By Jeff Balke
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Mike Scranton is skinnier, and sometimes dirtier, than the stray dogs that scavenge around his warehouse. The steel toes of his work boots shine like twin bald spots through their worn leather. His right collarbone juts forward in an unnatural dome, from the time he wrecked his motorcycle, grabbed the insurance money and started off for California with his arm still in a sling. The friend who offered him the ride turned out to be AWOL and driving a stolen car, and the Nevada cops didn't particularly care, when it came time to handcuff their captives, that Scranton's bone was still broken.
Scranton has seven forklifts, a DC generator/welder and a fridge full of beer. He doesn't have a bathroom, but he does have a tub of Pep Boys hand cleaner and a dusty bottle of Scope. His warehouse serves as his home, his shop and most importantly, a place to build his art cars.
In the narrow scrap yard behind the building, Scranton hunches over the stripped shell of a police car body. The rest of the car has been dismantled, and its front and rear axles are now attached to a simple I-beam rectangle that looks like a giant empty picture frame. The car body, flipped upside down, will be positioned over the frame like a vaguely Arabian canopy. What was once the front passenger window will serve as a porthole for the driver. Seats and a steering wheel will come later, afterthoughts to the moving sculptural form that Scranton is constructing.
Though he hasn't drawn up a plan, Scranton knows exactly what to do. He wraps a heavy chain around the middle of the car body and secures it to a metal jib fashioned out of pipe, which in turn is mounted on a forklift to act as a miniature crane. He takes another length of chain with hooks on both ends and attaches it, using it to tighten the loop around the car.
In the world of art cars -- cars specially decorated or altered by their drivers -- Scranton is a maverick. In fact, the word "car" is not really encompassing enough to describe his past creations, which include the Christopher Columbus European Death Machine, the David Koreshmobile and Pat Buchanan's Border Patrol. Now, the police car body is airborne, about to become an integral part of what Scranton calls the Third World War Machine or the Saddam Sedan. By the time he's finished, the car could very well be equipped with a special option package: a burning oil field, a flying carpet or a herd of heat-seeking missiles. The more elaborate, the better. It is Scranton's bid, after all, for art car immortality, an attempt to win his seventh trophy in as many years. At the art car parade on April 18 -- the world's largest gathering of art car enthusiasts -- Scranton's biggest challenge will be topping himself.
To do so, he will build not one but two new art cars: the Saddam Sedan and something called the Anthromac. His fleet will also include two of the iron chariots that have previously carried him to victory: the Caveman Car, with rear wheels made of 42-inch pipe sections, and the Border Patrol, a double-decker car with a set of welded iron antlers adorning the front, and in the rear, a human-scale hamster wheel fashioned from metal mesh, perched on a track system that allows it to spin in place when someone is walking inside it. Altogether, Scranton boasts, "We've got 80 feet of parade this year."
At T minus two and a half weeks, Scranton has cleared the way to immerse himself in physical and spiritual preparation. He has paid the month's bills in advance, put a hold on all his paying welding jobs, and called in a team of reinforcements: artists, welders, electricians and "a culturally aware mechanic." His piles of scrap are organized. His head is newly shaved.
The warehouse is thick with a palpable, athletic joy. Scranton loves the thrill of laying down a one-inch weld. He loves knowing the "idiosyncratics" of a Chevy engine (more low-rider) versus a Ford (more redneck). He loves the feeling of pulling off an outlandish caper. He loves the scowling "game face" he puts on as he drives through the parade, and the fact that driving his big, rusty, roaring cars gives him license "to spit in public." He doesn't mind the $1,000 in available prize money. But that's not why he builds art cars.
"It's not the money," he explains, cocking a fist up next to his scrawny ribs, then simultaneously pumping it forward and tilting his head back in acknowledgment of an imaginary crowd. "It's the glory."
As most Houstonians know by now, art cars are unique, fanciful creations that allow their drivers to make a statement other than your basic "I can afford a BMW" or "I really do need four-wheel drive on weekends." Unlike Scranton, the majority of people who make art cars do one of two things: They paint their cars, with bugs, naked women, flower-power motifs or whatever else strikes their fancy. Or they cover their cars obsessively with collections of objects -- one of the earliest Houston art cars, Jackie Harris's plastic pineapple-studded Fruitmobile, is a perfect example.