When I was a kid, the thought of a living car captivated me.
So to learn that British Petroleum transformed a Ford Zephyr into 'Mr. Beep', a talking car who could answer questions from kids—live!—was too good a story not to share.
The question is: what motivated British Petroleum to build an expensive teaching tool and have it tour exclusively in Ontario, Canada? Pet project? Judge-ordered community service? Positive publicity? Whatever the reason, people today still remember this fibreglass-bodied cartoon car.
In the comments section on mrbeepthetalkingcar.com, readers share stories of Mr. Beep visiting their schools, with only a single 5-inch-long model of Mr. Beep as a prize for games and trivia played by the audience.
Mr. Beep worked thanks to the magic of shortwave radio! Children would approach the car and speak to it, their voices transmitted via underhood microphone to an operator a few hundred feet away. The presentation often included a police escort, giving kids a show that likely distracted them enough to fully believe that Mr. Beep was a real, living, car.
Speakers hidden under the bodywork sent the operator's voice back to the kids. Hemmings covered the car a few years ago, and provides some background on the operators and history:
"The original voice of Mr. Beep in the summer of 1959 was Toronto schoolteacher Jack Charlton; in the last record of the car's appearance we've found, in 1964, it was Roger Powell, also a Toronto teacher. In 1960, Mr. Beep was transferred to the Windsor, Ontario, Police Department's Safety Patrol Association and teamed up with a much more enduring symbol of Canadian road safety, Elmer the Safety Elephant (alive and well today at age 64), delivering their messages about looking both ways and crossing at the lights.
"BP very briefly brought Mr. Beep back in print in the late Seventies, but without his rolling accompaniment. Small tchotchkes with Mr. Beep, especially bottle openers, emerge from time to time at yard sales, mostly in Ontario, but of the car himself we've found no trace."
That is until it was sold to, of all places, Kentucky Fried Chicken in Canada who used it as a promotional vehicle in the Southwestern Ontario area. Yes, it had a chicken on the side of it. A supervisor at a regional office bought the vehicle when the company had grown tired of the car.
For a promotional vehicle, Mr. Beep has nearly pulled off a Robert Downy, Jr.-like career resurrection. Think about it: He'd gone from the steps of Toronto's (old) City Hall—complete with police escort!—to shilling greasy chicken.
A few years ago, Mr. Beep was taken out of long-term storage in Woodstock, Ontario, by the former KFC supervisor mentioned above. The car was then shipped to the Guild of Automotive Restorers and underwent a major overhaul. Its original Ford Zephyr chassis had rotted away in its damp storage space, and the shop had to merge a new chassis with the existing car.
Recently featured on the show Restoration Garage, I suppose Mr. Beep has finally completed his comeback.
If I'd known about Mr. Beep sooner, I'd have recommended you visit him at the AACA Museum, but it appears as though the exhibit he was involved with has ended. If you know where he'll be next, please leave a comment.