California Custom Makes Home in Lincoln, NE’s Museum of American Speed
By Jeff Barnes
Nestled among the spectacular cars of the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed in Lincoln is a pop-culture phenomenon borne on a surfboard and a song.
The Red Baron was arguably the world’s most famous T-bucket hot rod to emerge out of the California culture, featuring the Iron-Cross motif then popular with surfers. The 1966 “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” novelty song also made the German World War I-flying ace a topic again, 50 years after he was flying.
What is truly unusual about this custom car is that it was a plastic scale model that inspired its production when it’s typically the other way around. The Red Baron 1/24th-scale model was one in a series of fantasy rods designed by Tom Daniel for Monogram that were selling by the thousands.
Museum exhibit designer Jarrid Roulet said the Red Baron car came about when autorama-promoter Bob Larivee saw the immense popularity of the model. “He saw the potential for a full-scale car to be built and said ‘I have to be the one to build this car’,” Roulet said.
Larivee first had to go to model-manufacturer Monogram to negotiate recreating the Red Baron’s design. “Bob was surprised it was so inexpensive (in getting the rights),” Roulet said. “They were just happy he was building the car – they knew it would help model sales skyrocket.” (Ultimately, more than three million of the kits were sold.)
Larivee hired the world-famous hot-rod builder Chuck Miller to take on the build and they were off and running. This was truly reverse engineering – since the model was based on imagination and not reality, it meant some things couldn’t be replicated, chief among them the engine.
The Daniel model has a 1914 Mercedes aircraft engine with trumpet-exhaust pipes on the left; the Miller car has a 1968 Pontiac engine with the pipes on the right. “The Mercedes engine is extremely hard to find,” Roulet said. “Bob told us ‘It was one of those things where you just have to move along’ when you’re making the bridge between cost and authenticity.”
Instead, Miller used a rare 1968 Pontiac overhead cam 6-cylinder engine. It fit well with the chassis and the length of the car, but was also the first to use a timing belt. Roulet there might actually be a Lincoln connection in that – the engine was built with a Goodyear timing belt, and Goodyear has a belt factory in the capital city. “We haven’t done the research to confirm that it came from Lincoln yet,” he added.
The 1969 build cost $10,000, a significant amount of money at the time. It was well worth it to Larivee, as the show-stopper brought thousands upon thousands of attendees to his autoramas.
The Red Baron was a featured attraction for years, which makes its unrestored status all the more remarkable. “In all the miles traveled, over all the potholes, and all of the loading and unloading, it was never damaged,” Roulet said. Larivee eventually retired the car to his private collection/warehouse shop in Boulder, Colo.
In 2010, the late Bill Smith of Speedway Motors bought the car from Larivee to add to the museum’s permanent collection. “Bill really liked this car and he remembered it being built,” Roulet said. “He was selling hot-rod parts to all of these guys and this was built during the heyday of custom building. It’s a wonderful symbol of that era. And Bob still comes to see it – he lives in Boulder and has family in Michigan, so we’re right on the way.”
(The Museum of American Speed at 599 Oak Creek Drive in Lincoln is currently open from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Fridays only. From May through September, the museum is open Monday through Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m. Closed weekends.)