DEERFIELD — The grain trucks, school buses, cranes, trailers and semi-tractors are the first priority at the Truckstar Collision Center just south of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail near this village’s downtown.
But in between the repair of dents, dings and gashes on the commercial vehicles that are the wheelhouse of this 20-year-old business, the work is focused on one of the most recognizable vehicles to ever cruise the country’s highways, byways and Interstate system.
Only when the restoration work is finished in May, the vehicle that has been turning heads for decades will no longer be road-worthy. There will be no gas tank, transmission, brake lines or side-view mirrors. The General Motors straight 6-cylinder engine will be junked and the four Goodyear tires filled with a hardening foam to prevent flats.
The days of taking the “Old Number 7” Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a ride are over. It’s about to become an immersive and accessible museum piece and forever serve as a reminder of Madison’s role with an iconic, homegrown company that pumped out millions of hot dogs, slices of bologna and packages of Lunchables.
‘A rolling statue’
“This is basically a rolling statue,” said Chuck JaDoul, production manager at TruckStar. “My guys are always doing fiberglass repair. This is just a different shape. Instead of flat and square pieces, we’re dealing with a bun and wiener.”
Only on a grand and historical scale.
The fleet of six Wienermobiles from Oscar Mayer’s parent company, Kraft Heinz, still roams the country touting the brand and showing up at fairs, parades, festivals and promotional events.
The $50,000 Wienermobile restoration is an effort by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Foundation and the Mayer family, which is funding the project (along with a $15,000 endowment for continued maintenance of the vehicle), to preserve a reminder of Wisconsin’s manufacturing heritage.
The factory that from 1883 to 2017 was home to Oscar Mayer production along Packers Avenue is being stripped of its meat-processing equipment following an auction last month. The property is being eyed for redevelopment and in the coming years there will likely be few reminders of Oscar Mayer’s presence in the city. The Wienermobile, donated last April by Kraft Heinz, and other items collected by the historical society over the years from the company, will be preserved.
“They’re pretty enthusiastic about the project and are pretty supportive,” David Wilder, executive director of the Wisconsin Historical Foundation, said of the Mayer family. “The Wienermobile has been on the list of things the historical society has wanted to collect for a long time. (Kraft Heinz) trusted the society to take care of it long term.”
Over the years, the historical society has acquired multiple items from Oscar Mayer and Kraft Heinz. They include toy wiener whistles, ice picks, packaging and work clothes. There are two types of shovel, one stainless steel for moving meat and one plastic yellow used for removing meat that may have fallen to the floor and was no longer edible.
The hybrid banjo-ukulele used by Richard Trentlage to compose the “Weiner Song” also has been preserved along with Little Oscar chef uniforms worn by Meinhardt Raabe, a Watertown man who served as an Oscar Mayer pitchman for 30 years and played the Munchkinland coroner in the “The Wizard of Oz.”
The most recent acquisition from Kraft Heinz is the Mark V, a 10-foot-tall piece of production equipment that was part of the company’s “Hot Dog Highway.” It includes a multi-blade cutting head that was conceived in the 1950s and in the 1960s helped change the way hot dogs could be massed produced.
“This cutting head was the heart of the revolutionary Continuous Wiener Process that Oscar Mayer introduced in its Madison plant in the early 1960s,” said David Driscol, curator of economic history for the historical society’s Division of Museums and Historic Sites. “The Mark V converted chopped, seasoned meat into a uniform paste at a high speed. Combined with re-engineered stuffing, linking, smoking, cooking, chilling, and packaging processes, the Mark V cut hot dog production time from nine hours to just 45 minutes, preserving flavor and reducing spoilage.”
The items will ultimately be stored in the nearly completed $46.7 million, state-of-the-art, four-story, 188,733-square-foot archive preservation facility for the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum at 202 S. Thornton Ave. Some will be displayed at times at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum on Capitol Square, but the Wienermobile is too big for the museum so it will be relegated to being parked outside the museum for special events and shown off at other spots around the state.
But the Wienermobile, which will have to be trailered, won’t be off limits to visitors. The Wienermobile is being restored to allow for people to crawl into the tight quarters of the vehicle to get a more up-close and immersive experience.
“The intention from the very beginning was not to have this sit behind a velvet rope,” Wilder said. “We want the public to get inside it and enjoy it.”
This particular Wienermobile was built at the Oscar Mayer plant in 1969 on a 1967 Chevy chassis. The 23-foot-long vehicle included taillights from a Ford Thunderbird and four exterior speakers to blare out the famous “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” jingle, and had a top speed of 45 mph.
The vehicle toured the world promoting the Oscar Mayer brand but the company killed the Wienermobile project in 1976, only to bring it back in 1987 after a special tour in 1986 drew huge crowds. The 1969 vehicle has been in storage since 1987 but will get another crack at fame after modifications and a restoration that includes fixing the dings and giving it a new paint job.
The square hatches on both the passenger and driver’s side, used to pay tolls, will be sealed along with a roof hatch, from which wiener whistles were thrown during parades. The back half of the interior will also be sealed so visitors will have access only to the front half of the vehicle, which will also get a new interior that will closely match the style and color of the original. Lights will be added to illuminate the taillights and the Oscar Mayer sign on the side of the vehicle. The exterior speakers in the front and back of the vehicle will also get an upgrade along with a new audio system.
“This will be kid friendly. Kids will be in and out of it all day long,” said JaDoul, whose shop has been repairing Wienermobile damage for over 10 years. “I get to see them a lot. College kids drive them and we fix them. It’s a normal thing for us.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.