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Building a Better Wienermobile : Marketing: Oscar Mayer has asked the world’s top auto designers--Southern Californians--to create the next-generation Wienermobile.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile--lone survivor of a weird craze of the 1920s and 1930s, when cars were made to look like hot dogs, vacuum cleaners, cameras, pickles and milk bottles--is being reinvented for the 21st Century.

And the new one won’t be your father’s Wienermobile.

Re-skinning this rolling piece of Americana requires such engineering prowess that Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. of Madison, Wis.--like the world’s serious auto makers--headed straight for Southern California, the epicenter of automotive design, to find talent equal to the job.

“Everybody said California’s the place to be,” explained Russ Whitacre, head of Oscar Mayer’s 15-member Wienermobile department.

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Harry Bradley, one of Southern California’s best-known auto designers--his credits range from dozens of advanced concept vehicles for Detroit and Japanese auto firms to the original line of “Hot Wheels” for Mattel--is deep into a second round of Wienermobile sketches at his home studio in Palos Verdes.

The challenge: to catch up with the video age without doing violence to a wiener that’s become a corporate icon.

Says Bradley, a faculty member at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design: “My wife asks, ‘Is this the culmination of your career? Is this what it all means?’ ”

But Bradley isn’t the only top-dog designer attached to the project. Bruce Brackman of Prototype Source in Santa Barbara--builder of the prototype 1995 Corvette being test-driven in Detroit by select General Motors executives--is making plans for a one-tenth scale model of the new Wienermobile.

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More out of curiosity than as a serious study of wind drag or fuel economy, Brackman plans to test the model in the wind tunnel at Cal Tech. He guesses the slippery shape will be pretty aerodynamic, but he isn’t sure.

“This is the first wienie we’ve built,” Brackman explains.

The internal-combustion wiener was dreamed up as a promotional scheme in 1936. That was a few decades after Anton Feuchtwanger, a sausage peddler at the St. Louis Exposition, hit on the idea of making buns for wieners so that customers didn’t burn their hands.

The first Wienermobile was an open-cockpit affair with a 13-foot metal dog big enough to squire around another corporate icon--"Little Oscar,” a midget in a chef’s hat. They were enough to thrill the crowds in those simpler days.

The Wienermobile drifted in and out of favor at Oscar Mayer--with the managerial and economic seasons there. It peaked in the 1950s, when the big frank got several new skins--one by Brooks Stevens of Milwaukee, known for his design of the classic Excalibur automobile. In those days, a whole squad of Little Oscars barnstormed the country passing out whistles shaped like wieners.

The traveling wiener, no longer such hot stuff with the advent of moon shots and computer graphics, was mostly retired in the 1970s and 1980s. But a 1986 tour to mark the Wienermobile’s 50th birthday drew hordes of baby boomers who remembered the big hot dog from the Eisenhower years.

Recognizing anew the fertile ground where publicity agents and hot dogs meet, Oscar Mayer ordered six new wiener cars in 1988 to exploit the nostalgia craze. Today, a dozen pairs of relentlessly upbeat, pun-crazed college kids hired by Oscar Mayer are rolling up 1,000 miles a week in the Wienermobiles, appearing at carnivals, shopping centers, parades and schools around the country.

“Ever driven a hot dog before?” asks Bryan Zvibleman, 23, a recent University of Missouri graduate, as he greets a visitor embarking on a surreal Wienermobile test-drive through downtown Detroit. “You have to watch your buns.”

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Indeed. The side mirror jolts the driver with its reflection of the huge wiener swooping 10 feet above the rear wheels; the buns seem as wide as a river.

For reasons impossible to analyze, the sight of the Wienermobile makes nearly everybody smile, wave, yell jokes and ask about the horsepower and torque. Zvibleman tosses them little plastic wiener whistles.

Pulling alongside a car at a stoplight, he yells to the driver, “Got any Grey Poupon?” Over the wiener’s loudspeaker, Zvibleman broadcasts a rap version of the “I Wish I Were An Oscar Mayer Wiener” song.

From a hot dog joint, a short-order cook who belongs on “Saturday Night Live” runs into the street. “You vant onions on dat ting?” he asks.

Despite the vehicle’s obvious magnetism and staying power, it seems an understatement to say that it’s time for a new Wienermobile.

Though today’s dogs are just a few years old, they are mutts with a hopelessly muddled lineage--the result of 55 years of tinkering by an assortment of Oscar Mayer mechanics and free-lance body builders.

Basically a 1952 design, the current Wienermobile is a nearly three-ton, 23-foot-long fiberglass hot dog and bun that is far too heavy for the 1988 Chevrolet van chassis and V-6 engine it’s built around.

This chopped-up and reconstituted melange has led to overheating, transmission problems, instability, cramped quarters and safety compromises.

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Most troublesome is the overheating, says Oscar Mayer’s Whitacre. “The greatest design flaw,” he observes, “was the location of the cooling system under the bun.”

As a modification of a legal chassis, the contraption apparently meets all government safety standards. But it’s no Volvo. For example, the driver and whoever’s riding shotbun sit in the very tip of the wiener--a vulnerable spot, without question.

Motor Trend magazine criticized the seating position, the brakes and other safety drawbacks of the vehicle a few years ago, summing up: “If you’re involved in an accident while driving a Wienermobile, a tiny Oscar Mayer employee wearing a chef’s hat will visit your hospital room and say he’s sorry.”

Still, Oscar Mayer insists that when people see the new-generation Wienermobile, they have no doubts about what it is.

For example, though the wiener’s sprightly, skyward-looking tail gets buffeted by crosswinds--Zvibleman practically got blown off the road one day in Wyoming--it’s a cheerful shape that Oscar Mayer wants to keep.

“We’d rather have that than a straight dog just lying there,” said Whitacre.

Except for such advice from Oscar Mayer, designer Bradley started with an empty bun--faced, he says, with the reality that “there is absolutely nothing logical or practical driving the design.”

He sketched such radical ideas as bundling several wieners in a clump or stringing two or three together as linked sausages. He has grappled with metaphysics, challenging the notion that a bun is even necessary.

“Is the bun as important as the hot dog? We researched that. Some people eat hot dogs without a bun,” Bradley says.

The designers probably will put the engine in back--it’s now inside the wiener, nearly blocking entry to the driver’s seat--adding needed weight to the tail. They also hope to move the driver and passenger closer to the middle of the frank and scoot the whole wiener rearward in the bun to improve weight distribution.

A decision to use a Chevrolet motor home chassis instead of the under-sized van opens up all sorts of possibilities, says Bradley.

The beauty of today’s Wienermobile is strictly skin-deep; the interior is dreary and cramped. For the new one, Bradley envisions a huge gull-wing door--a DeLoreanesque touch extending half the length of the wiener--that would open up to unveil banks of video screens and other gadgetry for visitors, who could walk right into the thing.

“I want this thing to be as dynamic and enthralling in the ‘90s as the original must have been in 1936,” says Bradley. “In small towns with no TV, it must have been an amazing sight to see a hot dog driving down the road. Now, kids are bombarded with all kinds of visual drama. We’ve got to make this baby come dramatically alive. I want it to be wonderful, joyful, whimsical.”

Oscar Mayer, now a subsidiary of cigarette giant Philip Morris, hasn’t signed off on a fleet of new Wienermobiles. The hot dog design team hopes to have a scale model to show executives by year-end, though the recession has apparently slowed things down.

Last to sign off will be Oscar Mayer’s president, John Bowlin. “Any change we make in this sacred wiener would go to that level,” says Whitacre.

Whatever his decision, Bowlin will be tinkering with cultural history.

Earlier this year, the oldest surviving Wienermobile, built in 1952, was accepted into the prestigious Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., as “the most successful and enduring ‘productmobile’ of all time.”

It outlived the likes of a Pep-O-Mint Life Savers vehicle, a huge Electrolux vacuum cleaner on wheels, a Milwaukee Journal newspaper truck shaped like an old box camera, a pickle car built for Heinz and a mobile can of V-8 juice with celery sprigs etched on each seat.

“We consider the Wienermobile an advertising artifact,” says curator Judith Endelman. “We relish having it.”


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