For the past three years, Big Mike has celebrated his 50th birthday in August, even though his exact birthdate is unknown. The 20-foot-tall fiberglass man’s work history is less of a mystery: In 1966, his first job was at Morris Car Wash in Hayward, California. When the car wash closed, Mike moved on to a tire store nearby, where he stayed until it too closed in 2011. In March 2013, Mike moved on once again, this time to Bell Plastics, a custom plastic and metal fabrication shop, located in the Bay Area since 1979.
“I had driven by Big Mike for years and I liked him,” says Bruce Kennedy, the owner of Bell Plastics. When he saw that the tire shop was for sale, he inquired about buying Mike, a statue known as a Muffler Man. “They were pretty anxious to get rid of him,” Kennedy says. “He really stood out.”
But after nearly 50 years of standing out—and outside—Mike was in bad shape. His feet had been run over by several cars, he was riddled with bullet holes, and he had fallen over more than once. “He needed so much work,” Kennedy says. “We weren’t in a hurry, but it took nearly a year to fix him.”
In 2016, Big Mike turned 50 and Kennedy threw his most famous employee a party. It was such a success that Big Mike has decided to turn 50 again every year since. This year on Sunday, August 18, Bell Plastics will open their Hayward shop from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. to celebrate their local landmark with free food, giveaways, and demonstrations.
A small shop for big things
Bell Plastics is a small shop that makes big things: they cut, bend, mill, and weld wood, foam, metal, and, of course, plastic. According to their website, they have “the largest oven around” and can “vacuum form parts from the size of a dime to as big as a car.” They make parts for computers, cars, and boats, and have a one-part minimum. Or, as Kennedy says, “We’ll make any strange thing you want.”
Kennedy is a collector as well as a fabricator, and his 21,000-square-foot shop is home to more than 20 other statues in addition to Big Mike. “If one thing is good, two things are better,” Kennedy says. “And if two is good, six is even better—that’s the collector’s philosophy.”
Bell Plastics has about twice as many statues as it has employees, including several Muffler Men—two Paul Bunyans, a cowboy, a fireman, and a Mortimer Snerd—a UniRoyal Gal, Santa Claus, dinosaurs, octopi, and two dachshund heads from the now-defunct Doggie Diner franchise. Larger-than-life objects include a chili pepper, hot dog, and bobblehead. A Big Boy statue dubbed “Bad Bob” is outfitted with brass knuckles.
Kennedy says he’s noticed an increase in demand over the years for Muffler Men in particular, despite the fact that they’re usually in such bad condition. “The big ones are hard to get,” he says. “There’s been a hot run on them and people are desperate to get them, but you have to fix everything on them.”
The biggest enemy of fiberglass is the sun, and these giants are almost always outside, sometimes for several decades. Paint fades and the fiberglass cracks; for some, just the stress of moving is enough to cause damage. Kennedy was interested in one Muffler Man advertised in “perfect condition” only to discover that it was missing a leg. “He had a tree stump for a leg,” Kennedy says. “It was quite the surprise.”
Bell Plastics’ statues have come from all over the country, and Kennedy says that people now approach him, asking if he’s interested in purchasing unwanted pieces of Americana. “People will come into the shop and say, ‘You know, you need a Doggie Diner head—our friends have one for sale,’” he says. The pieces also have a way of attracting mates—Kennedy procured his second Doggie Diner head just two weeks after his first (he estimates only about 36 were ever made).
People come from all over the world to visit Bell Plastics and Big Mike. “Recently, a family came from France, and another from England,” Kennedy says. “They don’t have stuff like this over there—England may have castles, but we have Muffler Men.”
This year’s open house will feature a car show, hot dogs (regular size), and live demonstrations on almost every service offered by the shop. If you can’t make it to the party, Kennedy says that visitors are always welcome, but “sometimes we’re here, sometimes we’re not,” he adds (call to verify). Party guests can take home a 12-inch version of the birthday boy to paint on their own—but the real Big Mike isn’t for sale.
“England may have castles, but we have Muffler Men.”
In fact, Kennedy rarely sells pieces from his collection, but Bell Plastics does use their vintage giants to create molds so they can make new ones. Muffler Men were originally made by International Fiberglass only from 1964 to 1972; there are several different varieties and they’re infinitely customizable and well-traveled. There are hundreds still standing around the country, and Bell Plastics has added six new giants to that total in the past four years. They also make the female version—referred to as UniRoyal Gals—which Kennedy says are an easier sell since they’re smaller.
“A lot of people want them,” he says. “But cities aren’t too anxious to have people put them up outside.” Kennedy’s advice for potential collectors of roadside giants is that it may be easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. “Once something’s up, it’s hard to take down,” he says.
If you go
Bell Plastics‘ Open House and Birthday Party is on Sunday, August 18 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free.