Roadside Giants: Discovering the Muffler Men
As many of you know, I was born in Birmingham, AL. I lived there for 31 years until I moved to Jacksonville in 2005. Since I was a kid, I’ve ridden and/or driven interstate 65 North through downtown (then on to 20/59) towards the airport more times than I can remember. After graduating Auburn, when I became a software consultant, that route was passed almost every weekend for years. As a kid, when I would go interstate 65 into downtown, there were two things I always looked forward to seeing from the car window. The first being a tall rectangular building filled with windows called the AmSouth Center (now the Regions Center). Ever since I can remember, during Christmas time, the building will put up colored cells in its windows to create pictures on all four sides. Click here to see the side with the Christmas tree. The other sides include a stocking and a candy cane. The building was always cool and even during the non-holiday season was fun to gaze upon.
The second thing I fondly remember noticing on my ride downtown was the giant statue of a man on top of a building holding his arms out in front of him as if he was holding something, but he wasn’t (peep the picture to the right). He appeared to be dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls and he stood on the roof of what looked to be an auto repair shop. I just thought he looked cool standing there as it was a very neat looking statue. The guy was obviously very large, and I can’t recall the first time I noticed him, but he’s been there as long as I can remember that drive. I remember thinking “Where did he come from and what’s he supposed to be holding in his empty outstretched hands?” It was all so mysterious. I was fascinated. As I grew older, he was just always there and I really didn’t think anything more about it.
It wasn’t until years later I found out that my auto repair statue/mascot was just one of a large group of statues collectively called, “The Muffler Men”. My particular one was on top of GCR Tire Repair and his name was Stan. I couldn’t believe it, my dude had a name and there were more of these things? When I sat down and thought about it, I do remember seeing statues similar to my auto repair guy in pictures. I remember seeing a lot of differently dressed auto repair guys that looked suspiciously similar. I started researching their history and what I found surprised me. These statues are regarded as vintage Roadside Americana. They have a many varied and interesting history and have been around for many, many years. They sit in auto repair shops, miniature golf courses, carnivals, gas stations, antique stores, etc, etc. Some dressed as mechanics, Indians, lumberjacks or space men. The ones we see now have just been passed down for generations and most likely are not with their original owners. But how did they begin? What was their original purpose? Was it a standard mold made by many different companies or did one company crank these things out? Well, I finally found out the Secret Origin of the Muffler Men, so if you are not already bored to tears by this article then read on for the amazing history of the roadside “Muffler Men”.
The story begins in 1962. A company called Prewitt Fiberglass created the first Muffler Man for a cafe (PB Cafe) on Route 66 in Flagstaff, AZ (the statue was dressed as Paul Bunyan and held an axe in his outstretched hands — hence the “PB” in the cafe’s name). Steve Dashew bought Prewitt Fiberglass in 1963 and absorbed it into his own company, International Fiberglass. They continued installing the Paul Bunyan statues to cafes here and there, but when some of the cafes started reporting a doubling of business revenue after installation, orders really started to pick up. Soon, International Fiberglass was creating a whole host of characters using the one main fiberglass mold. The mold for the Muffler Men was separated into four different sections of fiberglass; head, torso, arms and legs. This compartmentalization allowed different sections to be swapped out to create different characters, thus making production of different characters extremely easy and cheap. This feature facilitated the mass producing of Paul Bunyans, Indians, Cowboys and, of course, Muffler Men. International Fiberglass would also fabricate the large figures for Yogi Bear Honey Fried Chicken, A&W Root Beer Hamburger family and Uniroyal Tires (Mrs. Uniroyal).
Sometime in about 1965, Texaco contracted the International Fiberglass Company to create a giant figure to represent their gas stations. The figure was to be called the Texaco Big Friend and International Fiberglass made 300 of them. The ad campaign was to feature the giant “Big Friend” reaching down to help stranded motorists into a Texaco gas station. As delivery date neared, Texaco’s big brass realized that they had no way of storing all of these giant figures and many of their district managers were reluctant to spend the time installing them. International Fiberglass was almost stuck with all 300 but Texaco finally took possession of the figures, used some and sold the others. Sometime in the ’70s Texaco ordered most of the figures it still owned destroyed due to distracted motorists suing the company for car accidents. The Big Friends will show up on random businesses in much the same way that a Muffler Man will, which causes people to mistake the two. But, in reality, they are not the same, but more like brothers.
So, how do you correctly identify a Muffler Man if you think you’ve seen one? Roadside America has a very good tutorial on just that subject. The typical Muffler Man is about 18-20 feet tall with a lantern jaw and steely gaze. More often than not, his right hand is facing up and his left hand is facing down, but it is not unheard of for the hands to have been repaired or “altered” in such a way that they both face up or down. Many accessories were created so you could see one with an axe, a blue ox, a muffler, a space helmet, a cowboy hat, as well as many other different hand orientations or paint schemes. There is also a few separate types of Muffler Men. There is the main one you can see in the picture of Stan the GCR Tire Man above. He’s the main mold. But there was also what they call a “Happy Half-Wit” and the “Noble Savage”. The “Half-Wit” has the same body as the rest, but his head looks like Alfred E Neuman. The “Noble Savage” uses a different head, chest and arm configuration, but the legs are the same.
There is one other type of giant statue that may be a Muffler Man, but it may also just be a knockoff, no one is for sure what it is. There is an amusement park in Illinois called Haunted Trails. Inside the park is a large Frankenstein statue holding a bloody axe with the classic right hand up/left hand down arm configuration and employing the standard MM stance. He has come to be known by Muffler Men enthusiasts as Frankenmuffler (see pic to the right), the mutant M-Man. It’s possible these were derived from a mold of an existing Muffler Man, or just patterned after the silent muffler denizens of old. No one knows for sure. RoadsideAmerica.com believes it is the work of fiberglass factory FAST Corporation. They are currently the largest custom fiberglass figure manufacturer in the country.
To see a list of known Muffler Men, check out the tracking chart here. You can see my boy, Stan, listed second in the list after the other Muffler Man in Albertville, AL. Speaking of, Stan was blown down by a hurricane several years ago and severed in half. He was kindly repaired and put back in his rightful place, which is now different than where I remember him. He has moved off the interstate (since GCR moved also) over to Vanderbilt Road a few miles away. I’ll have to check him out next time I’m home.
So next time you are on a roadtrip across this great country, keep your eyes open, you may catch sight of one of these silent guardians, and now you’ll be able to properly identify it as…The Muffler Man.
Check out Roadside America for tons of info on the Muffler Man and many other roadside tourist attractions all across America. It really is a great travel site, I did a lot of my research in their Muffler Man section.
Also, check out the Muffler Man Flickr pool for hundreds of photos of Muffler Men from all across the country. You can see almost every type of Muffler Man within this pool.