When it comes to the classic TV show “The Munsters,” to paraphrase an old saying, it is the car that makes the monster.
This spooky, silly sitcom – which ran for 70 episodes from September 1964 to May 1966 – saw Herman Munster, portrayed by Fred Gwynne, as the patriarch of an “average American family” who just happened to be made of monsters.
As the household’s wage earner, five days a week Herman would drove the family car to his job at the Gateman, Goodbury and Graves Funeral Home.
But this 380-pound, seven-foot-and-six-inch creation of Dr. Victor Frankenstein couldn’t drive just any car. It had to be a vehicle fitting of his frame and his stature. And that is exactly what he was given in the series’ fourth episode, when his wife Lily, played by Yvonne De Carlo, presented him with the Munster Koach.
“It’s so funny in that episode because they think Lily is going to announce for Herman’s birthday that she's having a baby,” said Thea Munster, a Hamilton-based horror fanatic, graveyard enthusiast, hearse driver and theremin player for the band Night Chill. “They get it mixed up because she's talking about a car. So that in itself is iconic because we all call cars our babies.
“Lily sees a dragster and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and then she sees a hearse. The salesman says, ‘Oh, you don't want that car.’ But she does, and she has the two of them put together. In the show, it is customized by Lilly, and I love that it's her idea to make this for Herman.”
Lily may have created the auto on the show, but in real life it was legendary Hollywood customizer George Barris, who later also created the iconic TV Batmobile, who was contacted to bring the Koach to life.
“Barris Kustom Studios influenced tons of car designs,” said Jim Wojdyla, marketing director of the Volo Museum in Volo, Ill., which is home to authorized replicas of the Munster Koach and other TV and movie vehicles. “Barris was this larger-than-life character, and you can see that reflected in these vehicles. His cars are outlandish. They just stand out.”
“The cool thing about George Barris is that he could create anything,” said Munster. “He could customize anything. He would also use parts from the hardware store, like weird door knockers, things you wouldn’t even think of. The creativity is off the charts.”
Working from a drawing by car designer Tom Daniel, and built at a cost of $18,000, Barris and his team spent three weeks creating the 18-foot-long hot rod hearse from three Ford Model T bodies. The morbid mobile featured a gloss black pearl exterior paint job with gold leaf trim, gas side lanterns, spider web headlights, a skull radiator cap and hand-formed fenders, complimented by a Blood Red velvet coffin liner interior with fancy gold drapes and ermine fur rugs.
It was the perfect eerie auto for the Munster family, except for one thing. Herman’s large frame didn’t fit into the driver’s seat. Barris shop foreman Dick Dean remembers that they underestimated the size of Gwynne’s costume and, “he didn’t come in for a fitting.” To accommodate the actor, the bottom of front seat of the Koach had to be removed, allowing Gwynne to sit on the floor of the cab.
“That made sense to me,” said Munster, “because in all those vintage hot rod drawings, it’s always a big monster in a tiny car.”
The Koach’s 425-horsepower engine, backed by a four-speed transmission, packed a punch, but things didn’t go well when Herman agreed to enter it into a drag race in the episode “Hot Rod Herman.” It wasn’t fast enough and guest star Sandy Baylor, a professional racer, won the vehicle in a bet.
To win it back, Grandpa Munster, Lily’s vampire father played by Al Lewis, built his own race car, the Drag-U-La dragster, a gold coffin on wheels, to beat Baylor and win back the family's Koach.
Because it was illegal to purchase a coffin without a death certificate in California in 1964, accounts vary as to where the casket, which makes up the vehicle’s chassis, was acquired. “Today we can go to Costco and buy a casket,” Munster said, “but then it was much more difficult.”
One story claims it came from a prop shop after having been used in the film "Some Like It Hot.” Others claim it was obtained legally in Mexico or an under-the-table purchase from a funeral home in North Hollywood. Wherever it came from, the coffin makes up the vehicle’s body.
The demon dragster was an eyecatcher. To drive the car, and pop one of Drag-U-La’s famous wheelies, Grandpa Munster sat in the back, under a plastic bubble dome. Antique lamps decorated the front and rear, the radiator was manufactured to resemble a small brass coffin and, instead of standard exhaust pipes, four gothic organ pipes were mounted on each side.
“This is the only dragster in America that can play the song 'Oh, Promise Me' in second gear,” Grandpa said on the show. A copy of the Drag-U-La is also at the Volo Museum.
“It had no floor,” said Munster. “Al Lewis was completely terrified to drive it because they didn’t vent the exhaust properly and the exhaust actually shot back into the bubble dome. He was terrified he was going to die in that thing. It was really not made to be driven, whereas you could drive the Munster’s Koach.”
When asked which is her favorite car, Munster can’t decide. “I’m a huge hearse fan,” said Munster who has driven a 16-foot 1954 Pontiac hearse for 20 years. “But I can’t decide. Drag-U-La for a nice afternoon drive and then the Koach on a rainy, dark and stormy Halloween evening.”