Route 66 News

Inspiration for Mater is found

Rod Harsh, proprietor of Route 66 TV Online and chairman of the Route 66 Committee of Jasper County, Mo., had been diligently looking for the tow-truck inspiration of the character Tow Mater, voiced memorably by Larry the Cable Guy, in the hit animated movie, “Cars.”

He found it.

The good news is the truck (second photo above) will be exhibited and treasured at a historic Route 66 gas station that’s being refurbished in Galena, Kan.

But first, a little background …

In 2001, a crew from Pixar Animation Studios was being guided by Route 66 author and expert Michael Wallis down the Mother Road to do research for “Cars,” which includes the Mother Road as a central part of its theme.

A dedication to late Pixar animator Joe Ranft in the book “The Art of Cars” describes what happened during the research tour:

In Galena, Kansas, we found a lonely old tow truck that most folks would pass by without a second glance. Our Head of Story Joe Ranft, however, saw beyond the rust and broken-down parts — he saw the inspiration for the character Mater. They soon became kindred spirits. Joe gave Mater his warmth, his sense of fun, his humble and generous spirit, and his capacity to see — and bring out — the best in others.

There’s a piece of Joe in every movie Pixar has ever made. But Joe truly was the heart of Cars.

Here is a photo of Ranft gazing at the beat-up truck that eventually would become Mater:

Tragically, Ranft died in a traffic accident in August 2005, before he saw his creation come to life in movie theaters.

In April, Wallis looked for that truck while he was filming a segment about “Cars” for the Disney Channel’s “Movie Surfers” program.

The crew was unable to film one of the “Cars” inspirations, however. When the Pixar crew first traveled down Route 66, the studio’s “story guru,” Joe Ranft, became inspired by a rusty old pickup truck he saw in a junkyard near Galena, Kan. That truck provided much of the template to the equally rusty and rickety Mater. […] Wallis said he had hoped to buy the truck and fix it up so it would be running again.

Harsh read about the truck and its inspiration for Mater in the summer issue of Route 66 Magazine and went to look for it. He couldn’t find it. He kept looking for it.

The truck had been parked for years next to an abandoned, circa-1933 gas station at Old Route 66 and Main Street in Galena. Galena businessman Larry Courtney recently purchased the building, sans truck, to convert it into a gift shop and snack bar.

Courtney had no idea of the connection of the gas station’s truck to Pixar until Harsh told him. The truck eventually was found in a farm field, with its hood a quarter-mile away, Harsh said. Courtney purchased the truck, and it’s being stored in an undisclosed location.

“Mater” is a 1951 International boom truck, not a tow truck. Harsh surmises the extra-long boom was used to lift equipment out of the lead-mine shafts that dot the region. Wallis confirmed it is the same truck that Ranft saw in 2001.

Now “Mater” will become a part of the gas station’s attractions.

Harsh is planning a media event at 9 a.m. Nov. 3 Nov. 11 at Courtney’s station, where the truck will be parked for the public to see all day weekend and celebrate Route 66’s 80th anniversary. After that, the truck will be put back into storage until the station opens in the spring. At that time, the truck will be parked beside the station in its old spot so “Cars” and Route 66 fans can enjoy it.

(Boom truck photo courtesy of Route 66 TV Online.
Other photos are from the author’s collection.)