There’s a distinct evolution in model-car production. Historically speaking scale-model manufacturers base their kits on existing designs. See our recent feature of Ray Fahrner’s “Boothill Express” as an example.
But for every rule there’s an exception. In 1970 show promoter Bob Larrivee Sr. commissioned renowned builder of outlandish and show-winning themed cars, Chuck Miller, to render Monogram’s 1:25th-scale “Red Baron” in full size.
Naturally the story is a neat one. In 1967 industrial designer Tom Daniel pitches model-car manufacturer Monogram on a few model ideas. Monogram hires him in 1968 as an exclusive design consultant. His first original design, a twin-engined school-bus dragster, “S’Cool Bus”, establishes his credibility.
Afforded greater creative latitude he bases his second design on two highly popular cultural expressions of the times: T-bucket hot rods and German military elements, specifically a World War I-era infantry helmet (Pickelhaube) and the Iron Cross. The design proves successful well beyond Monogram’s wildest bets.
Kids and executives aren’t the only ones who pick up on the craze. Earlier in the decade, as a means to both capitalize upon a prevailing trend and indoctrinate would-be car builders, show promoters create model-car classes for enthusiasts unable to build real cars. At one point model-car entries rank nearly with classes for their full-scale counterparts. Show promoter Bob Larrivee Sr. notices an abundance of Red Baron entries. He decides to have a full-scale version of “Red Baron” built.
Rendering existing popular designs in full scale isn’t new to Larrivee. In 1963 he hired Bill Cushenbery to build a real car based on designs that Bob Hubbach and Chuck Pelly submitted to Car Craft magazine as the “Car Craft Dream Rod”. That car also gained a cult following as its own scale model (including a revision and subsequent MPC version called the “Tiger Shark”).
This time Larrivee commissions another builder, Styline Customs’ Chuck Miller, to render the car. It isn’t by chance; in 1968, the year Red Baron debuted, Miller won the Don Ridler Memorial Award at the Detroit Autorama, Larrivee’s flagship event. It doesn’t hurt that Styline operates in Detroit, near Larrivee’s Promotions Inc. offices.
Typical for altering such an optimistic scale model, Miller takes liberties. For example, when he discovers that the scale and price of WWI-era Mercedes-Benz aircraft engines are equally big, he chooses an engine nearly as exotic: Pontiac’s overhead-cam version of GM’s six-cylinder engine. For obvious reasons he fabricates the machine guns from scratch. Changes aside, the full-scale version remains very faithful to the overall design and intent.
There’s another exceptional element to the Red Baron story: it’s not the only one. Car builder Jay Ohrberg crafts two more Red Barons to make the show circuit, one with a Pontiac OHC six and another with a big-block Chevrolet V8. Both examples still exist.
Though considered an icon today, show cars inevitably lose their appeal and drop out of the circuit. In fact “Red Baron” drops so far out that die-hard enthusiasts lose track of it until it resurfaces and undergoes a restoration. Bob Larrivee Sr. still owns the car and currently displays it in the Smith Collection at the Museum of American Speed adjacent to Speedway Motors in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“Red Baron” leaves an incredible legacy. By 1973 Monogram sells three million “Red Baron” kits making it one of the most successful of all time. The company still produces the kit making it one of the most enduring.