A Visit with Babe

A Visit with Babe

I checked my phone one last time and I knew it was over. There I was, sitting in my truck in front of an unnaturally sterile condominium office on the outskirts of San Jose, waiting to pick up parts from a Craigslist deal that was slowly slipping away. I’d invested hours of my weekend on something that really was too good to be true. My dad’s words rattled around in my head like a box-wine hangover: “The biggest crime in America these days is the theft of time.” Per usual, he was right; I’d been robbed of something I could never get back. Not one to dwell on the disappointment, I decided to make the most out of my trip down to the South Bay. Truth be told, there was someone I wanted to see.

That someone was much older—and much, much taller than I am. I didn’t know his story, but I heard he had been living in the same place for quite awhile. Typing his last known address in my phone, I made my way across town and parked in front of building number 808 on The Alameda. As luck would have it, he was outside waiting for me.

Towering 22 feet above the crumbling lot stood Babe, a pale giant that looked like a long-lost relative of Superman George Reeves mixed with everyone’s favorite mythical woodsman, Paul Bunyan. Sporting heavily worn boots, blue jeans and a custom-embroidered button-up, he was clearly prepared for work—just like he has been for more than half a century. In his oversized hands he cradled a red exhaust pipe, complete with muffler, ready to install on your next project. I tilted my head back and smiled.

Babe was one of thousands of fiberglass “Muffler Men” manufactured between the early-’60s and mid-’70s. He has cousins all across North America, many of which have been retooled into everything from astronauts to Native Americans. But Babe stayed true and has always been a Muffler Man. “There were nine stores, and the owner put them in front of every store in the South Bay,” says Charlie Wilson, a veteran employee of Babe’s Muffler & Lighting. “This is the only one that’s still standing.” He says this location opened its doors 65 years ago; he’s worked there for 35 of them and his dad was there long before him.

So why Babe? Charlie’s answer was simple. Roland Royer, the shop’s late founder, went by “Babe.” He says it was a hip nickname back then and, perhaps more importantly, it had a far better ring to it than Roland Royer. I suppose he had a point.

Since the shop has been around since the ’50s, it only makes sense that a fair share of rods, customs and racecars have made their way through the doors. “We do hot rod stuff all the time,” Charlie says, recalling routing exhaust on everything from high-horsepower quarter-mile machines to 1920s Indy Car restorations. Custom jobs have been a staple at Babe’s for decades, but I had to ask—what’s the story on the pipe in their giant mascot’s hands? “It’s from a ’50 Oldsmobile,” he says, “…with a Cad motor.” What else would you expect? These guys are hot rodders through and through.

Joey Ukrop

End Note: After exchanging several strategic emails and making a number of carefully planned phone calls, I got to the bottom of the Craigslist deal. It wasn’t a scam, but rather a gross miscommunication that involved multiple identities, a man in a Hawaiian shirt and a memorial service at a church south of San Jose. Stranger than this 22-foot tall fiberglass giant holding a muffler? That’s for you to decide.

Looking for your local Muffler Man? Check the map here.

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