Bubble Top Cars of the Future
Years ago the future was a happy place, where no one would work very hard and everyone would drive cars that looked like rocket ships.
Darryl Starbird couldn't control the future, but he could design the cars -- and they're on display in his National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum.
In the 1950s, Darryl and his wife Donna lived in Wichita, Kansas, a center of airplane manufacturing. Darryl told us that he tried to work as a designer for Boeing, but hated its lack of freedom and creativity. "I would've ended up just one of the guys in the back room," he said. Darryl quit, and opened a tiny garage where he began customizing cars. "I just started doing what I dreamt."
In late 1959 he dreamed big and transformed the gutted hulk of a Ford Thunderbird into an electric blue jet-fighter-of-a-car on wheels. He called it "Predicta," and told Car Craft magazine, "I didn't want just another custom; I was after a dream car of the future that even Detroit would take notice of." He succeeded; in 1960 Predicta was crowned "Car of the Future" at the Grand National Roadster Show.
Compared to the wild creations of other car customizers, Predicta's lines were restrained, even graceful. It still looks futuristically elegant today in Darryl's museum. Beneath its streamlined lucite bubble-dome is a womb-like tufted cockpit buttoned with rhinestones. There's a TV in the dashboard and no steering wheel; you drive the car with a center-mounted joystick. "You push it forward it goes right, you pull it back it goes left," said Donna, who's driven all of Darryl's cars, and he's built over 300 of them.
Some critics said the Predicta was just eye candy. Starbird silenced them by racing the car at over 100 mph on a drag strip, then drove it thousands of miles to dozens of car shows. "One thing Darryl will not do is build a car he cannot drive," said Donna. "Anything you build ought to work," said Darryl. "If it doesn't, what's the purpose of it?"
Driving a car of the future sometimes caused problems in the present. Darryl remembered one driver who gawked at the Predicta and plowed into a car in front of him at a stoplight. Another time the Predicta broke down, and by the time Darryl returned with help the car was surrounded by police. "They said, 'You gotta get this thing off the highway,'" remembered Donna. "'We got a call from someone who said it was from outer space.'"
The Predicta's success led Starbird to build more bubble top cars, such as the "Forcasta" (1961), "Fantabula" (1962), and "Futurista" (1963, a three-wheeler). Starbird became the "Bubble Top King," and was hired as a consultant by the Monogram plastic model kit company. "I built cars, they made little copies of them," was how Darryl described the arrangement. A showcase in the museum displays some of his creations made in miniature: "Cosma Ray," "Orange Hauler," "Li'l Coffin," "Big Tub." Starbird received one percent of the sale price of every model, and Monogram sold over two million of them.
With the Starbird's income and reputation secure, Darryl and Donna eventually moved from Wichita to Oklahoma, where they built a house, workshop, and museum on 80 acres overlooking Grand Lake O'Cherokee. The museum, which is managed by Donna, has expanded several times since then, filled not only with Darryl's creations but with those of the other customizers inducted into its Hall of Fame. Darryl spends most of his time in the workshop, still building cars.
The Starbird creations in the museum are easy to spot. There's the "Vantasta," a 1972 Ford with a silver, black, and scarlet interior of velour and vinyl straight out of Logan's Run or A Clockwork Orange. "Starship" is a Camaro with twin blue-tinted bubble top cockpits that look like the eyes of an alien insect. "Trik Truck" is a Chevy van customized out of all recognition, with an extra set of wheels and an "electric front cockpit hatch."
The museum even has a replica of the tiny tin-roofed body shop where Starbird created the Predicta. A sign notes that the welding equipment and grinding wheels hanging from the walls are "the actual tools used to construct many of the cars you see on display in the museum," although it adds that Darryl's "real tools were his hands."
Darryl said that when he opened the museum in 1995, the custom car scene was in decline. Now it's undergone a revival, thanks to cable series/video games such as Pimp My Ride, Trick My Truck, and Monster Garage, as well as the popularity of art cars. Turning a vehicle into a pleasure palace or sculpture on wheels is more fun now than it's been in decades. "I go to a lot of these custom car shows," said Darryl, "and I see an awful lot of young people."
But the bubble top creations of Darryl Starbird remain an offshoot, awaiting the return of a hopeful world, or maybe just the invention of a bubble top that won't roast the people underneath it. "I'd never drive a bubble top on a hundred degree day; you'd die in there," said Darryl. "But when the sun's down, on a beautiful starlit night, they're really nice."