Promotional campaigns run the gamut from corny to bizarre, but in the end, all that matters is that they make an impression. Minor league sports teams have become masters of the craft with novel one-off events that range from celebrating pop culture touchstones, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter-themed nights, to giving fans a unique––if unpleasant––experience they won’t soon forget. Take Pennsylvania’s Altoona Curve, for example. The Double-A affiliate of MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates gave fans a baseball experience they won’t soon forget back in 2002 when they launched their annual “Awful Night.” From ballpark employees dressed in odd outfits and bald caps to tone-deaf karaoke, glitchy scoreboards, fake player names, and more, the Curve etched their place in marketing history with the innovative promotion. The pièce de résistance? The first 1,000 fans through the gate received a signed photo of the general manager’s gallbladder, and one lucky visitor got to take home the actual organ.
While they might stop just short of handing out free organs, brands have been using customized cars in their fair share of odd promotions over the years. From rolling wieners to translucent chassis, size 700 boots, and more, these one-off vehicles can be an important part of an automotive ad campaign. While you’re not likely to find any of these models during your search of local car sales, they each represent a unique piece of automotive history. Join us as we take a closer look at three of the most memorable examples of the trend and see how these unique models have allowed brands to hit the road behind the wheel of some of their most iconic products.
Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
We’ll kick off our list with one of the oldest examples of what today’s drivers might describe as an automotive meme: the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. On the road since 1936, the Wienermobile has seen America’s favorite processed meat tube travel from coast to coast for the past 85 years, spreading the gospel of the hot dog and giving anyone who’s lucky enough to run into it a once-in-a-lifetime photo opp.
Built by Carl Mayer, the nephew of the Oscar Mayer founder, the original Wienermobile was a far cry from the giant rolling hot dog we know today. Measuring in at just 13 feet long, the O.G. Wienermobile featured a hatch around the midsection where a driver would poke their head out as they navigated the streets of Chicago. The company would add a glass dome to the Wienermobile in the 1940s, though gas rationing and rising metal prices would see the promotional vehicle scrapped as World War II took hold.
Oscar Mayer revived the Wienermobile in 1952, landing on a design that remains largely unchanged to this day. The 22-foot-long Wienermobile was built on a Dodge truck chassis and was driven by “Little Oscar,” a spokesperson who would visit stores, schools, orphanages, and children’s hospitals and drive the vehicle in local parades and festivals. The hot dog company has continued to refine the Wienermobile over the years, building new versions on a wide range of chassis from a Chevrolet motor home and Willys Jeep to a Ram 1500-series and even a MINI Cooper S Hardtop for a “mini” version in 2008.
Many food brands have tried to follow in the Weinermobile’s tracks over the years, including the Hershey’s Kissmobile, Planters Nutmobile, Spam-mobile, and Goldfish mobile, but few have managed to achieve the same level of fame as sleek sausage. Today, six different Winermobiles travel the country as part of the brand’s promotional campaign, playing the familiar Wiener Jingle in 21 different genres, including Cajun, Rap, and Bossa Nova, while doling small plastic whistles in the shape of the highway-bound hot dog. If you’re not lucky enough to spot one in the wild, just make your way to The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where a model from 1952 is still on display. The Wienermobile can also be booked for private events, giving every hot dog lover a chance to make their next weenie roast one to remember. You can even book a stay in a converted Wienermobile on Airbnb where, for $136 a night, you and a guest can enjoy the unique experience of spending the night in a 27-foot-long fiberglass sausage.
Pontiac Ghost Car
If you’re a ’90s kid who remembers the heyday of transparent electronics, you might be surprised to learn that the trend first kicked off more than a half-century before Clarissa started Explaining It All on her see-through home telephone. Unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Pontiac Ghost Car was a one-of-a-kind sedan that saw a Pontiac Deluxe Six wrapped in transparent Plexiglass. The unique chassis gave fairgoers a chance to see the Pontiac’s inner workings while demonstrating the unique properties of Plexiglass, which was a relatively recent innovation at the time.
“Created to show the rigid interior bracing and other features complete with windows that can be raised and lowered, doors that can be opened and closed. The only material lacking being the insulation normally applied to the inner surface working with a new material, a synthetic crystal-clear plastic,” reads a General Motors press release from the 1939 event.
The Ghost Car was fully functional, with an 85-horsepower inline-six engine and three-speed manual transmission, but cost a pretty penny with an estimated price tag of around $460,000. The most interesting thing about the Ghost Car is that it was a sort of two-for-one promotional vehicle. Not only did it showcase the advanced engineering and automotive technology that went into every Pontiac model––it also allowed Plexiglass inventor Rohm & Haas to introduce their innovative new product to the world. The material itself was actually born out of a project aimed at producing a new type of automotive safety glass, which led to the discovery of an acrylic compound that would come to be known as Plexiglass.
GM was one of Rohm & Haas biggest customers and jumped at the opportunity to team up with the chemical company to roll out the Ghost Car concept for the Futurama exhibition at the World’s Fair. The Ghost Car would certainly turn some heads at the World’s Fair, but its real coming out party was to come a few years later as the acrylic compound played an important role in the construction of aircraft canopies for planes in World War II.
L.L. Bean Bootmobile
When you’re a storied outdoor clothing brand looking to celebrate its 100th anniversary, releasing an updated version of the product that started it all isn’t a bad way to go. Maine-based retailer L.L. Bean took this concept to a whole new level in 2012 when it introduced the Bootmobile, a 13-foot-tall, 20-foot-long boot that trades the rubber and leather of the original footwear for a steel and fiberglass body. Built around a Ford F-250, the Bootmobile is designed in the image of the iconic Bean Boot, a so-called “duck boot” originally known as the Maine Hunting Shoe. The Bootmobile upsizes the recognizable footwear into a funky-if-not-functional way to promote both the brand and the outdoorsy lifestyle that it embodies.
L.L. Bean added to the fleet a few years later with a smaller, 11-foot-tall Bootmobile built on a GMC Sierra 2500 HD. Both vehicles are faithful recreations of the original Bean Boots, which were invented in 1911 by Leon Leonwood Bean, an avid hunter and outdoorsman who was tired of his feet getting wet while he was tracking down his quarry in the Maine woods. Bean slapped the rubber soles from rainboots onto a pair of leather uppers, and the rest is history, with the Bean boots becoming the footwear of choice for preppy autumn lovers the world over.
The gas-powered version of the boots features 12-strand braided mooring rope in the place of traditional laces but are a less practical alternative to the original due at least in part to their sizing: the 13-foot version would be a size 747 in U.S. measurements, while the 11-foot model is closer to a size 708. Oddly enough, the Bootmobile isn’t even the first of its kind. Back in the 1920s, San Francisco’s Peter Bros. Shoe Repair retrofitted a Chevy Series Four-Ninety truck chassis to include a shoe-shaped cab in an attempt to promote their new business. The gambit paid off, with the company’s profits skyrocketing in the years after the vehicle’s introduction.
So Many Bizarre Promotional Cars Are Out There
Promotional vehicles like the Wienermobile, Ghost Car, and Bootmobile give brands a chance to show off new products or celebrate their history while providing passersby with a sight they won’t soon forget. It’s easy to write these vehicles off as silly marketing stunts, but there’s no denying the appeal and instant recognizability of a 27-foot-long hot dog cruising down the interstate at 65 mph. Given the fact that many of these vehicles are more focused on promoting a brand than the underlying vehicle, it can be difficult to know what familiar chassis might be lurking behind the laces of that 13-foot hunting shoe, but it’s funny to think that you could be driving around in the same model as some of the world’s most iconic rides.
Today’s automakers might have moved on from novelties like the Pontiac Ghost Car, but their spirit lives on in the concept models that take center stage at annual auto shows and promotional events. Like the Ghost Car, these concept vehicles give brands a chance to showcase the latest and greatest in automotive techniques, styling, and technology but often lack the pure spectacle of some of history’s best promotional vehicles. While we appreciate automakers giving us a quick glance at the future of driving, we just wish there were more gas-powered hot dogs on the road.