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I wish I drove an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (or some other productmobile) [Feature]

by Ronnie Schreiber

Are productmobiles marketing run amok? Or are they the best mobile way to promote a product?

The Henry Ford Museum has a great collection of vehicles. Some are significant in automotive history, like their Model Ts, Model As and Volkswagen Beetle. Others' historical significance transcends car culture, like the museum's collection of presidential limousines, including the one in which President Kennedy was assassinated.

Still, hands down the most visited and most photographed vehicle in the entire museum is the 1952 Oscar Meyer Wienermobile.

It's so popular with visitors that the museum's adjacent snack bar is called the Wienermobile Cafe, done up in the Wienermobile livery's colors. The cafe will soon have some competition, though, once the museum's reconstruction of their "Automobile in American Life" exhibit is completed.

Larry's Diner, a traditional roadside diner that is one of the focal points of the museum's automobilia collection, will start selling and serving food when the display reopens late this year or early next year.

There have been 10 different Wienermobile models over the decades since the original Oscar Meyer's nephew Carl came up with an idea for the promotional vehicle. In the early years they hired short actors to play a character named Little Oscar who got to drive the Wienermobile in parades and local festivals. The Wienermobile also made special appearances at schools, children's hospitals and orphanages. The Ford Museum's Wienermobile is one of five made by the Gerstenslagger company in the early 1950s.

Though they may look a little silly, the Wienermobile has a proud automotive heritage, with designer Brooks Stevens and his design firm designing both the 1958 and 1988 versions of the truck. Stevens did design work for Studebaker, including the GT Hawk, and the Skyview, Cruiser and Sceptre concepts.

The current trucks are based on a 1995 design by Harry Bradley. Right now there's a fleet of seven, driven by college seniors known as Hotdoggers. The current fleet has been manufactured by Prototype Source, who added a smaller MINI-based Wienermobile in 2008.

A car for every product!
As this article from Special Interest Autos from 1976 on "Productmobiles" explains, in the 1920s and 1930s such promotional vehicles were popular in an age where there were fewer advertising venues. There were rolling beer barrels and motorized coffee pots... if you had a product, you probably had a productmobile.

This author's favorite is the Electrolux Vacuum Car - not to be confused with Jim Hall's innovative Chaparral 2J.

Productmobiles fell out of fashion in the 1970s and for a while the Wienermobiles were regarded as kitschy curiosities. The SIA article 35 years ago bemoaned the then paucity of productmobiles. Over the past decade or so, though, a number of companies have recognized the publicity value of such vehicles. Just this past winter, a Bud Light beer can car went on the block at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction. The Zippo company spent a quarter of a million dollars replicating the original Zippo Car, based on a 1947 Chrysler Saratoga. The Zippo Car, travels around North America to automotive events like the Woodward Dream Cruise.

A few years ago, Kellogg's introduced their Tony the Tiger Mobile to the attended media at the Chicago Auto Show. The cerealmobile was made by Prototype Source, which is where companies go today for their productmobiles. In addition to Wienermobiles large and small, Prototype Source has made the Pepperidge Farms Goldfish Mobile, the Planters Nutmobile, the Hershey's Kissmobile, a motorcycle trike based stiletto heeled shoe for Marshalls and assorted converted vans and buses. Apparently Oscar Meyer doesn't have exclusive hot dog rights: Prototype Source has also done a van for Wyatt's Wieners.

For more information on this charmingly silly subset of car culture, check out James Hale's The Wonderful Wacky World of Marketingmobiles: Promotional Vehicles 1900-2000.