On September 12, 1966, NBC launched an all-new television sitcom — The Monkees — a hastily concocted rip-off of the surprise smash Hard Day’s Night, which documented the antics of the Beatles as they prepared for an Ed Sullivan-like television appearance. Since kids loved cars as much as they loved music, the show’s production included a car that would get the band from gig to gig. It was the Monkeemobile — a heavily modified Pontiac GTO — and how it came to be is one of the great stories in automotive marketing history.
How the Monkeemobile came to be is a cart-before-the-horse kind of a story. Marketing folks cooked up the idea of a licensed model kit based on a car from the show before the first episode was shot, or before a car was even designed.
It was a completely different era. Car culture was booming in 1965 when Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider came up with the idea for the sitcom, and it wasn’t just involving kids with driver’s licenses. Younger kids were infected, too, and many of the toys marketed to boys were automotive themed.
Plastic model kits from companies like MPC, Revell and Monogram were experiencing a golden age. Model kits were massive business. Companies like AMT and MPC hired household names to act as designers. Revell, for example, hired legendary customizer and car builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to design a series of cars based on his real-life creations. Those model designs alone made Roth a rich man, one penny at a time. “During 1963 Revell paid Ed “Big Daddy” Roth a one cent royalty for each model sold. Ed brought in $32,000 that year in royalties,” reads the bio on RatFink.com. We’ll save you from having to do the math yourself: Revell sold 3.2 million Roth-designed model kits in a year.
Dean Jeffries had a legacy that included painting the “Little Bastard” script on James Dean’s ill-fated Porsche 550. For a time, Mobil Oil hired him to hand paint the Mobil logo on cars at the Indy 500, and he eventually worked exclusively for A.J. Foyt.
He went on to open his own custom car shop, where he had a string of home runs building cars for movies and television. He fabricated the Mantaray for the Frankie and Annette movie Bikini Beach (1963), the Black Beauty for the TV series Green Hornet (1966), and eventually would create the Landmaster for the movie Damnation Alley (1977).
The production staff of The Monkees approached Jeffries about building a car for the TV show. Jeffries was also under contract as a designer with MPC, a major player in the plastic car model scene. Jeffries mentioned the upcoming project to MPC’s CEO, George Toteff.
Toteff was friendly with a legend in automotive marketing — Jim Wangers. Wangers worked for McManus, John & Adams, as the marketing and promotions man on the Pontiac account. Wangers was in the loop with Pontiac Motor Division chief John DeLorean during the development of the GTO just a few years before. Wangers saw massive potential in exposing pre-teens to Pontiac products on the show, and in related products like Toteff’s model kits.
He quickly inked a deal to supply the production with two 1966 Pontiac GTO convertibles, each with 389-cu.in. V-8s and automatic transmissions. In turn, MPC would have the exclusive rights to produce model kits, based on whatever design Jeffries cooked up.
Jeffries heavily customized the two cars, one of which was supposed to be on the show, and the second of which was supposed to be a promo car, sent out to car shows and appearances around the country. Prior to its transformation into the Monkeemobile, one of the unmodified cars showed up on I Dream of Jeannie with Major Nelson at the tiller.
Don Keefe wrote a great history of the Monkeemobile’s construction — which only took a month for both cars — in Pontiac Enthusiast magazine. “While the front end was easily recognizable as a GTO, the rest of the car was heavily customized. Among the modifications, Jeffries added a very tall split windshield, a third row of seats where the rear deck was, a T-bucket-type convertible top, large fender flares, exaggerated taillamps, and even a parachute,” Keefe wrote.
Keefe interviewed Jeffries about the car: “The first car built was actually the one used on the TV show, and the second car was displayed at car shows and other promotions. That second car was never used on the show,” said Jeffries in his interview. “We put a 6-71 supercharger on the engine in the first car and solidly mounted the rear axle. We also put weights in the rear so it would wheelstand. It had too much power for the suspension and was a difficult car to drive, so we took off the blower and installed a dummy blower so it looked the same.”
What made Pontiac’s association with the show such a success wasn’t Monkeemobile. It really only appeared in the opening credits and a small handful of episodes, for seconds at a time. It was Wangers’ next move that put the GTO in front of millions of kids. At the time, Pontiac and Kellogg’s were involved something called the “Kellogg’s TV Screen-Stakes,” the grand prize for which would be an all-new 1968 Pontiac GTO, which was just starting its early promotion for the 1967 calendar year.
The winner of the sweepstakes would take home a ’68 GTO convertible, along with a walk-on role in The Monkees. Fifteen second prize winners would get a ’68 GTO Hardtop. 1,500 third prize winners got a Monkees LP. “[T]here were 42 million boxes of cereal on breakfast tables all over the country promoting the new GTO,” Wangers told Don Keefe. “Kellogg’s market research determined that a box of cereal on average was taken out and put on the breakfast table six times before it was thrown away. Forty-two million times six…where else can you get mileage like that?”
MPC was a big a winner as Pontiac and Kellogg’s. Rapidly, MPC managed to sell 7 million Monkeemobile model kits to kids crazy for the show and the music the “Prefab Four” produced:
MPC made so much money off the Monkeemobile that it started to produce knockoffs based on the Monkeemobile’s tooling. When Happy Days propelled Henry Winkler to stardom, MPC ginned up a quick Monkeemobile knockoff called “Fonz’s Dream Rod” which had nothing whatsoever to do with the show.
Fifty years later, the Monkeemobile is still a widely recognized artifact from the show, and one that still causes controversy from time to time. The last time was in 2012, when custom car legend George Barris took credit for producing it. When Monkee Davy Jones died that year, TMZ interviewed Barris and identified him as: “Famed car customizer George Barris — who built the car for the show — tells TMZ, he’s been getting calls non-stop ever since Davy passed away.”
The story is muddy because Barris actually owned the cars, purchasing them after Dean Jeffries passed on his first right of refusal to buy them. In interview after interview, Barris subtly took credit for their creation, despite the fact that Dean Jeffries is listed in the show’s credits as the builder.