Larry Griffin stopped me at church one day and asked, “Have you ever been to Darryl Starbird’s museum?” I gave him the quick answer, “No,” all the while thinking, “and I don’t plan to. Cars aren’t my thing.”
I’m glad I kept that part to myself. I hate eating crow in public. I have now been to Darryl Starbird’s National Rod and Custom Hall of Fame Museum on Grand Lake and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Starbird long has been one of the biggest names in custom car design. His futuristic autos are sleek, stylish, sometimes humorous, but always works of art.
Darryl’s dad worked for Boeing in Wichita and Darryl himself studied to be an aeronautical engineer. He had, however, been interested in cars since he was a child. Always an entrepreneur, he got a license to buy and sell cars while he was still in high school.
After several years of college and working nights in the engineering department at Boeing as a design draftsman, Darryl decided to concentrate on his first love. He opened his own business, Star Kustom Shop.
In earlier projects, he’d taught himself welding and metalworking and did a lot of body and fender work. His first major re-do was on his own 1947 Cadillac.
More show cars followed and by 1959, one of his creations won both the Sweepstakes and Top Custom Shop Achievement awards at the National Hot Rod Association National Custom Car Show.
The car most buffs think of when they think of Darryl Starbird is his break-through “Predicta.” The electric blue redesigned ’56 Thunderbird with a ’57 Chrysler engine featured a bubble top, center stick steering, push-button controls and TV. In 1960 the car won every possible award and became a popular item with scale model builders. More than half a million Monogram model kits of the “Predicta” were sold.
The “Predicta” was purchased by Monogram, then later given away in a contest. It went through several owners and suffered damage, including a garish paint job. Almost 20 years after he had built the car, Darryl found it and restored it to its original state. And now visitors to his museum can see this shiny beauty looking as fresh and futuristic as the day he first finished it.
After “Predicta,” Starbird created a number of other bubble-topped autos earning him the soubriquet “King of the Bubble Top.” In all, over his half-century-plus career, Starbird has created more than 300 one-of-a-kind cars. Over a dozen of his designs have been replicated for scale-model kit enthusiasts. More than 10 million kits have been sold world-wide. In addition, he’s produced hundreds of custom car shows.
People are always surprised that a figure of national importance lives and works here in Oklahoma. But Darryl’s heart is in this part of the country. In 1995 he opened the Darryl Starbird Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation) on Highway 85A just west of the Monkey Island turn-off.
The first stop for every visitor to the museum should be to the little theater to watch a video about Darryl himself. This was a real must for me because I came into the museum a tabula rasa where custom cars were concerned. Not only did the video give biographical information about Darryl, it showed some of the steps in creating a custom car. These can include shaping sheet metal from flat to complicated curves and incorporating parts of other autos into the finished product. Some of Darryl’s finest creations started out as almost total wrecks.
Armed with this background information, I proceeded to check out the rest of the museum. Of course, there are lots and lots of cars — all kinds and colors. Among the more than 50 cars on display are about 20 of Darryl’s creations. The others are examples built by other professional builders. Some are part of the permanent collection; some are on loan.
The collection includes not only hot rods and street rods but custom pick-ups, vans and SUVs. Some of them look almost cartoonish — like Doug Weigel’s “Tonka Toy,” a bright yellow little truck with a beer keg gas tank. Others range in design from sophisticated to space-age.
Knowing nothing about engines or performance, I picked my favorites on strictly stylistic lines. “De Elegance,” built and designed by Starbird, cried out for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard — he, suave and debonair in a black tux; she, svelte in a slinky silver satin gown with a white mink stole. Darryl took a 1979 Buick Riviera and retro-styled to create a ’30s look. He extended the wheel base two feet to accommodate the long handmade front of the car. His son Rick added the shiny ebony finish. This car is glamour on four wheels!
Another of my favorites was the “Starship.” Designed by Darryl and built and owned by his son Cliff, “Starship” started life as a ’72 Chevy Camaro. This double-bubble, shimmery-light-blue dream car looks ready to jet into the 22nd century.
Besides the cars, another area features the Hall of Fame salutes the top builders and designers as voted on by the corporation. It began in 1995 with the induction of 13 builders. Two new inductees have been added each year. In addition, a Wall of Fame displays photos of top cars built in this country both past and present.
I went into the museum not expecting to enjoy it. But I couldn’t resist the riot of gorgeous colors and the variety of designs. Now I’m a big Starbird fan and I tell everyone — “When you go to Grand Lake, don’t miss Darryl Starbird’s National Rod and Custom Car Hall of Fame and Museum!”
FOR INFORMATION on hours, admission and directions, go to www.darrylstarbird.com/museum.htm or call 918-257-4234.