TONY RAY-JONES/SSPL/GETTY IMAGES
Among the roadside oddities you may spy on your next road trip are "Muffler Men": larger-than-life molded fiberglass sculptures created in the 1960s and 1970s as ads for businesses such as restaurants, tire companies and, of course, muffler repair shops. The typical Muffler Man is anywhere from 14 to 25 feet tall and generally clean-shaven, with a broad torso and dark hair — though other versions were fashioned as Paul Bunyan-like lumberjacks, cowboys, Indians, pirates and goofy-faced, gap-toothed men.
There were once thousands of these guys, but only around 200 remain today — an unverified number that’s always in flux, as new ones are unearthed after years of being tucked away in barns and warehouses, and others are dismantled and destroyed.
A small but dedicated group of roadside-nostalgia junkies go to great lengths to visit these guys and gals. Some are devoted to repairing and resurrecting discarded Muffler Men and keep track of their locations online. (RoadsideAmerica.com maintains the most comprehensive and updated listing.) If you spot one, take a picture and post it in our Online Community.
A few examples of these historic giants:
Last year a quirky place called the Museum of Clean — dedicated to the values of cleanliness — acquired a cowboy through a Craigslist ad from a casino in Montana. Museum director Brad Kisling thought it would be cool to turn him into the World’s Largest Janitor, so the employees removed his hat and gun, painted him in a white uniform, with black shoes on his 4-foot-long feet, and gave him a big broom. His name is Big Don, a reference to their founder, Don Aslett.
Sioux Falls, S.D.
A fixture in front of Buck’s Muffler Shop, Mr. Bendo — because the mechanics bend pipes — has been smiling and holding that tailpipe aloft since 1963. He had a traumatic incident in 2010, when a van crushed one of his feet. His fans rallied for his repair with a "Fix Mr. Bendo" Facebook group. Now he’s in tip-top shape — and is for sale along with the shop.
Two lumberjacks were donated to Northern Arizona University in 1974 by the proprietors of the Lumberjack Cafe on Route 66. The NAU donation was an homage to the school’s athletic teams, the Lumberjacks. Now one sits outside the entrance to the sports stadium, the other one near the student union. Fun fact: One of the lumberjacks can be spotted very briefly at the beginning of Easy Rider as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper burn rubber down Route 66.
The 17-foot Vanna Whitewall, as she’s known around here, is one of a group of female statues that International Fiberglass created for the Uniroyal Tire Company. A fixture outside of the Peoria Plaza Tire shop since 1971, she was out of commission for a while after a car rammed into her feet in 2005 (a hazard of the job, it seems). She was repaired and now sometimes sports a more modest outfit than her usual bikini — a removable miniskirt and short-sleeve top that she often wears in colder months.
A Route 66 favorite since 1965, the 24-foot tall Gemini Giant (an astronaut named by local schoolkids during the Gemini space program excitement) stands with his rocket ship in front of the Launching Pad Drive-In, which has been closed since 2010. It has new owners who plan to refurbish the place, with the Gemini Giant remaining for countless more photo ops.
Seaside Heights, N.J.
This big-eared goofball looks like he was modeled after Alfred E. Neuman. Sometimes referred to as the Half-Wit, he greets visitors along the boardwalk at Casino Pier from atop a concession stand. He was toppled and damaged by a storm a few years ago, but later repaired. There are several other Muffler Men dotting the Jersey Shore, including a pirate in Ocean City.
A clean-cut, square-jawed salesman stands outside the Franciscan RV store in Hatch (“the Chili Pepper Capital of the World”), holding up a little 1970s-era Winnebago in his right hand. It’s a quirky little business: Its owners have a collection of other statues and kitschy toys, and they like to offer customers free hot dogs and soda.
Jensen Beach, Fla.
The 18-foot-tall viking, who was once an advertisement for the Viking Carpet chain, is now known as Jenguard and stands outside Jensen Beach Elementary School. In 2013, a group of teenagers were arrested for, among other acts of vandalism, knocking over and damaging “the once proud and mighty Jenguard,” as one news report put it. But the iconic Norseman is standing strong today.