Custom Cars: The History of the Wienermobile
April 14, 2015
If her dad thinks you’re up to no good picking her up in a vintage ’70s “love machine” van, what’s he going to think when you pick her up in a “Wienermobile?”
So maybe the Wienermobile isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of custom cars, but this rolling billboard for Oscar Mayer’s signature product was actually one of the original custom cars of the early 20th century. In fact, the first Wienermobile rolled onto the road and into advertising history in 1936.
Back then, the Wienermobile wasn’t built off of any particular car. It used a custom chassis built by the General Body Company of Chicago, Illinois. The brainchild of Oscar Mayer’s grandson, Carl Mayer, the original Wienermobile had a single headlight, was 13 feet long, and carried a then-significant price tag of $5,000.
The 1940 Wienermobile was shortened by a couple of feet. However, it had an added hatch on the rear for the company mascot, “Little Oscar, the World’s Tiniest Chef,” to pop out of. Unfortunately, World War II gas rationing saw this Wienermobile off the road for the duration.
In 1952 the Wienermobile began prowling the streets again. This time it was built on a Dodge chassis and included a sun roof and a serious (for 1952) stereo.
1958 saw so much automotive strangeness from the stubby “missing link” tail fins of the ’58 Chevy to the slanted headlights of that year’s Lincoln (later adopted in 1961 by Chrysler), that the Wienermobile got its own makeover. Designer Brooks Stevens put the Wienermobile on a Willys Jeep chassis and put the driver up front instead of being at the middle of the wiener. The bubble-nose also made its debut on this model.
The 1969 Wienermobile was built by Oscar Mayer’s own mechanics. Actually, there were two of them. Both were built on a Chevy motorhome chassis powered by a V-6. One was used to tour internationally while the other stayed home and rolled along American highways and surface streets. It sported T-Bird tail lights. In 1975 this same Wienermobile style would be replicated in fiberglass.
1988 saw Brooks Stevens design another Wienermobile. Built on a Chevy van chassis and powered by a V-6, it kept the T-Bird tail lights and was part of a fleet of ten Wienermobiles that would help build brand recognition across the country.
In 1995 Harry Bradley, famed Hot Wheels designer, created the first CAD-designed Wienermobile for Carlin Manufacturing. Built on a custom chassis, this Wienermobile went all out with a hotdog-shaped dash, relish-colored seats (how could you tell if you spilled anything?), and a computerized “condiment control panel.” The original Wienermobile was 13 feet long, but this super-dog stretched out to over twice that at 27 feet! It used headlights from a Grand-Am and tail lights from a Trans-Am.
Y2K, the notorious year 2000, saw a Wienermobile built with a GMC W series chassis and powered by a 5700 Vortec V-8. It also carried a state-of-the-art audio/video system for playing the familiar jingle, which you’re probably singing to yourself now. In 2004, this same design would include a gull-wing door, voice-activated GPS, and an official “Oscar Mayer” jingle horn.
2001 saw the Wienermobile built to a Ram 1500 chassis with a flipped axle powered by a 5.2L Magnum V-8.
2004 returned the Wienermobile to a GMC W chassis. This time it was powered by a 6.0L V-8. The body style was similar to the 2000 model.
Starting in 2008, the latest incarnation of the Wienermobile was down-sized… and built on a Mini-Cooper S! However, when it comes to Wienermobiles, size truly doesn’t matter. There’s still a giddy, child-like delight in spotting the Wienermobile when it comes to town, and sometimes a scandalous adult-style snickering. The more recent larger models are still seen, but the Mini is quite a sight to behold.
Ah, the famous Wienermobile, the unsung hero of custom cars! It may not have the appeal of a Big Daddy Roth creation, and it probably won’t get you many dates. But, the Wienermobile was one of the first machines to show us that a car could be an attention-grabbing work of art beyond what the manufacturers were selling.
(Admit it. You’re still singing the song, aren’t you?)