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.)

12 thoughts on “Inspiration for Mater is found

  1. Kudos to Mr. Harsh and his plans in Galena, Ks. Galena is a town of mostly historic bldgs. that are in danger of being lost. More should be done to revive the Main Street area of Galena. With the building of the interstate highway system, a lot of small towns across the USA have become “ghost towns.” It would be a shame for the history of this small town to be lost with so many others.

    1. They have actually done a lot to help restore the town buildings. My parents live there. The changes they have made just from when I was a kid are very nice. Hope they keep going with it!

  2. Not since the Brokeback Mountain vehicle, has a movie-related truck garnered so much attention. Fun stuff. I’m sure Ranft would be happy to see it preserved, rust and all!

  3. Interesting, Phil. I either don’t remember that moment from the podcast, or I hadn’t seen it.

    I wouldn’t be surprised that the truck you’ve shown had an influence. But Pixar and the writer of “The Art of Cars” made it a point to show the old boom truck in Galena, Kan., and its impact on the Mater.

    Either way, thanks for bringing it to my — and our — attention. It’s something to think about.

  4. I live in the area of Galena KS and drove over with the kids today 12-10-06, and found “mater” sitting and still decorated from the Christmas parade and events in Galena. My kids as well as myself and my husband love the movie “CARS” and the kids thought it was a real treat to see the REAL MATER… my 3 year old was still talking about Tow Mater when he fell asleep tonight.

  5. i live in teh area of anderson SC we was going to Greenville and we saw a tow truck that looked like mater we are going to try to buy him.i really didnt know that much about the movie cars but i wantes to look it up becouse my brother really liked it he NEVER waches cartoons and the way cars was inspired was very meaningful
    we had to buy the movie. the movie inspired to start a company with my bestfriend were planning it to be MEAGAN DIXIE and MATER’S TOWING CO.


  6. indescrepencies; mater’s inspiration must come from a later model, say 58-62 , re- totally diffr’nt body style. from a cornbinderfan.

    1. But the boom truck in Galena, Kan., was specifically cited by the folks at Pixar, tl. That doesn’t mean that Pixar can’t modify the look a little.

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