The story of the Monkeemobile

Fifty years ago, a 'mutant' Pontiac GTO became the hero car for an unexpected hit show

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Hey, hey, they’re the Monkees, and people say they’re still monkeying around. Fifty years after the comedy-sitcom about a four-man band hit the airwaves, two of the remaining Monkees are lining up for a .

Fans will likely remember songs like Daydream Believer. They’ll fondly reminisce over the late Davy Jones, who died in 2012. And they’ll remember the bright red Monkeemobile, an exaggerated caricature of a convertible that’s one of the most recognizable customized cars ever built. Like the Monkees themselves, the Pontiac GTO built by Dean Jeffries was built on the bones of real performance: it played a part, but was more than just Hollywood fluff.

You’d know it instantly. With both nose and tail stretched out by more than a foot each, the Monkeemobile was still recognizable as a GTO, but a strangely mutated one. Side-exit exhausts poked out from just behind the front wheels, and a huge blower erupted from the front hood. Behind, the trunk had been hollowed out to make room for a curved bench seat, and a giant canvas top was stretched over the whole shebang like an early Ford Model T. There was even a drag-style racing chute fitted.

Pontiac executives were appalled, including a disapproving John Z. DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean). They’d been told that the modifications to their powerful midsize car would be tasteful tweaks, so what was this monkey business? However, with the show set to start filming, there was no time to renege; the cameras rolled and everyone held their breath.

How the Monkeemobile came to be a Pontiac GTO is one of those cases of happenstance and networking that fill the car industry. Dean Jeffries was already an established name in the customizing world, having come up pinstriping Indy cars and even the Porsche 550 Spyder that James Dean died in. It was Jeffries who painted “Little Bastard” on the back of that ill-fated car, who formed the aluminum skin of Carroll Shelby’s first Cobra, who crafted the original Black Beauty for The Green Hornet. Not bad for a kid from Compton, California.

Contracted by Universal Studios to provide a hero car for the Monkees, Jeffries talked shop with George Toteff, head of Model Products Corporation (MPC). The toymaker employed the real-car customizer for design work on some of its model kits, and was a sounding board for what car they should use. Toteff scratched his chin, then picked up the phone and spoke to Jim Wangers, who managed Pontiac’s advertising account at MacManus, John & Adams.

Picture it as a scene from the first couple of seasons of Mad Men. Wangers knows the conservative General Motors brass won’t love the California-custom look, but he bets the youth market will go ape over the Monkeemobile. He orders two basic 1966 Pontiac GTO convertibles, each with the 389-cubic-inch V8 and hydramatic automatic transmissions. Then he probably fixes himself a stiff drink.

The first car Jeffries built took just 10 days to complete. The second car took four. One would be used as the television car, and the second as a promotional vehicle, and each differed slightly. For instance, the GMC 6-71 supercharger that stuck out of the Monkeemobile’s hood rammed so much power into the engine the car was practically undriveable.

Monkeemobile-5The second Monkeemobile, the one used for promotional events, had weight added to the trunk and the rear suspension removed so it could do crowd-pleasing wheel stands. The TV show car had only the shell of the blower attached; a four-barrel carburetor would provide all the power it needed.

Nobody could have predicted the success of the Monkees, but what happened next paid off for nearly everyone involved. MPC sold seven million of the Monkeemobile kits, more than any other car save the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee. Pontiac’s GTO went down in the history books as an icon. The Monkees themselves went on to become legends; in 1967, they outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – combined!

Dean Jeffries continued to customize cars for Hollywood, but somehow never quite got the public recognition he deserved. When the show ended filming, he passed up the option to buy the Monkeemobiles for $1,000. George Barris bought the second of the two, used it as a promotional vehicle for years, and sold it at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2008 for nearly $400,000.

As with other famous custom cars he had nothing to do with (like the Ghostbusters Ectomobile), Barris might not claim to have created the Monkeemobile, but he didn’t really correct anyone who made the assumption. A consummate self-promoter, Barris got plenty of credit while Jeffries continued working away. It was a source of bad blood between them.

As for the original TV show car, it accompanied the Monkees on their world tour. Somehow, it ended up left behind in Australia. Then it later turned up in Puerto Rico, where it was used as a hotel limousine. The story goes that it had been repainted pink, but nobody seems to know how the car went from Down Under to the Caribbean.

Then the Puerto Rican government seized the car and auctioned it off against unpaid taxes. It sold, in 1992, to an anonymous buyer who paid the minimum $5,000 bid for the car, then shipped it to New York state. It was restored to its former glory and reunited with the Monkees in 1997, for a television special on ABC.

Both cars still come out to the occasional important car show, and are driven once in a while. There they go, rolling down the street. And, as you might expect, they still get the funniest looks from everyone they meet.

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