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

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"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."

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Dewey Webb