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"Desert Marlin" with its illuminated saguaro. Parked behind it: "Dark Ride" and "Land Yacht."

Art Car World

Field review by the editors.

Douglas, Arizona

"You can't just snap your fingers and make one of these," said Harrod Blank, describing the automobiles in Art Car World. He should know: Harrod once spent two years in the 1990s covering the outside of a van with over 2,700 cameras, then used them to photograph the reactions of startled onlookers as he drove past -- long before the less whimsical surveillance network of Google Street View cars arrived.

Harrod Blank in his
Harrod Blank in his "Oh My God!" VW Beetle.

He had made an Art Car, and the fabled Camera Van is now one of the vehicles enshrined in Art Car World.

Harrod began driving the Art Car highway back in 1977, although he didn't know it at the time. Still in high school, he added paint and attachments to his VW Beetle, which he named Oh My God! in honor of the public alarm that it raised. Harrod didn't know that other, creative-minded people were doing the same thing to their cars, laboring in obscurity, unaware of each other.

Over time he came to connect to these "car-tists" and became their champion, recording their quirks and creations in documentary films and books (Wild Wheels, Driving The Dream, Automorphosis). A worthy Art Car, Harrod said, puts art in motion, brings art to the people, and has "magic" -- a word that he uses reverently.

But time passed. The creators of the original Art Cars began dying. Their heirs knew and trusted Harrod, and understood that the cars would eventually fall apart if they just leaked oil in the driveway or the back yard. "The outdoors is what kills them," Harrod said, noting the irony.

"Jewel Box" was encased by Jay Battenfield in countless glued-on baubles and beads.

Needing a safe place to shelter a growing collection of donated, unwieldy vehicles, Harrod arrived in Douglas, Arizona, just north of the Mexican border, in 2005. "The real estate was cheap and the climate is really good for cars," he told us. Harrod has since purchased a full city block of Douglas, including several buildings and parking lots. He plans to turn this enclave into an arts district, establishing "a new identity" for the town, which, until his arrival, had nothing like it.

Entrance sign: crafted by Allen Christian of the House of Balls.
Entrance sign: crafted by Allen Christian of the House of Balls.

Creating an arts district in Douglas, like attaching thousands of cameras to a van, takes time. Art Car World is only part of this larger plan, and Harrod judged it ready to open to the public with regular hours in 2023. "It's got a ways to go," he said of the arts district. "It's happening. It's just really big."

The interior of Art Car World is sparse, but no one seems to notice or care with their eyes fixed firmly on the cars: Space Junk, Mondrian Mobile, Bottle of Doom, and many more. Tour guides lead the way, pointing out details of individual vehicle construction and relating the cars' histories, each as different as their obsessive creators.

The Coltmobile, for example, is a Buick Skylark covered with 1,045 little horses by Ronald Colt Snow, who had weathered some rough years. Every time he wanted a drink, he'd instead glue a horse to the Coltmobile. Ernie Steingold created the California Fantasy Van by literally encasing it in over 5,000 items, all of them brass, as well as $15,000 in coins. "He was a vacuum cleaner repairman, and every day after work he would drill holes and rivet a dozen items onto his van," said Harrod. "That's, like, 10-20 minutes for every single item. It blows your mind."

1995 "Camera Van" was built to photograph awestruck onlookers.

Jewel Box was made by Jay Battenfield, a used car dealer who covered his Chevy Corvair with countless thousands of baubles and jewels in a tribute to his dead wife. "He used the wrong kind of glue," Harrod said. "I'm constantly having to pick up pieces of the car, then I have to look at photos to find out where they came from, then I have to silicon them back on."

The Land Yacht, Harrod said, is an Art Car that failed, conceptually, because its creator, Eric Lamb, thought it would attract women. "It didn't." Harrod prefers Art Cars that were built to outwardly exorcise inner demons, or to simply have fun and entertain people. "It's gotta resonate," said Harrod of what he looks for in an Art Car World-worthy car. It also helps if the car has had a pedigree of appearances in Art Car parades and at Burning Man.

A diverse group of tourists visit Art Car World, according to Harrod, including Border Patrol agents, curious Mexicans, desert environmentalists, people headed South of the Border for discount dental work, families visiting inmates in the local prison, and people using the attraction's Tesla charging station, which Harrod said brings in tourists who leave larger donations. "Car culture" visitors, Harrod said, often have mixed feelings about Art Car World. "They get into the canvas of the car," he explained. "They'll say, 'Why would you do that to a Corvair?' or 'They ruined a classic VW.' I get that a lot."

"Mondrian Mobile" by Emily Duffy: she also wore a Mondrian suit.

When a visitor remarks, "Well, it looks like someone had a lot of time on their hands," Harrod has to restrain himself. "That is so dismissive of everything that person did," he said. "Each of these cars is a life lived."

Douglas, on the outskirts of civilization, is an appropriate place for an attraction celebrating an outsider art. But while 20th century Harrod the Art Car creator could reject real-world conformity, 21st century Harrod the Art Car curator must deal with real-world obligations: explaining the cars, preserving the cars, raising money for the cars, washing the cars (a delicate once-a year operation), fighting for the cars in a too-often uncomprehending world. "I'm pretty much the one doing most everything," he said.

The one thing that Harrod does not do is to give rides to visitors in the Art Cars. "You worry about things falling off," he said. Also, Art Car artists usually cared more about their glued-on skulls and cacti than about vehicle aerodynamics and stability. Harrod used the word "terror" to describe a road trip that he once took in the weaving, wobbling Coltmobile. "It was very scary," Harrod said. "I never want to do that again."

Also see: Vanadu

Art Car World

Art Car World

401 E. 9th St., Douglas, AZ
On the west side of town. From Pan American Ave. turn east onto 8th St. and drive one block. Art Car World will be on the left, at the corner of 9th St. and H Ave.
F-Su 11-7, or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Donations greatly appreciated..
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Last Supper MuseumLast Supper Museum, Douglas, AZ - < 1 mi.
Shady Dell RV Park and Dot's DinerShady Dell RV Park and Dot's Diner, Bisbee, AZ - 21 mi.
Copper Queen Mine TourCopper Queen Mine Tour, Bisbee, AZ - 22 mi.
In the region:
Historama, Tombstone, AZ - 40 mi.

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