There have been numerous commercial icons down through the years. Tony the Tiger still touts Kelloggs; the Pillsbury Doughboy giggles while his plump little stomach is poked; Mrs. Olsen assured countless young couples that Folgers coffee was essential to a perfect marriage. But one of the best advertising ideas ever was a king-sized replica of the sponsor’s product – the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Established in 1883, Oscar Mayer is a premium meat-packer in Madison, Wisconsin. In the depths of the Depression, the company’s advertising manager, family member Carl Mayer, came up with an idea to boost lagging sales: a hot dog on wheels, suitably painted to resemble the company’s own wieners.
According to sketchy company records at Madison, Carl drew up rudimentary dimensions and plans, and the General Body Company in Chicago produced the 13-foot-long body. It was a fairly simple curved tube with rounded ends, fabricated from sheet metal, mounted on a Dodge pickup truck chassis. The driver sat almost in the center of the body, with his head poking through an open hatch.
The frame was covered with paneling, and the individual fenders were skirted. Front fenders turned with the wheels. Headlamps and chrome bumpers came from the Dodge, and the front of the wiener was cut away to let air to the radiator.
Shortly thereafter, a midget was hired to personify “Little Oscar, the World’s Smallest Chef,” and a cockpit was cut into the rear of the hot dog with space for him to ride. This unit stayed in operation into the early fifties.
In 1950 the company decided to expand their promotions and placed an order for five vehicles with the Ger-stenslager Company of Wooster, Ohio, a firm that is still building custom truck and trailer bodies.
Gerstenslager based the new Wiener-mobiles on contemporary Dodge one-ton truck chassis, but made major changes in components. On each unit the engine and radiator were moved to the rear and lowered so that they fit between the frame rails. The steering and control mechanism were moved ahead of the front axle, and the driver was placed between the front wheels.
The body itself was built with the care usually found in custom coachwork. Gerstenslager’s custom body division sales manager, A.W. Baehr, noted dryly that the company doesn’t do much of this anymore. “The cost of labor and materials today,” he wrote me, “give cause to our discontinuing such ventures in recent years.”
Gerstenslager formed angle iron into semi-circles which were welded to the frame rails and connected with braces to form the sausage shape, and this was covered with curved sheet steel. Steel fenders were connected across front and rear and along the sides between the wheels to streamline the lower section, and front and rear were complemented by chromed bumpers and flush headlamps and taillamps. Total weight was about 8,000 pounds.
The finished vehicle had a roomy cockpit with curved windshield and side lights. Entrance was by a door in the side of the wiener, and the diminutive chef could open a hatch at the midpoint and stand on an elevated bench so that he could be seen by the crowds.
These five units served Oscar Mayer well, being used in parades and market promotions into the seventies. They were assigned to the Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Madison, and Davenport, Iowa, areas.
As a side note, the Wienermobile idea created jobs for a group of little people, mostly actors, who served as “Little Oscar, the World’s Smallest Chef.”These men were not simply given a costume and a handful of “wiener-whistles.” Jerry Maren, who was hired in 1951, relates that he was given a full three months’ indoctrination at the Madison plant on the history of the company and its products before being sent to Los Angeles where he worked out of the salesman’s truck until the West Coast Wienermobile was delivered.
The Wienermobiles got plenty of action in the fifties and sixties, being on the road almost constantly. They were driven to each appearance, sometimes hundreds of miles. By the late sixties, though, time and travel were beginning to tell on the machines.
One unit was involved in an accident in 1967 and scrapped; another went to the junkyard the next year because of deterioration. Others were rebuilt at Oscar Mayer’s own garage, in most cases having the steel skirting replaced with a realistic fiberglass “bun,” and new engines and running gear installed. As a nod to the long-suffering crews, air conditioning was installed, the interiors were dressed up, and stereo sound was added for the PA systems.
In 1958, designer Brooks Stevens in nearby Milwaukee, came up with a modernistic design for a new generation of Wienermobiles. Built by the Gisholt Company of Madison, this vehicle had a full bubble nose of curved Plexiglas covering the entire end of the wiener. It was mounted on a Willys Jeep cab-over-truck chassis. This unit was used through late 1968 when it was rebuilt and upgraded by the Oscar Mayer garage. It was assigned to the Philadelphia area and used heavily until retired.
In January 1969 a pair of new units were turned out by the Oscar Mayer mechanics at Madison. This design was mounted on a Chevrolet van chassis with six-cylinder engine, and had air conditioning and a stereo sound system. These were the first Wienermobiles built from the ground up by the factory. One of these is in Puerto Rico today; the other is kept in the United States for occasional appearances.
A final body, using the same molds as the fiberglass vehicles, was manufactured in 1976 by Plastics Products of Milwaukee. The body was placed on a 1973 Chevrolet motor home chassis. It is currently in Spain.
Increasing use of television for national advertising, and the changing marketing habits of the nation’s homemakers caused interest in the Wienermobile promotions to fade, and the machines themselves were gradually withdrawn from service. The factory put the remaining Wienermobiles in storage, two in Los Angeles and the others elsewhere. According to Oscar Mayer’s West Coast regional manager Mel Southward, there were plans to have one of the California machines restored by customizer George Barris and placed in a museum Barris was planning, but this never came about.
In 1987, though, the company’s advertising group was taking a look at the nostalgia craze that was sweeping the country, and beginning to realize that, as Brooks Stevens says, the Wienermobile was “such a natural mobile billboard.” So the company resurrected one of the 1969 units and put it on the road. Reaction was immediate and favorable, and publicity mounted.
Motor Trend magazine did a tongue-in-cheek road test, writer Jack Nerad listing such features as “vented drums, brick-wall assist” for front brakes; emissions control as “strainer and cheesecloth”; and major options as “stereo, mustard, relish and melted cheese.” Oscar Mayer quickly saw that they had a good thing going, and called on Brooks Stevens Design Associates to lay out and build six new Wienermobiles.
David Stevens was the designer, and he chose a 1988 Chevrolet G20 van chassis with V-6 engine as a basis for the new fleet. As in the case of the Ger-stenslagers, the chassis was re-engineered to place the driving controls forward ahead of the engine. Stevens used the original Gerstenslager Wienermobile as a model for a mold for the new bodies which were completely constructed of fiberglass. Where the 1951 Gerstenslagers had curved glass windshields and side lights, the new design used flat glass. The “bun” is notched at each front comer for quad headlamps, and vents were installed on the top of the bun; the enticing odor of grilling hot dogs can be released through these.
The interior arrangement places the driver and a passenger at the very front of the cabin with a panoramic view to front and sides – two hefty mirrors give the driver some idea of what is happening on the road behind him. Neither of the seats in the control area is adjustable, and they are so close together that driver and passenger get elbow bums; foot space for both is tiny.
Behind them is a bulky engine cover, and beyond that, a nicely fitted, if minuscule, cabin with four seats which adjust fore and aft. The left rear seat-back folds flat, and with a padded hassock that is just behind it, turns into a bed. A folding table is mounted against the left wall.
The rear bulkhead has a semi-galley with coffee maker, refrigerator and microwave. There is plenty of storage at the rear to hold the souvenirs and promotional materials handed out at each appearance. While the main cabin seats are comfortable, the ceiling is too low for standing at more than a crouch. A single door at curbside swings up aircraft style for entrance.
A stereo PA system that plays the Oscar Mayer jingle – 23 versions of it – is part of the equipment.
Originally, the Stevens shop designed an executive type interior. As things worked out, this didn’t last since families with children were welcomed into the units and the lightweight fabrics suffered. The various units are being re-upholstered in more serviceable heavy-duty fabrics and carpeting.
The Wienermobiles are popular in less than actual size, too. From the beginning. little whistles in the shape of the rolling frankfurters have been handed out by the millions, and recently the company offered a ten-inch-long Wienermobile toy bank which was a big hit.
Currently six units travel the United States full time, crewed by college graduates serving internships for Oscar Mayer. Another four units were built at the Stevens shop and have been shipped to Spain and Japan.