Let your freak Ford fly!

Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

There are freaks out there -- and they’re driving among us. People who believe -- hold on to your bonnet -- that cars can transcend mere transportation and become -- gasp! -- art.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few years around the Motor City that cars become, for many, a projection of what we’d like to be.

The annual army of autos that comes in for the North American International Auto Show is the corporate attempt to define our outward personality in car form. The Big Three and friends all hope for the largest chunk of the homogenous, bubble-shaped, you-have-your-choice-of-color pie.

But in an age when automakers have made tinkering with a car’s engine (let alone changing the oil) impossible, and have created plastic molded car bodies that defy customization by any but a trained few body-repair samurai, "art cars" flourish.

The transformation a car undergoes when it becomes an art car has nothing to do with schools of design, aerodynamics or even mobility. Art cars are memorials, personal totems, expressions of religious vision, political statements, works on a perfect, moving canvas or even just for the hell of it.

Filmmaker Harrod Blank packed up his art car (titled, appropriately, "Oh My God!") and went tooling across the country looking for others like himself. What he found was an amazing community of folks who, for their own reasons, had created works of art on their automobiles.

Blank’s documentary, Wild Wheels, featured interviews with more than 40 of these true folk artists.

He transcribed some of the Wild Wheels interviews and included them, with accompanying photographs, on paper.

Wild Wheels, the book, allows readers to meet Kansan Gene Pool and ogle at length his "Grass Car" (yes, a car covered entirely in grass) and his "Car Pool" (a station wagon converted into a moving swimming pool).

Marvel at the "Jewel Box," a 1960 Corvair --covered in jewelry -- owned by Amarillo, TX businessman Jay Battenfield. It’s a memorial to his wife, who died in an auto accident.

Then there’s "Gator Car," a 1970 Buick Electra that was morphed into an alligator on a whim by friends John Wells and Tom and Moira LaFaver so they could enter it in the annual "Roadside Attractions" parade in Houston, TX. (This is the world’s biggest event for art cars, attracting hundreds of rolling works of art from around the country and the world.)

There’s a story behind every car, usually a fascinating, personal tale of the artist finding his or her natural mode of self-expression. Think of these automobiles as rolling Heidelberg Projects and you’re not too far off the aesthetic and motivational mark. (In fact, Tyree Guyton has been seen tooling around town in a dot-covered car and an auto with stuffed animals glued all over it).

Maybe it’s the weather, or perhaps it’s the unconscious primacy we give to the Big Three, but art cars are as scarce around here as objective coverage of the automotive industry.

All it takes to be on the receiving end of a lifetime of curious gawks, amazed finger-pointing and broad smiles is a car, a vision, some adhesive, a little paint perhaps, and a yen to set yourself apart from the bottlenecked throngs.

So, when the shiny new chariots and their industry pimps are all over the news this week, take heart in the fact that there are wild wheels still roaming free in the American countryside.

Wanna join ’em?

For more information about art cars, write to Excentrix, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530, or via e-mail at [email protected].

Wild Wheels is available by writing to Pomegranate Artbooks, PO Box 6099, Rohnert Park, CA 94927 or by consulting finer booksellers in your area.