Auburn auto restorer works to return 10-foot-tall mechanical elephant to its former glory

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AUBURN, Indiana — What's gray and stands out in the rain but doesn't get wet?

An elephant with an umbrella.

When Donnie Gould, president of Auctions America, asked local auto restorer Tom Davis last fall if he wanted to "work on an elephant," Davis laughed and thought it must be a large bus or oversized vehicle.

Davis found it was no joke when he first saw the remnants of "Jumbo," a 10-foot-tall, gasoline-powered, mechanical elephant at the Auburn Auction Park.

"It was sitting in the corner of the room, covered in a half-inch of grease, material hanging off of it," Davis told The Star (http://bit.ly/1qoqTLQ ).

All that was left to work from were the bones and steel skeleton. Its head and rear were crushed, and it had a broken leg. Davis said it looked like it had undergone a crude restoration sometime in its past.

The project evolved from a rewrap to a restoration that was still in progress eight months later at Davis' shop, Interiors by Thomas, just west of Auburn.

Six such life-size, mechanical elephants reportedly were sent to the United States following World War II. They were built by Frank Stuart, a stage mask designer in Thaxted, England, for the Mechanimals Company. Only two remain, Davis said.

The chief executive of Detroit-based Cunningham's Drug Store Inc. was always looking for a special promotion to draw customers to the values at his stores.

In 1932, he rented a live circus elephant and had it carried around town in a trailer to promote Cunningham's jumbo chocolate sodas and sundaes, according to newspaper reports.

Nearly 20 years later, he took delivery of the first mechanical elephant that would be taken to 100 stores in the drug chain and to schools and playgrounds to give free rides to kids. Store officials said it was the first in the country. It also was a feature at the Detroit Zoo.

Plans called for the elephant to participate in Detroit's 250th anniversary celebration in 1951 and later that fall at the Michigan State Fair.

The elephant reportedly got 15 miles per gallon, was 12 feet long and approximately 8 1/2 feet tall. Its seats could accommodate about 10 children.

The pachyderm carried some 10,000 youngsters during its first four weeks of operation, according to store representatives. A special truck was built like a float to transport it to various locations and for display purposes.

One day, the 3,000-pound elephant developed a kink in its right hind leg and toppled over, spilling 10 youngsters into the street, according to an AP news report. Three were slightly injured. The elephant was taken out of service for repair.

In the mid-1950s, ownership of the elephant passed to Publicity Searchlight Co., owned by George Wendelken, the original "Freckles" in the "Our Gang" shorts. It was during this period the elephant acquired the name "Wendy."

Macy's department store advertised "Wendy, the Amazing, World Famous Walking Mechanical Elephant," as its most expensive toy with a $10,000 price tag. The ad claimed the elephant "gives out loud elephant cries from her powerful trumpet."

Larry Gavette of Waterford, Michigan, owned the elephant, renamed "Jumbo," from 1978 until the late '80s, when he sold it to mechanical music machine and vintage auto collector Tim Trager of Oak Brook, Illinois.

Jumbo played a part in two presidential campaigns as the Republican Party's mascot. She was sent to New York City for candidate Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaign in the early '50s and was brought out during a Ronald Reagan campaign rally in Chicago in the '80s.

Gould said he purchased Jumbo at a sale in Chicago about a year and a half ago, but declined to share the price tag.

"I bought it as a promotional tool to draw people to the auction park," he said.

Gould would not confirm any plans for its appearance over the coming ACD Festival weekend.

Jumbo is the only elephant said to have its original four-cylinder English Ford water-cooled engine. Its Ford transmission has two forward speeds and one reverse gear.

The elephant has custom rods and links to control each leg independently as it drives on wheels at the bottom of each foot. A driver controls the gauges and controls from a seat in the back of the elephant's head.

The elephant's original sales brochure boasts a speed between 2 and 27 mph.

Trying to keep the engine cool has been a chronic problem for the elephant.

"It never made it through a parade," said Davis. "It always overheated. It needs fresh air."

The problem lies with the engine being completely shrouded by the elephant's skin. Friday, Davis was working to fashion an exhaust system to keep it cooled.

A circus trailer was created in the 1970s to replicate the one featured in the film, "Smokey and the Bandit," according to Davis.

Davis has taken the elephant back to its bones, with help from several friends in the trade.

Brian Rieke rebuilt the engine, and Mike Herzog and Pat Sweet reinforced and shored up the steel frame. Larry Stalter worked on rewiring its electrical system.

Davis fashioned synthetic vinyl in "elephant patter" to cover the frame. Pat Herrington airbrushed the vinyl to give it a more realistic texture.

The original elephant seemed a bit too skinny to Davis. He rebuilt it with a larger head and butt using Fiberglass and bondo that move in sync with each other. He replaced its mastodon-like trunk with a curved design and made inset eyes to replace the original painted ones that came off as a bit sinister.

"The original face would scare the livin' crap out of a kid," Davis said.

Jumbo now boasts the ability to shoot water from its trunk, thanks to retrofitting a five-gallon tank. Davis estimated its range at 10 to 15 feet.

The trailer also is undergoing a makeover, adding 2 feet to accommodate the elephant's larger girth.

How do you top an elephant?

With a custom, 5-foot umbrella imported from India, naturally.

Davis' wife, Heather, created the tapestry rugs from fabric, and the candy apple red bench seats were recovered in a diamond pattern.

The elephant' headdress was ordered from India, as well.

While it has taken a lot of effort, Davis said restoring the mechanical creature has been worth it.

"How often do you get to work on an elephant?"


Information from: The (Auburn, Indiana) Star, http://www.dekalbstar.com

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