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Hot Dog! Gawkers Relish the Return of the Wienermobile

August 26, 1992|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You look at it and you smile. Almost everybody does. Presumably because it's just plain silly.

An immense wiener curling upward from a vaguely shaped bun, moving on four wheels up the freeway. People see it, honk and wave. Children press their noses against car windows trying to get a better look.

It's the Wienermobile, survivor of what used to be an advertising art form: the automobile shaped like a tire, vacuum cleaner or milk bottle--whatever product you were selling.

By and large, national firms abandoned such local promotions when national TV became the advertising medium of choice. So did Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. of Madison, Wis., but it has recanted.

Now it pays about $1.4 million a year to keep six Wienermobiles moving throughout the United States. Each is piloted by two "hotdoggers," recent college graduates who throw themselves unashamedly into their daily PR appearances.

As the Wienermobile recently passed through Tustin with Tim Young at the wheel, Brittne Eickmann relaxed in a rear seat. She made it clear how silly she is willing to get. "I relish this job," she said, "but to keep it, you have to cut the mustard."

Asked to turn on the air conditioning, Young was hesitant: "Well, this isn't really a chili dog."

The Wienermobile program is designed to be a corny-copia of such puns, and people seem to eat them up. Soon after Eickmann and Young set up at a hamburger restaurant in Fullerton, parents began arriving with their children to gawk and peek inside. Men in business suits and roofers in tarred T-shirts wandered over from a nearby service station.

A middle-aged surfer declared it to be cool. "I didn't know this thing still existed," he added.

A construction worker asked for two of the seemingly endless number of "wiener whistles" handed out by the hotdoggers. They are tiny, tweeting replicas of the Wienermobile.

"The most common thing people say is, 'I remember this from when I was a kid,' " said Eickmann.

Created in 1936 and mothballed in 1973 in favor of TV advertising, the Wienermobile concept was revived six years ago and sent on tour for its 50th anniversary. It was so enfeebled by 13 years in storage that it had to be hauled on a flatbed truck to its destination, then fired up to limp onstage.

Nonetheless, it was a hit.

Tunneling straight into a vein of nostalgia, the Wienermobile attracted the kids of the '50s and '60s, who brought their kids to stops in 12 cities from West Virginia to Minnesota. Cities bypassed on the tour lodged protests.

"Those of you nurturing fond memories of Mr. Machine, Snippy the Scissors and the Beaver are being denied an opportunity--perhaps the very last--to relish an even greater cultural icon of your youth: the Wienermobile," complained the Chicago Tribune. Both the Oscar Mayer company and its first Wienermobile were built in Chicago, the paper recalled.

Oscar Mayer officials stopped short of saying they were surprised by the popularity of the tour. But they tried it one more summer before deciding whether a new fleet of Wienermobiles was worth the investment.

Popularity persisted. "In fact, Newsweek magazine covered it in Atlanta," said Phyllis A. Lovrien, vice president of Oscar Mayer corporate affairs, who had been lobbying management for years to reinstate the Wienermobile. "That issue arrived on our chairman's desk right about the time of the board meeting. It was great timing."

Such media attention continued after the 1988 Central Park debut of the current fleet, designed by the firm that created the Excalibur, a replica of the classic SSK Mercedes-Benz roadsters. Usually cynical, hard-bitten news writers embraced the Wienermobile as if it were a teddy bear.

It made the cover of Motor Trend. AutoWeek also "road-tested" it. Adweek featured it. The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal and scores of smaller local newspapers wrote about it, sometimes on the front page.

Lovrien said the Wienermobiles provoke an average of 100 million "media impressions" a year--that is, 100 million instances of someone seeing them in publications or broadcasts.

"Productmobiles" already had a long history by 1936, when Carl Mayer, son of one of the company's founders, decided that his firm needed one. A 13-foot, motorized, sheet-metal hot dog was built with an open cockpit atop the rear to carry another of the firm's new advertising symbols: a midget dubbed "Little Oscar, the world's smallest chef."

The original was used until the 1950s, when a new Wienermobile was designed--this time with the wiener resting on a bun. Five had been built by 1953, and they became the classics. One is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., as "the most successful and enduring 'productmobile' of all time."

A futuristic, bubble-nosed model was built in 1958, but mechanical problems sidelined it.

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