Ask someone to name a car redesigned to look like a company’s primary product and I’m guessing most will think of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, but the idea of building “productmobiles” to act as a marketing and goodwill ambassador wasn’t confined to weiners. Back in 1947, Zippo Manufacturing built the Zippo Car to look like a pair of the company’s world famous Zippo Windproof Lighters.
Beautiful Autumn weather was reason enough for my wife and I to take a long drive through northwestern Pennsylvania this past weekend, but, always with an eye out for interesting technical attractions, I managed to navigate in the right direction until we stopped in Bradford, PA at the Zippo Manufacturing Museum and, parked right out front, was the Zippo Car. I’d never seen the car before or even heard of it. Just looking at this piece of Americana reminds you of early newsreel images from Industry on Parade.
The car is a 1947 Chrysler Saratoga, extensively modified with the passenger cabin redesigned to look like a pair of the company’s famous Zippo lighters, the entire cost of the reconstruction, in 1947, totaled only $25,000. However, the car we saw is actually the second Zippo Car, because the first, in 1952, after touring 48 states and covering many thousands of miles, was sent to Toohey Motors in Pittsburgh for numerous repairs and upgrades. The cost just for the rework was over $40,000 and there didn’t seem to be any need to hurry the job along. Many years went by and in the 1970s, Zippo began thinking about restoring the car for the 50th anniversary of the company in 1982. By this time, Toohey Motors had long been out of business and no one knew where the car was. Many public searches and advertising campaigns later, all the way up until 1995, failed to locate the original car.
In 1996 another 1947 Chrysler was purchased and sent to Joe Griffin’s Custom Upholstery in Memphis, TN. Working from photos of the original, they began the transformation. Eighteen months and $250,000 later, the car was done. Compared to photos of the first, it looks like they did a great job.
These early advertising vehicles reflect a wonderful and simpler time in our manufacturing past and attractions like these are just the sort of thing that make me turn off the main highways and look for a little history in our smaller towns and cities. If you know of any productmobiles close to where you live, take the time to have a look, and if you do, send us some photos.