3 December 2012

Bubblicious: Darryl Starbird’s wild customs created a fantastic, futuristic stir in the automotive world

Darryl Starbird has been called many things: Innovator. Entrepreneur. Maybe even a little crazy. He’s perhaps best known, however, as The Bubble Top King, and he reigns over a fantastic kingdom of futuristic custom cars.

Prediction of future success

While Starbird has created hundreds of custom cars over the years (in fact, Starbird admits that he sometimes forgets working on some of his designs until he sees them), he’s best known for the creations that gave him his nickname. Starbird eventually created 11 bubble-top cars with intriguing names: Predicta, Futura, Fantabula, Electra.

Starbird was 26 years old when he completed his first bubble car. In just 11 weeks, the Predicta evolved from a totaled and gutted 1956 Ford Thunderbird to a space-age marvel the likes of which the world had never before seen.

Starbird discovered the T-Bird in a junkyard, mangled from an encounter with a train, and set to work, integrating components from other cars, including taillight lenses from the 1959 Cadillac that were set into the copper tubing-encircled grille and white coated, and fins from the 1959 Buick that were extended to the car’s nose. He finished the exterior with a stunning Satellite Blue Lacquer paint job.

The bubble top proved more vexing, coming by way of much trial and error, and the Predicta was not entirely completed in time for its big reveal at the February 1960 Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, California. The top was finished in the nick of time, but not soon enough to be affixed to the car; it was shipped separately and displayed alongside.

While the bubble top was undoubtedly the star of the show, the car’s interior was innovative, as well.

Designed to resemble an airplane cockpit, it came complete with a television, telephone and center tiller steering ¬– no steering wheel – allowing it to be driven from either seat. The car’s tufted white Polomar interior was accented by approximately 1,000 rhinestones, and its handcrafted padded dash featured two instrument clusters.

The car was powered by a 392 ci 1957 Hemi Chrysler V-8 engine with Hillborn fuel injection and chrome plating.

As Starbird told Car Craft magazine in 1960, “I built and designed the car with only one thing in mind. I didn’t want just another custom; I was after a dream car of the future that even Detroit would take notice of.”

The Predicta was named Motor Life magazine’s “Custom of the Year” winner for 1960, which Starbird has referred to as the “biggest thrill” of his life.

Starbird followed up with new versions of the Predicta in 1961 and 1963, the latter of which was purchased by Monogram to aid in the design of 1/24-scale model cars, for which Starbird received $.02 for each $1.98 model sold.

Future designs bubble up

The Forcasta

Next up for Starbird was the Forcasta in 1961, which started out as a humble 1960 Corvair.

Like the Predicta, the Forcasta came equipped with bubble top, television and center tiller steering, which was becoming a fixture in Starbird’s designs. Its handmade, streamlined steel body was crafted to give the car a bullet-like appearance, which carried through even to its bullet headlight covers.

The Forcasta’s sweet pearlescent fuschia exterior and cushy, contoured interior somewhat belied the power that lurked under the hood in the form of a highly modified six-cylinder Corvair engine.

Regarded as another success for Starbird, the car served as a cover model for Car Craft in 1961, and went on to be named one of magazine’s top 10 cars of the year.

The Fantabula

 Starbird again landed the cover of Car Craft in 1963, with his 1958 Chevy Biscayne-based Fantabula, featuring the Starbird trademark bubble top (which opened at the push of a button) and stick steering as well as a reworked back end, handcrafted grille and bumper bars, and prominent side trim.

Starbird drove the car more than 1,000 miles to the NHRA National Car Show in Indianapolis, which was in part an effort to silence critics who were skeptical of the center tiller steering system. The Fantabula proved to be another winner, taking home the show’s top honor.

The Electra

In 1962 Starbird was contracted to design a new bubble-top creation from a ’58 T-Bird. This car, known as the Electra, would feature the largest bubble yet, covering the car’s cabin and much of its trunk, and giving the car a smart, streamlined look.

Featuring a brilliant Candy Blue over Pearl paint job, the eye-socket inspired headlights and custom aluminum grille give the front end the appearance of a snarling face. The interior featured custom seats designed to look a bit like folding chairs, and again integrated Starbird’s stick steering design. 

Other Bubbles

Starbird continued his bubble designs in 1963 with the Futurista, a three-wheeled concept car in pearl white with red interior, the frame for which was molded by hand from metal tubing. The six-cylinder engine and cooling fan could only be accommodated in the car’s rear, and were integrated in the back, visible through the bubble but disguised as a spare tire.

The Futurista was also honored with a model by Monogram, but met an untimely end, when it landed upside down after being dropped from a transport truck.

Inspired by George Barris’ Batmobile, a customer asked Starbird to give his ’59 Chevy Convertible a similar feel. Starbird rose to the challenge, transforming the car into a red jet-inspired custom, with white naugahyde and red velvet interior and a backseat equipped with a minibar and television.

The car’s rear was designed to resemble jet boosters, and the top had a double bubble appearance.

Starbird’s creations weren’t limited to Fords and Chevys. His Illusion of 1980 was based on a 1976 Pacer, molding a new body from sheet metal to give the front end a wedge appearance, and integrating his standard bubble top and luxurious interior. This design included a 350 ci V-8 Chevy engine and was finished in House of Kolor Candy Tangerine paint.

An audience with The King

There’s no question that Darryl Starbird was a visionary of his time; even today, his designs maintain their futuristic appeal. While his namesake bubble top may not be the most practical of designs (critics said the bubble tops created a veritable sauna for the driver and passenger, creating a nearly unbearable heat in the cockpit when driven in the sun), it’s certainly one of the most innovative in automotive history.

Starbird’s hundreds of customs are far too many to detail here, but you can see them in person at Darryl Starbird’s National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum in Afton, Oklahoma. Admission is only $8, and if you’re lucky, The Bubble Top King himself might be available to discuss his creations one-on-one.

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