Art Car Macho

Mike Scranton's creations are the evilest looking things in the parade. And he'll wrassle anyone who says otherwise.

The "girls" were eventually divided into two groups -- girlie girls played the followers in the pews, and the macho girls rode on top of the car, smoking cigars. "You don't want a bad chick on your art car," Scranton says sternly; then explains: "Bad chicks are the ones who rip their dress climbing on and then say" -- he pauses to assume a high-pitched voice -- " 'Oh, your art car ripped my dress!' "

In other words: Ride at your own risk. When the Koreshmobile passed the judge's table, it burst into propane flames.

Both of these art cars began as bare frames, stripped of their original identities as a Dodge Dart and a Ford truck. "Ever since you realize that you like some cars more than others, you want to build your own car," says Jeff Poss, one of Scranton's crew members and an experienced art car maker.

At 36, Scranton figures he was born at just the right time to make art cars. He grew up during the tail end of the hot rod movement that began in the '50s, and he has the same mentality that made hot rodders go out with their car clubs instead of with dates on Saturday nights, or that makes Harley riders love their bikes' deafening exhaust note. More importantly, there are still enough American cars around to lovingly dismantle, torch and rebuild.

Scranton's third entry, made in 1994, was the Caveman Car, a sort of urban tractor with an exposed engine in the front, held in place by custom exhaust headers that look like geometric spider legs. The Caveman Car broke Scranton's winning streak, taking second place instead of first. Most people, of course, would have been satisfied with second place, but Scranton was a sore loser -- especially when he found out that the winning car, a contraption with offset axles by Troy Engel, hadn't even made it through the parade route without breaking down.

The awards ceremony that year was held at Treebeard's above Market Square, and by the time it started, Scranton was already drunk. When Engel's name was announced, Scranton leapt to his feet, overturning the table where he was sitting. He tossed his trophy into another artist's plate of beans and headed down to the square, where the Caveman Car was parked. In his frenzy, Scranton was not about to be stopped by the police barricade that cordoned off the festival boundaries, and the barricade proved no match for the Caveman Car. No sooner had Scranton busted through it than the cops swarmed the car and wrestled him to the ground. Legend has it he was still clutching the steering wheel to his chest.

Scranton wound up in jail, where prisoners who had seen the action from their windows offered him a smoke. "You're just a scrawny white guy," they told him in surprise. "You looked a lot bigger when you were down there with your car, fighting the cops."

To this day, Scranton maintains that the judges simply mistook his car for Engel's and gave the award to the wrong man.

The next year, however, Scranton avenged himself with God, Gringos and the GOP: Pat Buchanan's Border Patrol. A crusty version of a safari vehicle, Border Patrol was Scranton's send-up of the right-wing movement to "build a wall around Texas and declare open season on illegal aliens." A large American flag graced the top deck, and floodlights -- which Scranton points out are illegal for hunting deer, but not border-crossers -- were mounted on either side. Border Patrol won both first place and the "People's Choice" award.

Over the years, Scranton's cars have inspired almost as many new parade rules as they have won trophies: among them, no open flames (after Scranton's Waco inferno caught three trees on fire) and no metal contact with the street (originally, the Caveman Car had bare metal wheels that tore up city asphalt). In this, too, he follows Prescott's example -- the Orange Show ruled out projectiles after Prescott shot oranges out of a pneumatic cannon he later patented.

By definition, macho art cars court danger, with a constant threat of not so much mechanical failure as explosion (the Caveman Car's front bumper, for example, doubles as its gas tank). Scranton's cars are insouciant Frankenstein experiments in which an engine/brain is inserted into an unnatural car/body and sparked into doing unpredictable things.

In that sense, Scranton's cars reflect his personality. For him, recreational danger is a way of life. He's wrecked a lot of cars, from the '69 Mustang he had as a teen to the one-ton welding truck he flipped on Allen Parkway in 1993. His friends have all endured his predilection for "wrassling" when drunk -- in fact, his previous warehouse housed a bona fide wrestling ring. Though he's not mean, and he never really intends to hurt anyone, his enthusiasm for getting physical is too much even for the rough-and-tumble bunch he hangs out with. Once, Scranton tried to wrassle Scott Prescott at a party. He badly hurt Prescott's knee, and Prescott hasn't spoken to him since.

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