These days the female version of the muffler man is a rare find and many muffler man hunters will drive out of their way to see her. Our case was no different when the American Giants crew deviated to Peoria, IL after visiting the Atlanta, IL Bunyan and before seeing the Gemini Giant in Wilmington. With only about 12 left across the country a uniroyal gal sighting is always a must if your in the area. I had heard about the one in Peoria before planning our road trip (currently being shown in American Giants Episodes) and found her unique in that she gets an outfit change every year. Turns out she is no stranger to Peoria and arrived there 45 years ago in 1968. She was part of a grand opening promotion for the Plaza Tire Co. and she was made by International Fiberglass for the Uniroyal Tire Company. Uniroyal had dozens of these giant women made in the mid 60’s to promote their tires and the girls were set up for promotions at participating dealers of Uniroyal Tires. Around the same time she arrived in Peoria another uniroyal gal was shipped to Salem, IL about 210 miles to the south. After the promotion the giantess in Peoria was moved around the area to different businesses to help promote tires and other grand openings. After 4 years on the road she was retired in 1971 and given back to the Plaza Tire Co. Uniroyal was moving in new directions and discontinued the Uniroyal Gal program across the country. At this time the giants were either trashed or fell to private businesses and collections. At 17ft 6 inches tall and 450 lb she became a landmark in Peoria and has stood all these years in almost the same spot. Because people kept backing into her legs on occasion she was moved recently to stand on top of a wooden planter to keep her safe from cars. Interestingly if you look at her steel platform it is the same one that she was shipped with from International Fiberglass. All muffler men shipped on these platforms so the area reps could move them around to different promotions locally. She was recently restored and given a new paint job and renamed Vanna Whitewall! Uniroyal Gals came in a fiberglass skirt and shirt and had the option for these to be removed to reveal a bikini underneath. She is the only uniroyal gal I know of that still transitions between the two every year. During the winter she has on her skirt and shirt and when it gets warm off come the clothes to “announce pool season” as the guys there told me. They also took me in the shop and showed me the giant “clothes hanger” they use to hang her clothes on during the summer months. We got an interview and some great go pro shots while we were there and she was well worth the diversion! She will be featured in American Giants Episode #4.
The second episode of “American Giants” is offically released as of July 9, 2013. The episode covers the details of International Fiberglass the company that made muffler men as well as Steve Dashew who owned it. We also continue to follow Joel and the guys up route 66 in search of muffler men. They make their second stop in Springfield, IL and visit the Lauderbach bunyan and talk to his owners and find out some very interesting history. Also Bo makes a cool discovery when he mounts a go pro camera on a boom pole. This episode is a reality due to the help of the guys at Lauterbach Tire in Springfield and also the many photographers and help I got from Roadside America. Again this episode runs 15min and although I tried to keep it under 8 I was not successful. The plan is for future episodes to be under 10 min in length.
Standing tall in Springfield, IL the Lauterbach muffler man is one of the better known muffler men out there. He owes this mostly to his popular location standing on historic route 66 in west central Illinois. He appears across the internet in many pictures taken by visitors as well as in Gabriel Aldaz’s book. He is a classic bunyan version and is actually one of the first one’s made judging by the way his arms are connected to his body. This muffler man was featured in American Giants 2nd episode and myself and the guys visited him in the summer of 2012 and were able to get his story and history. In 1952 Russ Lewis started Midtown Tire where the Hilton hotel now stands. Business was good and in 1961 he opened up a second store at the corner of State and Laurel and in 1962 purchased what at the time was a brand new Bunyan giant from International Fiberglass in Venice, CA. In todays money a muffler man in 1962 sold for about $13,600, at the time that was about $1,300. Sadly that store only stayed open another year and when it closed the giant was sold to the Round up Cafe 24 miles to the south in Farmersville, IL. The giant stood there for the next 15 years until 1978 when I-55 was put in and the giant was sold back to the Lewis family. That same year the giant was set up on Wabash Ave at it’s current location and has now been there for 25 years. In 1962 he held a tire in his right hand and today he holds a flag pole, I have yet to see a picture from his days at the Roundup Cafe and I am not sure what he held during that time. Life has not always been perfect for this Bunyan. On March 12, 2006 a two F2 tornados came through Springfield in what was the worst outbreak of tornados since 1957. They caused a total of 150 million in damages and picked up the roof of the Barrel Head restaurant next door to the bunyan and carried it south out over the street. The roof then came back to the north and connected with the head of the bunyan which at that point joined the roof on it’s journey down the street and ended up about 4 doors down to the east. The newspaper shot a famous picture of a neighbor carrying the head back to Lauterbach after the incident. A local body shop repaired the head and the bunyan has been doing pretty well since then. As an interesting side note also covered in American Giants Episode #2, Russ shared with an acquaintance the success of his newly acquired giant. So sometime around 1963 Stan the Tire man in Salem, IL also purchased a bunyan for his tire store. A few years later in 1965 when the Uniroyal company did their promotion with the Uniroyal Gal Stan also acquired one of them when the promotion ended and the gal was left at his location. The two stood together for a time before the bunyan was finally sold to a collector in NC and the gal moved south the Stan’s store in Mt Vernon, IL where she still stands today. I just want to thank the guys at Lauterbach for taking the time to talk to us and for the information Jay shared with us during out visit. Also want to thank Darren Snow for the use of his rare picture taken in 2000 while the bunyan stood at his original location in Salem after his “wife” had moved on and before he was moved to NC.
As the Bunyan muffler men began to become popular and more and more businesses across the US started purchasing them International Fiberglass kept on innovating. They first started with the oil giants, Phillips 66, Sinclair and Texaco making versions of muffler men or dinosaurs that could stand that their gas stations and promote their products and business. The idea was a success and the reason there are so many muffler men left today is because most of them were made in mass quantity for oil companies, chiefly Phillips 66. Their cowboys still cover large portions of the US with and without their cowboy hats. The texaco big friend sadly is a different story and Texaco was largely successful in destroying almost all 300 that were purchased except for 4 or 5 of them. Shortly after Texaco purchased their 300 in 1966 the Uniroyal company also wanted a statue to advertise their tires. So International Fiberglass came up with the idea to do something different and make a female version of the muffler man. She was sculpted by an unknown artist who supposedly had a thing for Jackie Kennedy and sported an orange bikini. I’m not sure how many were made but altogether I have heard of 17 of them so far and 12 of those are still visible today. Needless to say these are one of the less common muffler men and new sightings almost never happen. International Fiberglass also made a skirt and shirt for the giant lady and these could be put on or taken off at the owners will. The Uniroyal girl in Peoria, IL is changed seasonally and during the winter she wears her clothes and during the hot summer she sports a red bikini. In Gainsville Texas owner Glen Goode even made the skirt of his Uniroyal girl longer so she could be “more holy” as he put it and in WV the Farnham’s Uniroyal girl now sports her newly painted bikini while her clothes lay in the grass nearby. The Uniroyal girl was originally made to stand outside gas stations and automotive repair stores that sold Uniroyal products. Like other muffler men owned by large corporations she was used in promotions and was moved from location to location by the sales reps. She stood on the same platform that the rest of the traveling muffler men and big friends did and you can still see one today under the Peoria, IL Uniroyal gal. I have been asked many time what she was originally made to hold in that raised arm. If you look closely at Glen Goode’s girl you can see a bracket inside her hand used to hold a pole or flag. I was told the Uniroyal Girl in Bradenton, FL once held an oil can back in the 70’s and the one in Blackfoot, ID used to hold a plate of food. However “she held tires” is the answer I am most often given and this would make sense since she was made to advertise them. Sometime in the early 70’s the Uniroyal promotion reached it’s end and in most cases the sales reps simply left the giants wherever they happened to be and so they went in most cases to the owners of the gas stations or repair shops. That is exactly how the Uniroyal Girl in Mt Vernon, IL ended up in the area and for her it was the end of the road. In other cases they kept on being sold and moved, interestingly Glen Goode found his in Wichita Falls and the one now in WV once lived in Mississippi at a fireworks stand. There are many interesting stories about these girls, ranging from angry locals upset over her lack of clothing to roomers that the girl in Bradenton once stood on Gasoline Ally at the Indi 500! I also know one once stood at the The St. James Infirmary bar in Mountain View, CA until 1998 when the place burned down along with the Uniroyal Girl inside. There are a few that have fallen off the charts and seem to be gone for good including the girl that used to stand in Ocoee, FL, Del Rio, TX and Chincoteague, VA. As always muffler men or muffler ladies in this case always keep most of their secrets to themselves and who knows how many more gals are out there and where they might be.
Current Uniroyal Girl Locations
Mt Vernon, IL Pearsonville, CA Ungar, WV Gainesville, TX Bradenton, FL Lamesa, TX El Paso, TX Hilltop, NJ Blackfoot, ID Rocky Mount, NC Peoria, IL Taber, Alberta
If you’re interested in muffler men it’s very likely you have run across these guys known as “Big Johns”. They are the step brothers if you will of muffler men and although they are not related by “blood” they seem to be part of the extended family. Standing over 5 feet taller then muffler men they are some of the largest giants mass produced back in the golden age of the 1960’s roadside giant architecture era. Their roots are far from the streets of Venice California and they were made in Cape Girardeau, MO at the General Sign Co. Back in 1960 two men Bob Martin and Frank Bayley formed a partnership and started opening grocery stores in rural southern Illinois towns. After about 7 years they started placing giant statues at their store locations. General Sign Co. started turning out the Big Johns around 1967 and I am guessing 10-15 were ordered altogether. These guys are taller and much heavier then muffler men and each of them held 4 giant grocery backs in their arms. The original paint job included a checkered shirt with an apron painted on. The grocery bags were filled with large fiberglass grocery’s and in some locations name brand stickers even appeared on the outside of the bags. At the peak of Big John’s Grocery they had locations in much of southern Illinois as well as a few stores in Tennessee and Kentucky. There is a statue in Cape Coral, FL but I am not sure if that is because there was a grocery store there at one time or it was just purchased and moved there from Illinois. Today there are 9 left that I know of an 2 of them still stand at operating Big John Grocery stores in Southern Illinois. In the 70’s Bob Martin and Frank Bayley slowly moved out of the grocery store industry and started Hucks Gas stations and convenience stores that now cover much of Illinois. As the grocery stores started to close their doors the giant grocery clerks were sold at auctions and start appearing at other businesses. Some have stayed in the grocery store ocupation like the guy in Carmi, IL that stands in front of the Little Giant Grocery Store. In Lakeview, MS one stands on the state line at a seasonal fireworks stand while another guards a strip mall in Florida and was just recently repainted. They have also become popular with collectors and 4 of them can be found today in private collections. There is a Big John in St Louis, MO that is currently in two pieces. Also the former Benton, IL Big John is now part of the Farnham collection in Ungar, WV. And of course there are the two huge Big Johns that now live in Gainsville, TX and are part of Glen Goode’s giant family. Glen’s Big Johns came from the few grocery locations that were in Tennessee and he picked them up off their backs in an empty lot after the closing of their stores in the 80’s. His Big Johns no longer hold their grocery bags but he still has them in storage. I hope to one day learn more of the story behind these giant grocery clerks and find out exactly how many were made, perhaps there are more that still exist that we have not found yet. Although often confused with muffler men these guys are a breed all of their own and along with what is known as the Beach Guy they tower over their muffler man friends. Recently Roadside America did a story on me and mentioned “my rules” of what constitutes a muffler man sighting or not. I don’t count my Big John sightings as muffler man because they were made by a different company. However I do count Uniroyal Gals and the smaller bunyans because they were made by International Fiberglass. I bend the rules a bit for copies of muffler men if they are exact because although not made by I.F. they still look like muffler men, for example Mark Cline’s soda jerks all get a # on my list. Special thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer for the use of her picture of the Farnham collection in Ungar, WV that includes the former Benton, IL Big John.
Along with his “cowboy” Glen is also the proud owner of one of the rare uniroyal gals. Although not as popular as her male counterparts she was also sold by International Fiberglass. I still am trying to get all the history on the these but apparently Uniroyal Tire started ordering them in the late 60’s to advertise their tires at different locations across America. Some questions have been raised about the unique hand position and what she was originally meant to hold. It appears that this hand design was made to hold a tire although it has always seemed to me that was made to hold something with a handle. I have heard one report that one of these girls stood at a gas station in Florida in the 80’s and held an oil can in that raised hand. There are 11 known Uniroyal Gals left standing today that I know of and 3 others that probably still exist but have been off the grid for awhile. This one here used to stand in Wichita Falls, TX about 65 miles away at a car dealership and only had on a red bikini back then. Glen bought her back in the 90’s I believe and put on her clothes which the car dealership had in storage and also lengthened her skirt so she would “be more holy”. Today you can see her standing with the rest of his giants (which make her look almost small).
Another first, the female counterpart to the muffler man the Uniroyal Girl. This was my first sighting for the uniroyal gal so I was pretty excited to visit her in Mt Vernon, IL. She stands outside the auto shop of Stan the Tire Man and although I have not talked to Stan yet from what I gather she has been in the area awhile. Locals from Salem to the north remember her being here in the area at least 20 years and she once stood in Salem on rout 37 next to a muffler man. She was moved to Mt Vernon and the muffler man stayed on in Salem for a number of years before being sold to a muffler man collector in North Carolina who owns a log cabin company along I-95. I’ll post more about her and other Uniroyal girls in some of my future blogs.