If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Santa Monica over the years, you’ve probably seen the chicken car.
It’s become a piece of local lore, a legend among the multitudes of motorists and pedestrians whose paths it has crossed.
It’s the bright yellow one with the giant rooster head atop its roof and curved tail feathers protruding from its trunk.
It’s got an exterior audio system that plays a series of clucking noises and a backstory that sounds just as strange.
Its official name is El Gallo Grande (Spanish for “The Big Rooster”), its saga is closely linked to Santa Monica and its owner is a former racecar driver who saw it one day and decided he had to have it.
‘MEANT TO BE’
Tommy Kendall was sitting in his Glendale office nearly 20 years ago when he heard a strange sound outside.
“I was like, ‘What is that noise?’” the Santa Monica resident recalled. “It was sitting out there in the rain, just clucking. I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the coolest thing. I’ve got to have that.’”
Kendall rushed outside and flagged down a woman who told him the rusty car had been transported from Ohio to Southern California for a movie production. He gave his name and phone number to the woman, offering $3,500 for a vehicle he believed was priceless. She said she would pass along his information to the owner.
Kendall used his platform as an occasional Autoweek magazine writer to pen a back-page column about the car, telling readers he was trying to track it down and buy it. Still no luck.
The topic came up again at an ensuing Autoweek dinner function. At Kendall’s request, the magazine published another note along with a photo he had taken the day he saw the chicken car.
About a month later, Kendall received a serendipitous phone message from one of the magazine’s Los Angeles-based editors. The car was reportedly at the Wilson & Vallely towing facility in Santa Monica, not far from Kendall’s residence on 14th Street.
When Kendall arrived at the impound yard, he was told that he couldn’t see the car but that it would be auctioned off if it remained unclaimed. Undeterred, he took $10,000 out of the bank, arrived early for the morning sale and ended up paying $895 for the unusually decorated 1973 Oldsmobile 98. There were no other bidders on the clucking clunker.
“I was not letting this go,” Kendall said, who found on the backseat the note he had given the woman outside his Glendale office. “I never thought why. I just thought, ‘Why not?’ It was clearly meant to be.”
The screams were almost as reliable as the sunrise: “Chicken car! Chicken carrrrrrrr!”
When he lived on Lincoln Boulevard near Montana Avenue, Kendall heard the yelling almost every morning as children passed his vehicle on their way to Roosevelt Elementary School.
Indeed, there’s something about El Gallo Grande that has resonated with locals over the last two decades. It even has its own Facebook profile.
It has gained popularity in part because it has lived mostly on the street, unable to fit in the garages at Kendall’s various residences over the years.
One time, a woman was parked temporarily in Kendall’s driveway because her child wanted to see the chicken car. The woman was Helen Hunt.
Another time, Kendall was dwelling on a life problem as he sat in the vehicle, waiting for a homeless person to cross the street.
“They got halfway across the street and broke into the biggest grin,” he said.
Kendall estimates that the lion’s share of onlookers find the car intriguing, if not downright entertaining. Some, however, think it’s an eyesore. Residents near Canyon Charter School once complained about its presence in the neighborhood, prompting Kendall to store it to the Fairmont Miramar hotel for the last five years with the support of a personal connection there.
These days, it is kept under cover at an undisclosed warehouse.
“He misses the interaction,” Kendall said.
READY FOR ANYTHING
As far as Kendall is concerned, the chicken car is in it for the long haul.
In 2007, he said, it was totaled when a newly licensed teenager crashed into it while texting. And what did Kendall do? He went on eBay, found another 1973 Oldsmobile 98 in Iowa, painted it yellow and transferred the decorative pieces.
In 2009, after losing a bet, he and his brother drove the new El Gallo Grande across the country, from the Westside to Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. It was featured in a ceremonial lap on race morning.
“He’s a popular fellow,” Kendall said.
Now a racing commentator and automotive spokesman who owns rental property in town, Kendall has taken an active role in perpetuating the legend of the chicken car. He often tells people that it’s his only car (it isn’t). And he sometimes pushes the lie, saying he bought it at night and didn’t realize how bizarre it was.
Before Kendall owned the car, it was used to promote a radio station and, later, a pet convention. Many wrongly assume he’s advertising something, although he’s made money by renting it out for commercials and events. The previous owner has contacted him, trying to reclaim it, but he has no plans of giving it up.
Kendall has thought about building a drift-car version. He’s considered starting up a nonprofit and harnessing the chicken car’s popularity to raise money for charity. In the meantime, he’s happy that the epic tale of El Gallo Grande continues.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of fun,” Kendall said. “Every time you take it out, it’s a new adventure. Weird stuff happens all the time. I used to be sort of surprised by that. Now, I know it’s going to happen.”