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.
There is a third, slightly rarer kind of car, the car whose shape has been changed, with foam, fiberglass or other materials, to make it look like something other than a car. Tom Kennedy's popular shark cars and fin-mobiles fit the bill here, as does a New Orleans car known as The Skull.
And finally, there is the kind of car Mike Scranton makes: the macho art car. In the art car genre, the macho car is a virulent strain, but an inevitable one -- we are, after all, dealing with cars. The macho art car begins not as a whole automobile per se, but a stripped-down chassis, an engine, a yard full of scrap iron and a vision that veers from apocalyptic to survivalist to glazed over with hormonal activity. It shares a world-view with the anarchic Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, or the military-caliber pyrotechnics of San Francisco's Survival Research Laboratories, whose robot performances patrons must sign a release to view.
What the macho art car lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in power. It is a grinding, noxious, gas-sputtering, on-the-verge kind of car, an alloy of testosterone, technology and size, made by people who live in a postindustrial city but work with their hands, who get satisfaction from the screech of metal on metal, who have given up on the virgin and gone after the dynamo.
In general, the urge to embellish a car can be traced back to the painted buses of Panama, the decorated ox carts of Italy or the impulses of isolated folk artists like Bob Daniels, who installed faucets all over his car when God told him to clean up his act. In tandem with the art car, the macho art car has developed, with its roots in hot rod fever and the hypersexy low riders of Chicano culture. Even before the term "art car" gained currency in Houston, there were macho art cars.
One of the earliest acknowledgments of car art in Houston came in 1984, when contemporary art enthusiast Ann Harithas curated an exhibit called "Collision" at the University of Houston's Lawndale Art & Performance Center. "Collision" included artist Larry Fuente's famous Mad Cad, a Cadillac elaborately coated in multicolored beads and knickknacks, with a flock of stylized flamingos riding over the trunk.
Significantly, at least as far as the progress of art car machismo is concerned, Harithas provided the UH art students, among them future art car greats Noah Edmundson and David Best, with go-carts. They proceeded to decorate one in a Christian motif and the other with sports paraphernalia. Then, in a staged battle dubbed "God Not Sports," the Christian go-cart attacked the sports go-cart over the issue of watching football on Sundays instead of attending church. One video camera and both go-carts were destroyed in the fray.
Even before "Collision," though, guerrilla artist Scott Prescott had built what was arguably the first macho art car in Houston, the Ghetto Blaster. As a former Lawndale student, a special-effects movie man (Nightmare on Elm Street, Robocop) and founder of the Urban Animals (the roller skaters who used to take over Houston's downtown streets at night), Prescott is the prototypical macho art car maker. His best stunts in the early '80s involved automobiles. He wrapped a car, with beer cans thrown in the back seat for effect, around a tree near Mecom Fountain. On Allen Parkway, he staged a crash landing: a parachute and dummy dangled from a telephone wire up above, while a single-seat combat "plane" (fashioned from a Firebird) was half-buried in the ground below, a long skid mark behind it in the grass.
The Ghetto Blaster was half rusted-out Impala, half Chevy Caprice, with tank treads for wheels, a large oxy-propane cannon mounted on the windshield and a flamethrower on the back. The car didn't have an engine, but Prescott hauled it as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago for art exhibits.
In 1986, artist Rachel Hecker and salon owner Trish Herrera organized a parade to showcase artists like Prescott and Jackie Harris. Participants with art cars drove -- some of them in reverse -- down Montrose, and those without art cars skated, twirled batons or just carried their paintings. The parade ended at the Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden, which was holding its grand opening celebration with a performance by composer John Cage. But Prescott wasn't ready for a finale, and he took the Ghetto Blaster, flanked by a cadre of Urban Animals and accompanied by a live rock band, back up Main Street, a cloud of black smoke trailing behind.
In 1988, the parade became an annual event organized by the Orange Show Foundation. This year, there are 240 entries from 21 states -- many times the parade's original size. As the event has grown, Prescott has lost his taste for it. What with entry forms that have to be filled out in advance, a predetermined route and schedules to conform to, Prescott says the parade is more trouble than it's worth. Artists who loved the rowdy lawlessness of the early years gripe about increased regimentation, not to mention a perceived corporate attitude. And this year, the parade's new name -- it's gone from "Roadside Attractions: The Artists Parade" to the "Bank United Art Car Parade Powered by Pennzoil" -- has only deepened their discontent.
But Scranton, who in some ways has stepped into Scott Prescott's shoes, refuses to be daunted, perhaps because he doesn't want to miss his chance to command a huge, appreciative audience. "It's still the best thing in town," Scranton insists. "It's still the funnest day of the year."
A 20-foot stooping metal hominid announces the presence of Scranton's blue warehouse east of downtown. The Job Monster, as it is called, is fashioned from the rusted remains of a Honda and a Toyota, as if there were nothing better to do with a Honda and a Toyota than twist them into something stationary. The Job Monster hulks protectively over an old oil barrel, as if to keep its price from inflating. "It's my comment on the trade deficit," Scranton says.
The comment is contemptuous, yet born of adoration. It is offered by a guy who loves American cars. Scranton is happiest in the middle of a car city, in the middle of a car country, in the middle of art car season. Cars and motors are second nature to him; he grew up in a small town in Kansas, where his widowed grandmother ran the family machine shop. Scranton sorted nuts and bolts for the machinists, and learned to weld on the oil pumpers out on a neighbor's farm.
When Scranton was 12, his parents divorced and his mother moved the kids to a rival town. Scranton cleaned bird-dog kennels all summer to buy his first car, a '66 Corvair Monza Spider, before he was old enough to get a license.
His third town, where his father took him in after he became too much trouble for his mom, had a strict hierarchy. High school dropouts who worked at the local body shop were at the bottom; roughnecks were at the top. By the time he was 18, Scranton had worked his way up from the former to the latter. He knew he was at the top, because when he went to the town bars that served watered-down Kansas beer, his boss would plunk down a tumbler of tequila for the crew, and no one ever dared bother them. That was the life.
But by the time he was nearing 20, Kansas seemed small and its oil operations puny. Scranton came to Texas for one reason: big rigs. Because his older sister was an art student at UH, he made Houston his home base. She found him a room in the house of a sculptor friend, and he hung out at the Lawndale Art & Performance Center, the warehouse that then served as UH's art department. In those days, Lawndale was a combustive free-for-all, and Scranton liked the punk music blasting out of studios and the sparks showering from the welding torches in the shop. But he kept his mind on those big rigs.
He never did get work as a roughneck, but he visited the Texas rigs as a pipe inspector, and what he saw did not compare favorably to Kansas. "There were more rules, more com-pany men," he says. "You couldn't just, you know, swing off the derricks naked at night, if you wanted to." A series of jobs took him to Oklahoma, then Shreveport, where the failing oil economy threw him back down the career ladder. He found work at a restoration shop, perfecting other people's custom paint jobs, chopping cars and flaring fenders. In 1988, he got a call from his sister -- he'd been admitted to UH, she told him, and he had financial aid.
Once there, Scranton's welding skills soon attracted the attention of Bob Bourdon, then chair of the art department. Bourdon persuaded Scranton to major in art, giving him a scholarship, making him Bourdon's personal apprentice, and hiring him to assist with Bourdon's own metalworking commissions. By then, UH was a hotbed of art car activity, and it wasn't too long before Scranton wanted to make one of his own.
For a car lover, it was a renegade move. As is often noted, art cars simultaneously celebrate and desecrate that powerful symbol of contemporary life, which stands for independence and motion, conquest and pollution. Scranton's first car, God, Gold and Glory: Christopher Columbus European Death Machine, launched his tradition of reveling in technology while criticizing technology's fruits. It was 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's famous voyage, and Scranton had read a book detailing the explorer's imperialist sins. The car was like a slave ship, dominated by a giant cross, and armed with cannon-lobbed "diseases" -- actually pieces of confetti printed with names like "smallpox" and "bubonic plague."
As much as Scranton's creations are macho -- and this point is crucial to understanding the macho art car -- they lampoon that which is macho. "Usually something pisses me off," Scranton says, "and that's what motivates me." And what, exactly, pisses Scranton off enough to provoke the creation of these monstrous and sinister cars? Aggression, dominance and war.
God, Gold and Glory took a first-place trophy, as did Scranton's second car, which was prompted by the siege in Waco in 1993. God, Guns and Government: The David Koreshmobile was not just a car but a performance, complete with a posse of ATF agents, pews full of Koresh followers and a banner that read, "Leave us alone." When the Koresh compound burnt down the week before the parade, Scranton remembers, "The girls working on the car said it was a disgrace [to continue the project]. My take was: 'Fuck, man. We gotta tell the story. We gotta tell who started the fire.' "
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.
Scranton and Prescott aren't the only practitioners of art car macho. In fact, photographer George Hixson likens Art Car Weekend to an annual meeting of the five great Indian nations. Houston's various underground clans -- artists, gearheads, behind-the-scenes movie crewmen, eccentrics -- meet in a spring ritual of last-man-standing showmanship and friendly competition. In Hixson's anthropological taxonomy, the clans are loosely defined and overlapping. But the important elements are in place: a hierarchy, respected elders like Prescott and a tribal code that values inventive genius (particularly when applied to the funner things in life) and a fair amount of chaos.
Of course, few clan members take things as seriously as Scranton. Artists Noah Edmundson and Paul Kittelson, who have won their fair share of art car recognition, act as the jokers of macho. Whereas Scranton is concerned with all-terrain capability, Edmundson and Kittelson are concerned with their victuals. That's why they built the Bad Taste BBQ, a VW bug transformed into a meat smoker. On parade days, they cook breakfast on the smoker in the morning, then tow it through the streets of downtown while their cabrito softens into an evening feast.
The two also have a different take on the post-apocalyptic world macho art cars seem built to inhabit. While Scranton wants cars that search and destroy, Edmundson and Kittelson seem to realize that, after the big bomb drops, the stuff of everyday life will be trash, not war. To that end, Edmundson and French artist Louis Perrin created Road Kill Resurrected, best described as the motorized aftermath of an explosion or wreck, and Kittelson collaborated with Tim Glover on the Garbage Monster, which resembles a moving dump. During Art Car Weekend 1992, Edmundson gave a lecture about prehistoric cars that roamed free until they were tamed by humans.
Another frequent winner is Mark Bradford, whose famous Carmadillo, a giant metal creature built over a truck and a van, is permanently on display in front of his house on Heights Boulevard. Among Bradford's many parade creations are the world's longest bicycle (95 feet); a combination hot tub, barbecue pit and hydraulic orange juicer built on an old lawn mower; and a mobile phone booth. To satisfy his extreme-sport craving, Bradford also builds snow-shovel racers, which look like ski-mounted metal torpedoes and can reach downhill speeds of 70 mph.
Some of the slickest macho cars have been created by a four-man team that includes Jeff Poss, a museum exhibit fabricator who built the Museum of Health & Medical Science's displays. Their sporty Inchworm, with a front end molded out of fiberglass, took three people to drive: one to steer, one to work the manual fuel pump and one to operate the clutch. No one needed to man the brakes, because the car didn't have any.
Poss says his team has traditionally imposed a "48-hour rule"-- their cars must be built entirely within the 48 hours prior to the parade. "You don't really sleep much, and you work as a team. When you're blowin' and goin' the whole time, you know something funky's going to happen."
Intentional or no, last-minute preparation is a hallmark of macho art cars. In fact, if one were to sort through the 240 entries for this year's art car parade, one could separate the macho cars from the high school projects and the "I just want to make people smile" entries simply by culling the ones that aren't built yet. They have elaborate sketches -- Jim Robertson, for example, has drawn a Star Wars-like space machine, all sleek angles and pointy laser sights -- and masturbatory descriptions -- "lots of stainless steel and diamond plate" reads Matt Slimmer's entry form.
But veteran art car parade organizer Jennifer McKay has learned not to count on tantalizing plans such as these. Macho, she says, is often a matter of potential rather than reality. "This is not a photo," she points out, looking at Robertson's sketch. "This is a drawing. Will it be realized? It's like a man with his cojones, strutting around. What will he do?"
The Saddam Sedan, at least, is making progress on its journey from potential to reality. It is another Saturday, two weeks before the parade. Scranton's crew is in full swing, as evidenced by their output in decibels, and by the fact that the special problem-solving pheromones men emit on weekend afternoons have pulled in a neighbor, who hovers around the I-beam frame, checking out the action.
Sam Duncan, who lives at the nearby Commerce Street Art Warehouse, tries to get the Caveman Car running. Fine-art mover John Holt, decked out in welding leathers, burns plate for a new suspension system for the Saddam Sedan, to be made from three-foot springs. After the plates are attached to either end, tension bolts will be suspended inside the springs and tightened down. The entire weight of the car body will rest on the two skinny weld beads joining the springs to the car's rear axle, but at 60,000 pounds per square inch, the boys aren't worried.
Lighting designer Stefan Stout pushes his goggles up on his forehead and identifies himself as the crew's "Boy," as in, "Boy, hold this," and "Boy, sand this." Stout considers himself a humble apprentice. "I just want to be on the winning team," he says, as composed as a star athlete with a mike jammed in his face.
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Around 2:30, Scranton calls a lunch break. The guys sit on the flatbed of Duncan's truck and eat sandwiches while one of them rolls a joint. They complain about going to the steelyards to buy metal on Saturdays, when all the amateurs who order pipe in inches instead of feet are there. They complain about Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements, which are going to ruin American trucks by making them more sleek and aerodynamic. They talk about lesbian chic: Lesbians, Duncan says, are all over those '50s Land Cruisers.
The guys worry a little that other people will come by and spy on them, try to figure out what they're doing. Then they worry more that people will come by and distract them into being social. They do not want to be social. They want to build art cars.
One week before the parade, the guys finally wheel the Saddam Sedan out into the street. It has nearly doubled in length, with a slingshot the size of a goal post spring-mounted above the rear wheels, and something that looks like an iron cupola -- a sort of showcase where they'll hang "Saddam's bomb" -- dangling behind. Scranton warns that the car is not yet "chick-ready." But it does run: Duncan and Holt hop on and start the motor, and the whole thing starts to move gracefully down the street, rounding the corner and disappearing from view.
The small crowd of onlookers applauds appreciatively as the guys reappear at the other end of the block. "Whoo-hoo!" Scranton yells. "Whoo-hoo!" the guys yell back, as they jump off the car and give each other high-fives. Immediately, they whip out a tape measure and stretch it alongside the car to see how long it is -- 37 feet of hard steel. Scranton just stands apart, staring at his creation. "That's evil, man," he says proudly. "That's evil." Amid the commotion, Scranton breaks into a vaudeville rendition of a heavy-metal song. "Am I evil? Yes, I am." Then he slows into a low-pitched, hymnlike finale: "Eeeee-vil fuck-ing men!