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updated 04/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SOUPED-UP VOLKSWAGEN BUGS ARE AS FAmiliar in Berkeley, Calif., as Birkenstocks. Yet even the most blasé Berkeleyites stare in awe as Harrod Blank's psychedelic VW putters down Shattuck Avenue. Crowing like an agitated rooster through its rooftop speaker, the car is a mobile circus with rubber chickens dangling from the front bumper, a spinning globe for a hood ornament, plus twirling plastic flowers and a TV on the roof. "When you drive an art car," says Blank, "people look at you like you're a weirdo or an alien."

That doesn't bother Blank in the least. The 31-year-old son of offbeat film auteur Les (Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe) Blank, Harrod recently released a movie, Wild Wheels (which aired last month on PBS), and a book with the same name, about his cross-country search for other art-car fanatics. Among them were the unemployed Bob Daniels of Andalusia, Ala., who covered his beat-up Chevy with faucets after, he says, God told him to clean up his act, and performance artist Gene Pool of Brooklyn, who grew grass—the legal variety—all over his 1966 Buick Le Sabre. "They're all eccentric but giving," says Blank. "Their cars entertain."

Indeed. San Francisco sculptor Albert Guibarra turned his '71 Mustang convertible into a braying "Hippomobile" that urinates through a posterior hole, while metalworker Joe Gomez of San Antonio stops traffic with his elaborate wrought-iron VW bug, which he built after seeing it in a dream. "Everyone thought I was crazy," he says. "My wife thought I was driving customers away." Instead, Gomez's metal shop was booked solid for two years because of his notoriety.

Blank's motive for jazzing up his own VW in 1981 was less practical: He was bored and seeking some fun. First he painted the car red, gold and green to give it a reggae look. Then he added the TV with a skull inside to decry sex and violence on the airwaves. Next came plastic baby dolls—a comment on overpopulation. "My father told me way back that movement and color attract the eye," he says. "So I designed my car as the ultimate cinematic vehicle."

Les Blank, 58, helped with the cinematography of Wild Wheels, which cost $100,000 to make (investors put in $32,000; the rest was borrowed). "I didn't push him into film," says Les, "but I'm proud of what he's accomplished." So is Harrod's mother, Gail, 53, a maker of erotic ceramics in New Orleans who raised Harrod from the age of 6 on a commune in Santa Cruz, Calif., after she and Les divorced. "That's why I have a different outlook," explains Harrod. "We didn't even have a TV."

Studying film at the University of California/Santa Cruz, Harrod gave his revamped bug—now called Oh My God!—a role in his 30-minute senior thesis, In the Land of the Owl Turds, an off-the-wall piece in which he drove around naked, painted green, while searching for Ms. Right—someone he is still looking for. "I have had dates with women who would not know I had this car, and when they found out, that would be it," he says.

During his yearlong promotional tour with his car, Harrod received more than 50 tickets from police for everything from "unsafe load" to "impaired vision." As expected, civilian reaction was mixed. Some threw joints through his window; others gave him flowers. For Blank, who lives rent-free in a one-room shack behind his father's Berkeley house, it made his quest worthwhile. "One of the fringe benefits of doing this," he says, "is seeing the smiles, the thumbs-up, the awe in children's eyes."

JANICE MIN
LAIRD HARRISON in Berkeley

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