Barris’ beastly 50-year old Esso 67-X still casts a long shadow

It’s enormous. Literally and figuratively. Longer than the current Cadillac Escalade, styled wilder than any modern Lexus, and more eye-catching than the brightest Lamborghini, the Esso 67-X is a Canadian icon that almost no one remembers—and a fortunate group of ferry workers and onlookers will never forget.

Built to commemorate the country’s centennial celebration in 1967, the Esso 67-X will soon be displayed at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, B.C., only a few blocks away from Mile Zero of the Trans-Canada highway. But the beast had to fit onto a ferry at Swartz Bay first. Owner Trevor Weflen carefully navigated the huge orange machine into the boat’s belly, a space that’s normally reserved for trucks. Before long, a crowd had gathered, and all wanted to know, what exactly is this thing?

For Esso Oil, the 67-X was a public relations lightning rod. Canada, which turns 150 this year, is an incredibly vast country, a patchwork quilt of different communities all somehow stitched together into a whole. You can dance to a fiddle reel in the Maritimes, dine in the bistros of Old Quebec, hang out with the descendants of Vikings in the prairies, and then have a potlatch on the West Coast. And sure, you could fly to and from all these places, but wouldn’t you rather drive? Fifty years ago, Esso thought you would.

As the centennial party got started in Montreal, the company announced that every person who collected five safety driving tips from designated Esso stations and mailed them in could win the ultimate Canadian road trip machine. And what was that? The company’s marketing team decided the best-suited vehicle for Canada’s wide-open spaces would be a big one—the biggest they could create.

The Oldsmobile Toronado was already turning heads, having received accolades for both its forward-looking front-wheel-drive architecture and performance. Indy 500 legend Bobby Unser had even slewed one up the gravel to Pike’s Peak, showing off the power of the Toronado’s 385-hp, 7.0-litre “Rocket” V-8. Then car customizer George Barris, father of the Batmobile, entered the picture. Esso was certain that pairing Barris and the Toronado would produce a machine that would galvanize the public. They also threw in free insurance and fuel for a year, and the Esso 67-X giveaway was born.

Barris took one look at the Toronado’s already impressive 18-foot length and decided that if long was good, longer would be better. He cut the car in half and added more than a foot, bringing the 67-X to nearly 20 feet. He then built molds to give the front and rear arches wild-looking curves, along with plenty of vents and huge forward pontoons.

On the inside, Barris took advantage of the added room to install a sort of 1960s dream living room. The rear seat went from bench to curved sofa, with a pop-up table and rotating passenger seat. Mom could turn around to play cards with the kids, while Dad kept his foot on the gas and the big-hearted Rocket V-8 ate up the landscape. If that wasn’t enough, Barris installed a tiny television and individual headsets for the rear seat passengers. Two decades before minivans became commonplace, the first rear-entertainment package was in place to keep the kids quiet.

Four cars were built for Esso, and Barris kept a fifth for his personal use. Each one was valued at about three times the cost of a fully-loaded Toronado, but since they were rare, speculators put values even higher — as much as $50,000, a fortune for the time. All four cars found homes; many passed through several hands and more than one found its way into the U.S. Welfen, who remembered the contest from his Air Force days, spotted the 67-X in the background of an advertisement and was delighted to find something so rare. It is the only known survivor.

Restoring the 67-X to its current state was a task as gargantuan as the car itself. The interior was in particularly poor shape, but the trickiest bits were the custom details, for which no spares exist. A set of accurate wheel covers had to be machined as one-offs.

Despite its rarity, Weflen didn’t ship the 67-X to the museum, he drove it 100 or so miles from his home in the Fraser Valley, B.C. And why not? Long road trips were exactly what Esso intended anyway.