"Watch your buns," cautioned Rob Baumhardt as I pulled away from the curb in front of the Deseret News building.
He wasn't getting personal, he was just giving me instruction in the art of driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. The "buns," you see, extend out a couple of feet farther than the wiener on either side of the vehicle - perhaps the strangest four-wheeled conveyance I have ever been called upon to test drive.You've probably seen the Weinermobile around town at one time or another; the first ones were built by Stevens Bros. of Milwaukee back in the 1950s. The 1988 model I took for a cruise over to Trolley Square this week was made from the same fiberglass molds as the original.
"They're thinking about changing the design," said Rob Baumhardt. "But, you know, there's only so much you can do with a hot dog." No argument there.
Baumhardt, 23, and Ann Ela, also 23, are "Hot Doggers," a select group of college overachievers selected annually from some 500 applicants to spend a year driving one of the company's six Wienermobiles around the country. They generate PR for the home office: Oscar Mayer Foods Corp., based in Madison, Wis.
When they popped in one day last week from their base in Los Angeles and asked me if I wanted to take the Weinermobile for a spin, my first thought was "Don't be ridiculous." My second thought was "Well, what the heck." My third thought - the one that came out of my mouth - was "Let's do it."
In the past, whenever I had seen the 23-foot Wienermobile - popularly known as a "Weenybago" - on the street, it had struck me as a dangerous and difficult beast to drive in traffic. In reality, it's not that bad.
True, it handles like a dog, it was hard to ketchup with cars ahead of me and I had to mustard up my courage to roll around corners, but frank-ly, I relish-ed the assignment. (There, I got all the puns out of my system so I won't have to inflict any more on you; promise.)
The Wienermobile is mounted on a Chevrolet van chassis equipped with V-8 and automatic transmission. It cost $75,000 out the door, seats six, has a fridge and microwave oven, a phone and a stereo and is entered at midship through a gullwing door reminiscent of the old Mercedes-Benz coupes of the '50s.
Acceleration is not what you'd call breathtaking - "0-60 in about 60" (seconds) is the way Baumhardt puts it, a leisurely pace even by backhoe standards. But, hey, the Weinermobile ain't for racin', it's for lookin'.
And look people do. And smile. Anyone feeling sad about the human condition should take a spinin a Wienermobile. Other motorists honk, wave and, above all, smile. It may be anatomically impossible to look at the Wienermobile bouncing along and not break into a grin.
In fact, I felt so good driving the Big Weenie that I suddenly burst into a chorus of "I Wish I Were An Oscar Mayer Weiner," a tune I didn't know I knew, such is the power of advertising. (On the very slight chance you're interested, here's the chorus: Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, that is what I'd really like to be; 'Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.)
Baumhardt and Ela are part of Oscar Mayer's "lost generation" of kids who grew up without ever seeing a Wienermobile. The company took them all off the road in 1971 and they didn't return until 1988 when a fleet of six new ones was built and sent on its hot-dogging way.
Incidentally, the heater on this particular Wienermobile was broken, qualifying it as a chili dog. Sorry.