Muffler Men are giant, hollow fiberglass statues which were built from 1962-1972. They were about 22 feet tall, depending on the model. The statues were produced in Venice, CA by International Fiberglass which simply called them Giant Men.
The Muffler Man name wasn’t coined until the 1990s. The founders of RoadsideAmerica.com began cataloguing offbeat attractions around the U.S. in the mid-1980s for their first book, “Roadside America.” The trio, Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, Mike Wilkins, began to notice the similarities between many of the statues. There were probably 20% more of them around then than there are now. By the 1992 release of their second book, “New Roadside America,” they had about 12 of these statues in their database. While they were amused by the statues, they hadn’t covered them yet. However, they privately began calling them “Muffler Men” since a few of the statues they’d seen held mufflers.
In 1996, when Kirby, Smith, and Wilkins launched the website, RoadsideAmerica.com, they included a section called “The Secret Plot of the Muffler Men.” Sightings and photos of these statues began pouring in from the website’s visitors. A map and on-line database were created at RoadsideAmeirca.com to document these statues around the country. The website continues to receive tips about new Muffler Man discoveries and updates about these statues from visitors. While it is rare than an undocumented statue is found, occasionally, one will emerge from storage or be found in a remote location.
The first Muffler Man statue was created by Bob Prewitt in Lawndale, CA. His business, Prewitt Fiberglass Animals, produced many of the giant chickens, pigs, buffalo, horses, and other animals still seen around the country today. Around 1962, Prewitt got an order from someone in Sacramento, CA for a 20 foot tall Paul Bunyan statue. However, the owner never paid for it. The story goes that Bob hit the road with the statue on a flatbed trailer. Supposedly, he headed east on Route 66 and went looking for a buyer. He happened upon the Lumberjack Café in Flagstaff, AZ and sold the statue to them. It is not known if Prewitt made more Paul Bunyan statues after the first one but it seems likely. However, his focus was on selling fiberglass animals.
In 1964, Prewitt sold some animal molds and the one for the Paul Bunyan to Steve Dashew’s father. Dashew owned a boat business but needed more work. Since he was already skilled with fiberglass, he thought producing some statues might be a good way to boost sales during the slow months.
A trade magazine article about the Paul Bunyan statues sparked the interest of gas and tire companies. Within a few years, International Fiberglass had modified the Bunyan mold to produce Cowboys for Phillips 66 stations, Indians for Mohawk stations and Pontiac dealerships, and Vikings for Viking Carpets. The company also produced Uncle Sams, Pioneers, Pirates, Alfred E. Neumann look-alikes, as well as other customized statues. International Fiberglass also produced a giant female statue for Uniroyal Tires.
By the time the company folded in 1972, there were hundreds of these statues on display. Today, there are about 180 of them left in the U.S. There are another half dozen or so in Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. While it is believe that all of the original molds were destroyed, new molds have been created to replace damaged body parts. A few statues have even been completely built with reproduced molds.
The very first Muffler Man produced is still in Flagstaff. It now stands outside the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome at Northern Arizona University. That statue was built in one piece. The other Paul Bunyan statue at NAU also came from the Lumberjack Cafe. The restaurant bought that one just a few years after the first one. By then, the statues were produced in four pieces which bolted together. At some point, International Fiberglass changed the way that the statues’ arms fit into the shirt sleeves. Many of the earliest statues are still located in the Los Angeles area.
I want to thank Gabriel Aldaz, the author of Right Palm Up, Left Palm Down, for the use of his photo of Bob Prewitt. Credit must also go to Roadside America.com for the information they have gathered over the years and the photos they have shared with me. Terry Nelson, a former employee of International Fiberglass, has also kindly shared his memories as well as vintage photos and advertisements. Thanks also to Debra Jane Seltzer of RoadsideArchitecture.com for her help editing this post.