Monkeemobile History from Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine
The History of the MonkeeMobile
By Don Keefe, Editor, Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine
MonkeeMobile #1 Photo Copyright 1997 Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine. Used with permission.
It seems that nearly everyone with a television remembers The Monkees and their off-the-wall 1960s sitcom. Whether it was seen in original release or in syndication, the “made for TV” knockoffs of The Beatles became wildly popular in their own right. It was one of those overnight sensations that sometimes happen in show business, and like the Beatles, they seem to find new generations of audiences as time goes on.
As celebrated as the Monkees are, the story of the Monkeemobile is not very well known. In actuality, there were two identical cars built, one pictured above, which was actually the first car built (we had stated incorrectly in GRRRaffiti last issue that it was the second car) and one pictured below that is owned by customizer George Barris. How a Pontiac was chosen to become the Monkeemobile is one of those classic stories of someone knowing someone who knew someone else. The catalyst to the project was George Toteff, the CEO of Model Products Corporation, better known as MPC. In addition to manufacturing models, Toteff also built the “GeeTO Tiger” model drag strip that toured the country as part of that promotion.
Toteff had on contract a well-known customizer by the name of Dean Jeffries, who designed custom variations on some MPC model kits and performed other consulting duties as well. At the same time, Jeffries was also contracting to Universal Studios, which would be producing the show. He was chosen to build a customized car for use on the Monkees TV show, which at that point hadn’t begun production, and a car had not yet been chosen.
Jeffries had mentioned these developments to Toteff, who in turn told his friend Jim Wangers about the opportunity. As you probably already know, Wangers was working for Pontiac’s advertising agency, McManus, John & Adams, managing promotion and advertising for the Pontiac account. Wangers instantly saw the show as a huge promotional opportunity for Pontiac and cemented the deal with the show’s producers. As well as providing cars for the personal use of the stars and producers, Wangers also ordered two base-engined, automatic-transmissioned 1966 GTO convertibles that would be converted into Monkeemobiles. For his help getting the deal together, Toteff was granted exclusive rights to market a model kit of the car. More than 7 million MPC Monkeemobiles were sold, a number surpassed only by The Dukes of Hazzard’s “General Lee” 1969 Dodge Charger in overall model kit sales.
Wangers knew the cars were to be customized pretty heavily and that GM management might not be pleased with what Hollywood would want to do with the cars. The last thing they wanted was a car that would be the object of ridicule.
What Jeffries came up with was much more radical than anyone at Pontiac had anticipated. While the front end was easily recognizable as a GTO, the rest of the car was heavily customized. Among the modifications, Jeffries added a very tall split windshield, a third row of seats where the rear deck was, a T-bucket-type convertible top, large fender flares, exaggerated taillamps, and even a parachute. The show’s producers wanted a flamboyant car, and Dean delivered in spades.
Jeffries stated in a recent phone interview that the two cars were built within the span of only one month, one after the other. “The producers waited until the last minute to give us the go-ahead on the cars,” Jeffries recalled. “We had to work around the clock for four weeks to get the cars done in time, but we did make it.”
There were also mechanical modifications made. “The first car built was actually the one used on the TV show, and the second car was displayed at car shows and other promotions. That second car was never used on the show,” said Jeffries. “We put a 6-71 supercharger on the engine in the first car and solidly mounted the rear axle. We also put weights in the rear so it would wheelstand. It had too much power for the suspension and was a difficult car to drive, so we took off the blower and installed a dummy blower so it looked the same.”
Meanwhile, all was not well at Pontiac. Jim Wangers had warned Pontiac General Manager John DeLorean that the cars were not at all what they were expecting, and it was too late to build new vehicles. They decided to bear any slings and arrows from GM management, let the cars go as is, and try to make the most of the situation. Wangers, always one to take lemons and make lemonade, engineered a very clever tie-in promotion with The Kellogg’s Corporation.
“The Kellogg’s TV Screen-Stakes” was timed to coincide with the release of the all-new 1968 GTO and was featured on Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Raisin Bran cereal boxes. The winner would win a 1968 GTO convertible as well a guest role on the NBC Monkees TV show. The 15 second-prize winners would receive a 1968 GTO hardtop, and 1,500 third-prize winners each received Monkees LP albums.
It was a wildly successful promotion. Jim Wangers said in a recent phone interview that from Pontiac’s perspective, he wasn’t satisfied with the way things were handled until Kellogg’s got involved. “They [Kellogg's] were very professional and top-notch in every way. What made the whole thing gel was that there were 42 million boxes of cereal on breakfast tables all over the country promoting the new GTO. Kellogg’s market research determined that a box of cereal on average was taken out and put on the breakfast table six times before it was thrown away. Forty-two million times six…where else can you get mileage like that? Were it not for them, I would have been embarrassed by the whole experience. The cars were not at all what we wanted, but fortunately they weren’t part of the promotion.”
Monkee Mike Nesmith recalls his association with Pontiac fondly. “It was a good time,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We always drove new GTOs. I had a black on black coupe and a white on white convertible. They were fabulous–true muscle cars in every sense of the word.”
Nesmith also mentioned that there was even a plan to build a Monkeemobile funnycar, which unfortunately never came to pass. “We had the whole thing spec’ed out,” he added. “It was to be a tube-framed, fiberglass bodied drag machine. When that fell through, they added the blower and the parachute to the one car. It was a very difficult car to drive, though, and not well suited to filming.”
The Monkeemobile you see here, Number One, has had a remarkable life, many years of which we will probably never know the whole story about. Here’s what we do know: Number One was sent to Australia to accompany the Monkees on a concert tour. For some reason it was left down there, although it is not clear if it was properly sold and the title was actually transferred or it just ended up in someone’s hands. It is unlikely that it was ever registered there, because it was never converted to right-hand drive, as required by Australian law. Dean Jeffries tried in vain to retrieve the car, but it was too difficult to get the job done from Hollywood, and it stayed down there. It passed through a series of owners before next showing up in Puerto Rico, where it was used as a hotel courtesy car for several years.
It was next seen in May of 1992 in a government foreclosure auction in Puerto Rico. A call was made to GTOAA vice president Dave Barsky from the current owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. Barsky recalls: “He said to me, ‘Dave, this is the strangest GTO I’ve ever seen. Can you tell me what it is?’ So I asked him to tell me what it looked like. After he described a few of the features to me, I told him it had to be the Monkeemobile. I mean, what else could it have been? He asked me what I thought it was worth, so I told him to bid $500 for it and see what happens.”
As it turned out, the minimum bid for that car was $5,000, so he made the minimum bid and the car was sold to him at that price, because no one else present at the auction knew what it was. It was subsequently brought back to the mainland, and it now resides in the metropolitan New York City area.
Fortunately, the Monkeemobile was in great shape and only needed minor work to bring it up to snuff. At some point, the solidly located rear axle was rehung on leaf springs, and the frame has been heavily modified from stock, but everything works as it should. The owner had Number One repainted and “The Monkees” door decals replicated, and a new top is being fabricated as we go to press.
And what about the Monkees themselves? Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and David Jones are back together with a new self–produced CD entitled “Justus,” a concert tour, as well as an interactive CD-ROM, a coffee-table book, and a TV special, among other projects. In a lot of ways, it seems like 1966 all over again.
The Monkeemobiles still remain, 30 years after they were built, as two of the most radically customized Pontiacs ever built and are true icons of the 1960s era. While Pontiac was not at all satisfied with the look of the cars, they were well suited for the context of the TV show, and the promotional opportunities they opened up for the Division were mind-boggling in their scope. Like Jim Wangers said, “Where else are you going to get mileage like that?”
Update: The #2 MonkeeMobile as shown in the photo here can be seen at: Star Cars Museum, 914 Parkway Gatlinburg, next to the convention center. Phone for the museum is: 865-430-2200.
The #1 MonkeeMobile was used in the ABC Monkees TV Special.
Update from: Don Keefe, Editor-in-Chief Pontiac Enthusiast Magazine
Neither car is in 100% correct condition, but car #1 is closer to the original look than the other. Micky Dolenz also told me that the #1 car is in much better condition.
A couple of months ago, I received a call from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. They were looking for the Monkeemobile for a display on teen idols and their cars, which is slated to open in October. I gave them the information I had, but I never heard back from them whether or not the car would be in the display. Might be worth looking into for the fans…
We will be reprinting the Monkeemobile article in our “Diamond Anniversary” issue of Pontiac Enthusiast which is being printed next week. It has been by far the most requested article we have ever run, so it will get another run!