“El Gallo Grande” is an eye-searingly yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight sedan with the half-crowing head of an enormous rooster sticking out of the roof, a beautiful sweeping rooster tail from the trunk, and a horn that plays chicken sounds to the bemusement of Los Angeles motorists. It is part art car, part advertising platform for various chicken establishments, part potential Lemons car. It is NASCAR’s true Car of Tomorrow. And it is the love of racer Tommy Kendall’s life.
It’s a scruffy celebrity in pricey, trendy Santa Monica: a “a goodwill ambassador for those fortunate enough to enter its atmosphere,” says a pricey, trendy Santa Monica realtor.
Kendall is the championship-winning IMSA and Trans-Am driver and current motorsports commenter who, as he puts it, was “big in the Nineties.” We know him for his racing victories. The people of Santa Monica know him for his Chicken Car.
He first saw the car driving past his office in Glendale, sounding its distinctive horn: “Chicken car! Chicken car!” He bolted. He ran outside and found the car sitting outside in the rain, and it was love at first sight.
“It was sitting out there in the rain, just clucking,” he told the Santa Monica Daily Press. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the coolest thing. I’ve got to have that.’”
A woman told him that the car had been brought from Ohio to be in a movie. She was just taking it out for a laugh. Kendall, knowing full well that the car was close to priceless, said: I’ll give you $3,500 for it. I’ll tell the owner, she replied.
Kendall never heard from her again.
But there is the heat of love, the pulsing rush of longing, as Homer once said, and magic to make the sanest man go mad—and Kendall was hopelessly, infatuatedly, in love. He pined for the car, in public, on the pages of Autoweek. He vowed to the august publication’s audience that he, Tommy Kendall, two-time IMSA GT champion, would fight as hard as he could to track it down. How do you lose a 19-foot chicken car? In Los Angeles, it’s far easier than one many think.
Eventually, a reader chimed in. An Autoweek editor in Los Angeles, who may or may not have been Mark Vaughn, left Kendall a message: the car was in an impound lot off Colorado Avenue, not far from where Kendall lived in Santa Monica. It was up for auction. Kendall went down to the lot with $10,000 in cash. Nobody else put in a bid. Kendall paid just $895 and drove off.
In the backseat was the note he had left the woman with his original four-figure offer.
In the interview with the Santa Monica newspaper, Kendall attests to all sorts of adventures with the crazy chicken car. For one, it won’t fit in his garage. Some of his neighbors hate it, so it sits at “an undisclosed warehouse,” according to the Daily Press—but it doesn’t stop intrepid Redditors from tracking it down. It has its own Facebook page.
While driving past, actress Helen Hunt stopped just to show her child the chicken car. When a teenager crashed into the chicken car, Kendall bought another 1973 Oldsmobile, gave it the finest Earl Scheib paintjob money can buy, and swapped over the chicken bits.
In a previous life the car had promoted a radio station as well as a pet convention, though not at the same time. According to LA Weekly, it was built by one Steve Cantin, a filmmaker based in Columbus, Ohio who is really into pets: in 2006, he tried to buy it back from Kendall. The latter refused. He is having too much fun with it: telling people, for example, that it’s his only car, or that he bought it at night and didn’t see the chicken bits.
But the best story is this: in 2009, during Halloween weekend, Kendall and his brother donned fake mullets and drove the chicken car from Los Angeles to Talladega. He had lost a bet with NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, hence the mullets. And the three of them, with the Speed Channel in tow, took a few laps around the booze-laden infield, and then a lap around the superspeedway.
“You think you’re qualified to drive this thing?” said Kendall, still resplendent in his mullet.
“I mean, it’s not a Prius,” said Vickers, “but I think I can get around here.”
Kendall acquired the car in 1997. That year, he won nearly every single race on the SCCA Trans-Am Championship, winning eleven consecutive races with Roush Racing, earning his fourth series championship, and cementing his name as legend.
Coincidence? No way. Never underestimate the power of El Gallo Grande.
“I don’t care how bad a day you’re having,” said Kendall, “you get in that car and in about five minutes, people are waving and honking, smiling. It’s like, how bad can it be? It’s a reminder to not take yourself too seriously. He’s my wingman. That’s the story.”