With An Instinct for the Extinct, John Kearney Brings Back the Dinosaurs—Bumper-to-Bumper

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Detroit's great gas guzzlers of the '50s, '60s and '70s mostly have gone to that boneyard in the sky, but parts of those old fossils survive today in an art form that truly stops traffic. The newest creation of Chicago sculptor John Kearney is, in fact, a 31-foot-long, 14-foot-high, 2½ ton stegosaurus made entirely of chrome bumpers from junked cars. The stego is the second chrome dinosaur Kearney has concocted for George Holmes, CEO of Crown Manufacturing, which produces machines for making plastic. When Kearney finishes his commission, five bumper behemoths will reside at Crown's West Chicago headquarters.

Kearney's chrome critters are familiar to the Windy City: He already has a gorilla crawling up a brick house, two horses cavorting in a mall and a two-ton elephant in Lincoln Park Zoo. Johnny Carson, Kirk Douglas, Studs Terkel and Norman Mailer also own creatures from Kearney's metal menagerie. Compared with his dinosaurs, however, those are shrimps. To make stegosauruses, Kearney in June copied the outline of a figurine from the British Museum on the floor of the Provincetown, Mass., summer studio he shares with his wife, Lynn, and sometimes their two children, Dan, 34, and Jill, 32. Then he and two assistants began welding together some of the 18 tons worth of bumpers he keeps in a storage shed; to maneuver the increasingly bulky animal, he used a gantry crane. Last month Kearney, 65, polished the stegosaurus with steel wool, swabbed it with Rust-Oleum, cut it in two—"like lifting the shell off a turtle," he says—and fitted the pieces on an 18-wheel flatbed for transporting to Chicago. Last year Kearney headed west hauling an 18-foot-tall tyrannosaurus rex whose teeth were made from the grill of a 1948 Lincoln. "Every time we'd pull off for gas," he recalls, "a line of cars would follow, wanting to know what the hell the story was."

Next year the Omaha-born Kearney, who started using bumpers 30 years ago, plans to begin on a triceratops, a three-horned herbivore, and then a pteranodon with a 30-foot wingspan, which will dangle from steel cables. Last will come an apatosaurus, which Kearney hopes to scale down from 70 feet to 30 feet because his bumper crop is dwindling.

"Over the years, bumpers have gotten thinner and thinner, less suitable for my work," he says, "and now they're all rubber." The apatosaurus thus may be the end of its line, but Kearney is not dismayed. "I like the fact that my dinosaurs will be the last survivors of an extinct art form," he says. "And it'll take more than an Ice Age to kill them off."

From Our Partners