Back in the 1960s, Chuck Miller was on the cutting edge of car customization. He created absurd and cartoonish hot rods that were more like caricature sculptures than automobiles. This “Fire Truck” is one of his most famous works of art, and it’s drivable! Sort of.
Hot rods have gone through many interesting periods of development, and have strayed quite far from the wellspring of “modifying a car for the purpose of making it go faster.” One of the most visually delightful periods of hot rodian evolution has to be the “show rod” era, which reached a peak in the 1960s and ’70s. These were cars built more as an expression of a given theme or idea, which served as a sort of hook on which to hang all sorts of amazing and exaggerated hot rod aesthetics. They’re bonkers, and I got to drive one of the best of the era: Chuck Miller’s Fire Truck.
The fact that this thing has a generic name like “Fire Truck” is pretty deceptive, since it’s about as much like an actual fire truck as the cartoon Road Runner is like an actual, real geococcyx californianus road runner bird.
It’s a cartoon, of sorts. A funhouse mirror exaggeration of the idea of a fire truck, a translation of the Platonic ideal of a fire truck into the vocabulary and language of 1960s hot rods, a world of monsters with eyeballs that pop out of their heads shifting massive beer tap shifters as they spew hellfire from a nest of exhaust pipes that looks like a chromed kraken.
Miller designed the Fire Truck around a standard starting point for such things: the C-Cab. The C-Cab was the name given to the body used for old Model T delivery trucks, and was the basis for many show rods of the era.
Miller’s take on this was, of course, completely custom and exaggerated, with a tall, narrow C-shape, angled with an aggressive forward rake, connected to a massive Ford V8 with a huge (but fake) supercharger and lots of chrome bits.
The rear tires are drag racing slicks, the front “pizza cutters” may be motorcycle tires, and everything is designed for a look and an impression of barely-controllable speed as opposed to actual drivability.
Everything about the car fits the theme: there’s an American LaFrance badge on the radiator (that company made a lot of American fire engines from the late 1800s to 2014), the fuel tank is, ironically, a fire extinguisher full of gasoline, the battery box is a first-aid kit, and, just because this is the sort of things show rods of the era did, the shifter is a giant beer tap. The throttle is an oversized chrome foot silhouette, and you steer it with a giant chrome tiller.
I mean, there are model kits of this car that have been around for decades. This thing is a legend.
As you can probably imagine, it really is almost undriveable. Legend has it that Miller himself drove it on the highway for some distance, but I have to think he had a steering wheel on there temporarily or something, because this thing is really about impossible to actually drive.
The tiller pins your knees between itself and the shifter, and takes constant adjustment to keep straight. The gas pedal is insanely sensitive, the brakes are barely extant, the suspension is fragile and minimal, the whole driving experience reminds you that this was a machine designed to win hot rod trophies while stationary, not really to move itself around on roads.
With the knowledge of what it’s worth (a lot of money) always hovering in your head, it’s a terrifying thing to drive, in any context. But that’s also why getting the chance to drive it was so amazing, and why I was absolutely delighted I got to.
I should also make sure to thank Beau Boeckmann of Galpin Auto Sports for letting me drive his one-of-a-kind rolling sculpture, and Dave Shuten, the man who keeps these things alive and happy, for letting me make him cringe as he watched his baby get abused on public streets.
I know that had to hurt, at least a little bit.