14 August 2013

Birds of a Feather

Darryl Starbird’s National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum


It’s a large but unassuming building at the end of a long driveway, outside of a tiny Oklahoma town — the type of building you’d easily pass right by if it weren’t for some eye-catching and downright bizarre cars scattered outside. These custom creations, including the aptly named bright yellow “Frankenstein” monster truck, are enough to draw you back for a second look.

If you want to see drag racers, go to Don Garlits’ Museum in Florida or to the NHRA Motorsports Museum in California. For open-wheel race cars there’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame or the Donington Collection in the UK. You’ll find automotive pop culture at the Petersen Museum or the Henry Ford Museum, and for big classics, visit the Nethercutt Collection and the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum. But if you want to see some of the most futuristic or outrageous customs ever built, Darryl Starbird's National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum is really the only game in town. In this case, that town is Afton, Oklahoma, right between Tulsa and Joplin, Missouri — hardly the great population centers of other top car museums.

The man behind the museum is custom car builder and superstar Darryl Starbird. The cars he built — often with futuristic bubble tops and joystick steering — were fixtures on the show circuit from the mid-1950s until long after he closed his Wichita-based Star Kustom Shop in 1980 and turned his attention to promoting custom shows of his own. It’s not surprising that Darryl would want to display 25 of the cars he built in his own museum. However, it is a surprise to see 25 cars he didn’t build, along with display space dedicated to dozens of his direct competitors. Those glass cases along the walls are given over to custom car giants like Ken “Posies” Fenical, Gene Winfield, Roy Brizio, Dean Jeffries and Ed Roth to fill as they see fit with models and photos representing their work. All the rest of the wall space is dedicated to trophies, photos, cases with the many models built of Starbird’s cars and more.

Starbird’s reason for opening the museum in 1985 was simple. “To help keep the American love affair with the automobile alive by preserving the past,” he says. That makes perfect sense, but it isn’t as obvious why he’d want to give his competitors more space than he’s given himself. Starbird explains that he wanted more stories told than just his. “My colleagues and competitors all need recognition and to preserve their accomplishments.” And that means that a lot of space goes to cars that are on loan or have been donated by their owners or by other builders. Of course, most of the 10,000 or so visitors who pass through the museum each year have an absolute favorite. “It would be a toss-up between the ‘Predicta’ and the ‘Lil Coffin,’” Starbird says.

There’s nothing fancy about the Starbird Museum. You enter and exit through a small gift shop and dive right into the 40,000-square-foot facility. The one-of-a-kind cars are packed in tightly, displayed in a narrow maze of galleries — 50 cars and thousands of photos, trophies and models take up room, after all — and visitors are able to get a close look. The museum’s hexagonal center — the original 10,000-square-foot building erected in 1995 — houses 25 of Starbird’s creations, including the crowd-pleasing, “Predicta,” the first of the “bubbletop” designs for which Starbird would become famous.

Beginning with a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, Starbird integrated components from other cars, including taillight lenses from a 1959 Cadillac set into the copper tubing-encircled grille and fins from the 1959 Buick that were extended to the car’s nose. He finished the “Predicta” with a stunning Satellite Blue lacquer finish and capped it with a futuristic bubble top.

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 — which would become another Starbird trademark — allowing it to be driven from either seat.

The original portion of the facility also includes a “Wall of Fame,” which provides a visual timeline of Starbird’s creations over the years, along with space dedicated to the museum’s Hall of Fame inductees. These walls are something of a Who’s Who of innovators in the custom car world, including Boyd Coddington, George Barris and the Alexander Brothers, in addition to many others.

The museum was expanded in 1999 in order to accommodate 20 works of other designers, with the addition of “The Barris Wing.” The building grew again in 2004, when “The Jack Walker Wing,” which holds six cars plus a theater, was added. “It’s noble that he’s included space for others,” says author and hot rod authority Ken Gross, who considers these early customs essential viewing. "These cars should be somewhere where they can be seen and admired. I encourage anyone interested in custom cars to visit Afton to see what Boyd Coddington liked to call 'our ancestor cars.' It's the best way to understand that genre."

Some might say the completion of hundreds of custom cars and the creation of a successful museum to house them would easily constitute a life’s work, but Starbird is always looking to the future. Planned enhancements for the facility include three additional wings to house a total of 100 cars.

So why make the trip to Afton? Ken Gross says it best: "It's one of the few places you can see that kind of car, and you can see more at Darryl's than you can at anyplace else in the country.

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