler. "I'll see something that doesn't look right, so I'll go back home and change it, maybe put something on, get rid of something else. This car is always changing. Change is good."
Although one might assume his frequent forays to Denny's make him the world's leading authority on Grand Slam breakfasts, Metzler shakes his head. "My son orders off the kids' menu and I just drink coffee," he explains. "See, I'm not into food, I'm into time. That's why I collect watches." Opening a satchel filled with dozens of old timepieces salvaged from thrift stores, Metzler reports that he frequently leaves a used watch as a tip. Reasons Metzler, "People never have enough time."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
That's why Metzler plans to put his custom-car creations on hold for a while after he finishes overhauling the motor on the '53 pickup.
While her husband polishes the bust of a conquistador attached to the pickup's grill, Metzler's wife looks at the car and laughs sardonically. "Did Gary tell you that when he first got this truck, he'd restored it so it looked just like it did in 1953?" asks Jill Metzler, a quick-witted woman who resembles Laraine Newman. "Yeah, well, that was the idea, anyway. Gary had already done the station wagon and so the pickup was going to be our 'we don't have to baby-sit this in the parking lot' vehicle. Then some woman plowed into the front end, and when Gary couldn't find a piece to replace it, well, you can see what happened. It's like God doesn't want us to have a regular car."
Surveying the pickup thoughtfully, she adds, "It's a power piece, definitely. It's what I call 'very Gary.' Some people scratch their heads, but most of them are very positive. Then, every once in a while, we'll run into someone that's very threatened by it."
Could it be, perhaps, that they don't understand the car?
Jill Metzler shakes her head. "The problem is, maybe they do.