Evolution of a Bubble Topped Wonder
by Mark S. Gustavson
The following essay is a compressed section of the text of a book at the author is writing on the Predicta. The book will feature hundreds of photographs and many chapters detailing the wonderful and detailed history of the bubble topped dream car. However, to present an easily readable essay that will acquaint the public with the history of this most remarkable car, the opening introduction has been considerably shortened for presentation here. The author expresses his deep appreciation to Darryl Starbird for his decades long cooperation and assistance in providing photographs, historical details, and technical information on the Predicta. For more details on the author's book on the Predicta, please visit the web site of the publishing house, Championship Publishing
In the late Fifties, Darryl Starbird then a newly minted mid west, self taught customizer, was given a commission by Bob Turgeon to build a custom '57 T Bird for the show circuit. After weeks of hard work, the Le Perle
Unable to afford a complete small Bird (remember, they were expensive in the late Fifties), Darryl located a badly damaged car in a local Wichita junkyard and hauled it to his shop next to the railroad tracks.What he hauled to his shop was barely a Thunderbird but it was the basis for one of the most famous and advanced custom show cars of the era.
In a stroke of insight, Starbird welded two carefully trimmed rear, outer sheetmetal panels from a '59 Buick to the Thunderbird,
Once the shapes of the side of the car were roughed in, Starbird hand formed the front fenders and headlight panel using steel tubing to define the front fender and vestigial rolled pan shapes.
In the first version of the car, the front grille initially featured polished copper tubing, bent in a half circle to form the lower edge of the front grille. Dual, horizontally mounted headlights were added and fitted with frosted lenses, later to become a common custom technique. In the first three versions of the car, the headlight covers were entirely frosted (in the fourth Monogram and subsequent versions, Starbird only frosted those areas not directly in front of the bulbs). Between those headlights Starbird mounted 26 white painted Caddy taillight lenses.
Turning his attention to the back of the car, Starbird populated the rear grille area with 28 more '59 Caddy taillight lenses, 22 of which were painted white to render them opaque, and mounted on what may be a piece of painted or stained plywood! Three red translucent Caddy lenses (arranged in a triangle) were placed on the extreme outer left and right areas of the grille panel which permitted functional taillights.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the car was its bubble top. Blown from clear Lucite, it echoed the clear canopies on numerous show cars that Ford and General Motors had built in the Fifties, commencing with the '54 GM Motorama cars and Ford's Lincoln Futura. "Freeblown" without a female fixture to define its shape, the bubble top was attached to a mounting ring with small screws which, in turn, was attached to two hinges bolted to the body. To trim the mating edge between the ring and the top, Starbird used a white filler cord carefully pressed into the gap between the bubble top and the mounting ring. To add interest, Starbird fit a windsplit to the bubble top which curved inward to the curve of the top, and featured twin antennas at the horizontal, leading edge.
Starbird did not forget creature comforts when he built the Predicta. The interior appointments consisted of upright bucket seats, dual cantilever dash pods and other items upholstered in white pearl Naugahyde buttoned by rhinestones. The white interior and brilliant metallic blue body contrasted with bright red carpets. Brass plated instrument pods faced either driver, and a defroster vent appeared just rear of the seats to clear moisture from the inside of the bubble. In what was to become a real trend, Starbird mounted a television set forward in the passengers' compartment. Finally, a speedometer, ignition and light switches and other controls were mounted on the chromed panel between the seats. Everyone noticed that there was no steering wheel because Starbird fabricated and installed a "tiller" steering system: Capable of being steered from either seat, the car could be directed by pushing or pulling on a chromed rectangular shaft that emerged through a chromed panel between the seats. That steering shaft was connected to a '56 Thunderbird steering box which was flipped on its side, which in turn actuated a full time power steering unit from a '57 Chrysler connected to the steering crosslink. The car could be driven from either seat, since both sides of the passengers' compartment had gas and brake pedals. Despite the lack of power assist, Starbird reports that the car was easy to steer, even at low speeds.
A careful examination of the color cover shot of the August 1960 issue of Car Craft
To provide motion, Starbird fitted a beautifully detailed fuel injected Chrysler Hemi engine to the white pearl painted frame rails. Virtually every removable part on the engine was plated, as well as the fan shroud, shocks, control arms you name it. The engine compartment was also modified. A full width chrome firewall was installed and new inner wheel wells were fabricated with three gauges in the left inner wheel well to aid in engine tuning. The factory T Bird rear axle and leaf springs were retained and a Chrysler automatic transmission and shortened drive line tied everything together.
After a bit less than two months of intensive and uninterrupted construction Starbird completed the car and promptly trailered it to California where it was displayed at the 1960 Oakland Roadster Show. However, the bubble top had not yet been fitted to the car since the hectic building schedule had not permitted it to be fit to the car at that date. At the Oakland show, the bubble top was displayed just to one side of the Predicta throughout the 10 day show, when the Car Craft feature was shot.
The Predicta was an instant hit. It appeared on the cover of Car Craft, and Motor Life annointed the car as one of the Top 10 customs for 1960.
As with most of the famous customs of that era, the Predicta went through several versions briefly described here. A few months after its Oakland debut, Starbird restyled the front grille by dropping the copper tubes and replacing them with a chrome band defining the opening. Sensing that the front grille might have been a bit busy, Starbird replaced the front mounted Caddy lenses with more stubby chrome bullets.
However, the car was not just another candied show cruiser. To meet some criticism, Starbird showed up with the car (in its second version) at the 1960 Kansas City AHRA National drag meet, and drove the Hemi powered show car down the strip with the top always in place. The timing lights revealed that Starbird hit a measured speed of 101 mph, and with tiller steering! So much for the critics.
The rearward edge of the "trunk" was cut down and molded into the body which greatly cleaned up the design. Starbird also peaked the trunk and hood to add a subtle measure of grace to the car. A full width red Plexiglas taillight panel now filled the rear grille area, onto the front of which chromed rectangular bars were mounted horizontally. The taillight only showed through the extreme left and right corners.
In response to Monogram's direction, Darryl laid on a breathtaking candy pearl red paint job over the newly smoothed lines of the Predicta.
The car was then delivered to Monogram for promotion of the kit. In early 1964, a generally accurate model of the car was issued in 1/24 scale.
Produced in this country until 1969, and again for a two year period in the late '70s in Australia and New Zealand, hundreds of thousands of eager model builders (including the author) built many scale versions of this most famous custom. Each box showed the car in red, and the third through the fourth box lids had an actual photo of the car at the 1964 New York Auto Show, though the foreign box lids did not do justice to the car's color.
In 1969, Monogram decided to liquidate the car. In the pages of the June 1970 issue of Model Car Science, then a popular element of the model car hobby press, a contest was announced the winner of which would be awarded the car. Curiously, the Monogram (fourth) version of the car was not shown in the contest promotional photos, rather, the third version was featured. Nevertheless, several issues later, the magazine announced that the Predicta was won by Darrell Zipp, the lead design engineer who worked for competitor Revell, Inc., a West Coast purveyor of scale model car kits!
Several years later, probably in 1975 during a trip to the West Coast, Starbird happened upon the car at American Chopper.
The car was repainted again, and a two barrel carb was fitted to the Chrysler Hemi engine for driveability. Everyone knowledgeable about the car, as well as custom neophytes, were thrilled to see it at the Leadsled event, after which it has appeared in several cable TV shows featuring all of Starbird's cars.
In 1990, thirty six years after the debut of the Predicta kit, Monogram Models, through the efforts of the author and Monogram exec Ed Sexton (following on the pioneering help of Jay Adams), issued a commemorative edition of the Predicta and another Starbird creation, the Orange Hauler (also known as the Ultra Truck.
The 1990 version of the Predicta kit featured, on the box lid, a photo of an actual photo of the model built by the author. A decade later, Mark S. Gustavson received another call from Ed who asked me if I would be interested in writing the text for a special insert card on the car, as well as text for the instruction sheet. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance! (Thanks, Ed! that was one opportunity of a lifetime). The 2000 kit essentially duplicated the 1965 and 1966 versions each of which featured a photograph of the restyled car on the box lid. Go here to learn about the history of the kit.
Some things endure in the automotive world, usually those where the design was restrained and the execution was impeccable. Four decades after its creation, the Predicta stands as a timeless reminder of the best elements of the custom car world. Graceful and elegant, the Predicta continually defined for itself and its builder a standard of excellence seldom matched.
The appearance of the 2000 kit (part of the vintage Monogram Classics series) neatly coincided with my decades long dream of producing a series of scale models of the Predicta in its various guises and appearing in the many interesting venues that are part of the car's history. Called The Predicta Project, this multi element project has been described to project participants and consultants. With the enthusiastic cooperation of Darryl Starbird, Bob Reder/Roger Harney from Monogram, photographer Don Elliott and street rod builder Darrell Zipp (who once owned the car), and the usual gang of co -conspirators, business partner Mark J. Benton, machinist Cody Grayland and photoetch artist Bob Wick, the Project is launched and will be presented to the scale and full size automotive hobbies before the end of this first decade of the new millenia.
The Predicta will also be the subject of a future book to be published by Championship Publishing, LLC, which is now marketing a book on Spencer Murray's Dream Truck. For more information on Championship Publishing, including information on how to order the Dream Truck book, please visit Championship Publishing, LLC.