Perhaps the most unusual item on a collector car auction docket, at least since Barrett-Jackson drew national news coverage when it sold Robosaurus, is Wendell the mechanical elephant, which carries a pre-auction estimated value of $250,000 to $400,000 as it walks into Auction America’s Auburn Fall sale this weekend. Part of the sale proceeds will benefit a local charity.
Wendell walks because it is powered by a 1939 Model 948 Anglia 8-horsepower engine with a four-speed standard transmission (with reverse).
Believe it or not, there is a website (cyberneticzoo.com) which is devoted to early robots and cybernetic animals. It reports that Frank Stuart, a theatrical prop maker and owner of Mechanimals, unveiled what was then known as Jumbo in July 1950, “walking the roads of Essex with a load of children in its howdah.”
The website says Wendell/Jumbo is as large as a full-grown elephant. It weighs 1,400 pounds, is 8-feet, 6-inches tall, 12 feet long and can walk via an “elaborate mechanism” — 9,000 parts were used to construct the pseudo pachyderm — at speeds as fast as 27 miles per hour.
It is believed that only one other Stuart-built mechanical elephant still exists.
Jumbo was brought to the U.S. by the Cunningham Drug Stores chain to promote its Jumbo photo prints and its Jumbo milk shakes.
It also was used early on to promote the presidential campaign of Dwight Eisenhower and later of Ronald Reagan.
The drug store chain sold Jumbo in 1953 but bought it back in 1961, and almost immediately donated it to a Detroit pubic television station for its fund-raising auction. The Bald Mountain Riding Stables north of Detroit won the bid, which is where Larry Gavette discovered Jumbo’s remains nearly 20 years after the auction.
What remained reportedly was little more than scrap, but Gavette undertook a jumbo-sized restoration project. Gavette not only had to replace the fabric hide and papier-mâché tusks, but also had to reattach the head and solve the mystery of the mechanical system that enabled the elephant to walk, which he did, though only at a speed of less than 10 mph.
According to the auction catalog, RM Sotheby’s chief Rob Myers and Auctions America president Donnie Gould bought Wendell in 2013 and put it through yet another restoration, cosmetic and mechanical, including a most realistic synthetic vinyl skin and a larger head and rump to give the device more elephant-like proportions. A new electrical system was installed so Wendell can shoot water from its trunk, and play music and sound effects through a CD-player/speaker system.
“Wendell the elephant represents a very unique ownership opportunity and the ultimate conversation piece,” Megan Boyd, Auctions America car specialist, said in a news release.
“The fully operational, life-size mechanical elephant would be a unique topper on any collection of cars, or could easily reprise his role as a distinctive promotional piece. We’re sad to see Wendell go, but look forward to hearing about his new adventures as the 65-year-old elephant embarks on a new chapter.”
Part of the proceeds from Wendell’s sale will benefit Kate’s Kart, a northeastern Indiana not-for-profit founded in memory of Katherine Anne “Baby Kate” Layman to supply free books to hospitalized children. That charity also will profit from the sale of a Gary “Chopit” Fioto-designed custom bubbletop scooter commissioned by Barry Weiss of the Storage Wars television show.
On Friday, people who bring a new children’s book to donate to Kate’s Kart will receive a 2-for-1 admission to the auction park.