What are Muffler Men?

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Muffler Men are giant, hollow fiberglass statues which were built from 1963-1972.  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.

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Roadside America team in the early 90s inspecting a Muffler Man in Milford, NB

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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-21 at 3.55.04 PMIn 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 that a undocumented statue is found, occasionally, one will emerge from storage or be found in a remote location.

Bob Prewit with one of his creations

Bob Prewitt with one of his creations

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 indian stands at a Pontiac dealership

A indian stands at a Pontiac dealership

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.

photo 2-7The 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.   

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The Half Wit

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Kansas City Half Wit IF addThe half wit is an interesting part of the muffler man story. He wasn’t the first variant made as I believe the indian came before but he was one of the options you could chose from when purchasing a muffler man. In all, there was a regular service man that was pretty much just the basic muffler man head and body, sometimes coming with a beard or a bow tie but normally clean shaven. Also the cowboy made mostly for Phillips 66 gas stations and the Indian, some of the first being made for the mohawk gas stations. There was the Texaco Big friend and Uniroyal Gal both made exclusive for the Texaco and Uniroyal companies respectively. And then what we call today the Happy Half Wit. Most of the terms we use today to describe muffler men were actually coined by

A Half Wit in Production at International Fiberglass

A Half Wit in Production at International Fiberglass Photo: Terry Nelson

Roadside America when they started seeing these guys over and over again on their travels across the country back in the early 90’s and even before. They came up with the name muffler man since many of the giants they saw held big mufflers. I believe “Half Wit” was another name they came up with for the Alfred Neumann looking model but International Fiberglass referred to it as the “mortimer snerd”. The early ones were made for mini golf courses up the east coast and in Ohio and many of the half wits left today are still in these areas. The other cluster is located in Dallas texas after Ken Johnson decided to go with the half wit model to Snerdadvertise his muffler shops back in the 60’s. The only other state I can think of that has one is Missouri and he can be found at Lake of the Ozark’s in the central part of the state. He is unique in that he is the only half wit I know of that has a raised right hand like the indian versions do. From what I have gathered the half wits came in two paint schemes, one was the yellow shirt with suspenders and blue pants with patches on it and the other was a red shirt and yellow suspenders with blue pants and no patches. Most of the half wits out there today still tend closely to these schemes. When talking to Ken Johnson of Ken’s mufflers in Dallas he told me that all his half wits had yellow shirts and suspenders until he ordered the one that now stands in Beaumont. That one came off the truck in a red shirt and didn’t match the rest he said. I also have noticed two different hat styles came with these half wits. The far more common of the two is the standard round farmer looking hat but there are two half wits that I know of that have the far more rare conductor looking hat. The conductor hat was made by simply cutting and modifying the round one. These conductor hat versions stand at Seaside Heights, NJ just off the pier and the other stood for many years at the Wagon Wheel Inn in North Madison, OH. The picture below is the one standing in NJ, wearing the red shirt and conductor hat. (Thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer for sharing the picture www.RoadsideArchitecture.com )

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Another interesting fact about Half Wits are their neck sizes! This is something Roadside America picked up on and mentioned in some of their posts. Most have the standard neck size but a few have hardly a neck at all and their heads are jammed down on their shoulders. These neckless versions are far more rare and I believe the one in MO is that way as well as one that used to stand on the pier at Seaside Heights, NJ. Seaside Heights is a story in itself for muffler men and it’s pier has been known for many years now to house a few. At one time a Bunyan stood here along with two half wits. However the Bunyan was knocked down in a bad storm around 2003 and pictures of it in pieces bounced around on the web for awhile until it disappeared altogether. The short neck half wit also disappeared around the same time but after looking closely at a google satellite image I noticed he was still there laying on his back on the pier staring up at the satellite.

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You can see the half wit on his back in the lower right hand corner of the picture. This is exactly where he was when Hurricane Sandy hit in late 2012 and after closely looking at news footage after the disaster I saw that the pier had broken away just east of his position and he seemed to still be in one piece in the same spot. Also his brother half wit standing a few hundred feet to the west on top of a building also seemed to have survived the storm (seen in the picture above). Sadly the Half Wit is the rarest of the muffler men (other then the big friend) but thankfully there are still over 10 in the US that can be seen and visited today.