Mutated Mini Muscle: Zingers turn heads at Detroit’s Autorama

Michael Switzer DesignWorks

Leave it to the smallest cars inside Detroit’s Cobo Hall to draw one of the largest crowds.

Detroit Autorama, the annual custom car bonanza held in downtown Motor City, features a wild array of vehicles throughout the 600,000 square-feet convention center: vintage show cars, modern drag strip beauties, lowriders, rat rods, tough trucks, and everything in between. The tip of the show’s spear, however, is a hallowed group of custom cars known as the “Great 8.” These heavily massaged and chromed rolling sculptures, wearing candy paint deeper than the Detroit River, compete for the custom world’s most prestigious title: the Ridler Award.

Even though these Ridler finalists are undoubtably the most polished and perfect vehicles on location, it was a rag tag bunch of miniature mutants at the year’s 69th annual Autorama that drew equal attention.

Meet the Zingers. These six pint-sized hot rods are based on plastic model cars manufactured by MPC from the late-1960s to the early 1970s. Approximately the size of a go kart, with disproportionately enormous V-8 engines protruding from their fiberglass bodies, the lil’ customs quickly became staple at car shows from their outset. Here’s how that happened.

Back in the day, when model car contests drew thousands of entrants per show, miniature maker Dennis Johnson entered one of his homemade creations in the 1969 Autorama contest. An exec from Michigan-based MPC spotted the car—which featured an engine from a larger-scale model stuffed inside the bay of a smaller-scale plastic body—and hopped on the line with MPC’s owner George Toteff to pitch putting the concept into production. The deal was approved over the phone, immediately, and the first Zinger model car was born.

Cameron Neveu

To promote these models, Toteff approached indoor car show magnate Bob Larivee and asked him to create (and promote on tour) larger recreations of the models. Larivee commissioned six of the mini cartoon hot rods—the Corvette, Beetle, semi-truck, Dodge van, dragster, and dune buggy—to be built by two Detroit-based fabricators. Each custom vehicle featured V-8s from the Big Three shoehorned into miniature fiberglass bodies and Goodyear racing tires mounted in the back. The go-fast equipment, from the giant 429 block in the Manx to the double superchargers on the Beetle, are non-operational. The same is true of the display vehicles.

“We hauled those six cars,” says Larivee of touring the country with Zingers in tow. “I had a 30-foot van, and it pulled a 30-foot trailer.” At the apex of Larivee’s business organizing and producing car shows, in 1982, he conducted 99 shows. And the Zingers went seemingly everywhere with Larivee, amassing an enthusiastic following along the way.

The six Zingers on display last weekend are owned by two different groups. Half of the cars belong to Championship Auto Shows (the group that organizes Autorama) and the other half belongs to a New Jersey car club called Dead Man’s Curve. While we weren’t able to corroborate if each component of each Zinger is original dating back to 1969, it can be confirmed that these kooky creations still draw the crowds like they did way back when.

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