Surprisingly, it’s nearly impossible to buy a casket without producing a dead body, even in a neighborhood where there’s an undertaker every couple of blocks.
Ask Vince Pezzano, Vince Ideo and Bill Guyon Sr. They tried to do it, but no one would sell a coffin without seeing a death certificate first.
It’s not like they were going to do anything weird with it. They’re not vampires shopping for a new bed. They didn’t even want to bury it.
All they wanted to do was drive it.
That is what happens when a group of gearheads sitting in a garage starts debating what was the coolest car on television in the 1960s.
"One guy said it was the Green Hornet’s car, another guy said it was the Batmobile," Pezzano says. "I mentioned Dragula."
Dragula was a gold coffin on wheels driven by Grandpa Munster in the 1960s television show The Munsters. The dragster appeared in one episode of the show — Grandpa built the car to win back the family’s more-famous Munster Koach after bungling-but-lovable Herman lost it in a race — and in the 1966 movie Munster, Go Home! It was the brainchild of Hollywood’s famous custom-car designer George Barris.
The vehicle has a cult following among car enthusiasts, perpetuated in large part by the Internet, which is how Pezzano contacted Barris to tell him he wanted to create a replica.
"He was flabbergasted that somebody wanted to build this car," Pezzano says. As it turned out, Barris did not personally build the original, but he was able to refer Pezzano to the man who did — Dick Dean, who ran Barris’ shop in the 1960s.
Cars are a hobby for Ideo and Pezzano. Guyon, 45, from 13th and Shunk, owns an auto shop on the 2400 block of Snyder. People ask him, he says, how he can work on cars all day, then spend much of his free time doing the same.
"The customers aren’t standing over you. There is no time limit. This is like mental therapy," Guyon says of the time spent on Dragula and his blue 1953 Chevy pickup.
Both Ideo and Pezzano have homes on the 2600 block of South Alder Street, and share a garage they bought as a place to repair their cars.
Ideo, 44, who works for the American Red Cross, drives a black 1969 Buick convertible that he bought in the late 1970s from a sailor stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He and Pezzano discovered the car broken down on Broad Street, and its owner — a man from Memphis sporting a cowboy hat — kicking it with a vengeance.
Ideo and Pezzano stopped and asked the sailor if they could be of any assistance.
"He said, ‘You want to buy it? You can have it, 100 bucks,’" Pezzano recalls. They dug into their pockets and pooled their money, but only came up with $35. The sailor shrugged and accepted their offer. He handed over the car’s title on the spot.
"The car wasn’t really pretty," Pezzano said. "It was ugly green and he just kicked three more fresh dents in it," but as it turned out, all the engine needed was a $17 timing chain.
While they were restoring it, they found a metal plate on it etched with the words "Music City Motors" and two music notes. It turned out, Pezzano says, the car was from the same dealership that sold Elvis Presley some of his cars.
Pezzano, 41, is an unmistakable car guy with long hair, tattoos covered by a Harley-Davidson jacket and a miniature chrome piston hanging from a silver chain around his neck. As a child, he says, he would save his $1 weekly allowance to buy racing magazines at the ice-cream store that once stood at Eighth and Porter streets.
Today, he makes a living as a wallpaper-hanger and still drives one of the cars he used to dream about — a 1970 Chevelle Super Sport. It is red with a black stripe and chrome supercharger sticking out of a hole in its hood. He paid $800 for it in 1977.
"I actually drag-raced down on Front Street with the rest of the derelicts for years," Pezzano says. Recently, though, his interest has centered on motorcycles. He and the other guys recently built a replica of the Chopper bike from Pulp Fiction.
They will continue the movie theme for their next project — a copy of the 1932 Ford three-window coupe Harrison Ford drove in American Graffiti.
"Some guys go bowling. Some guys get in a boat and go bass fishing," Pezzano explains. "This is what we do."
Despite contacting the builder of the original Dragula, the problem of finding a coffin for the car’s body remained an issue — until Pezzano got a call from his friend Charlie Oakley.
Oakley, who also helped build the car, phoned to tell him he was standing in a junkyard in Delaware looking at six stainless-steel caskets. The car buffs bought two of them for $200 apiece.
The two caskets were spliced together and welded to the frame along with two gold lanterns for headlights and a gas tank painted with the words "embalming fluid." Pezzano’s wife Grace stitched the purple interior. Problem solved.
Dragula’s casket lid conceals a 455-cubic-inch Buick big-block engine donated by a junkyard owner. The motor turns over with a thunderous clap when Guyon flicks the ignition and pumps the gas pedal. Simply idling it makes it snarl like a pack of ticked-off rottweilers.
The beastly machine propels two racing slicks that look like they belong on an Indy car. Appropriately, Pezzano says, "It is super-scary fast." It will dust his Chevelle, which tops out at 130 mph and burns a 10.9-second quarter-mile.
Dragula handles unexpectedly well, says Guyon, who served as test pilot during construction. Although, he admits, the brakes still need some tinkering.
Each time Guyon rolls it out of his shop, the car causes a traffic jam on Wharton Street. People honk and wave. Some stop and take pictures, he says, or ask if they can sit in it.
Even the police from the First District headquarters a couple blocks away stop and look. One time, Guyon says, some of the officers offered to turn on their squad-car lights and escort Dragula for a drive around the park.
And as Halloween approached, the car has attracted more attention. It won first place at a hotrod show at the Lagoon nightclub in Essington. Dragula also has been in demand for numerous appearances. A pastor asked if the car could be parked inside the courtyard of his church at 17th and Snyder. Tomorrow night, the speedster will be outside Maco’s, Third and South streets.
The most tempting offer has come from a woman outside of Austin, Texas, who lives in a small community of millionaires called Sitcom City, where everyone’s house looks like a famous television home.
After seeing a story about these people on the news, Pezanno contacted a couple there living in a home modeled after The Munsters mansion, complete with a pet dragon under the stairs.
The woman of the house wants the car, Pezzano says, and she has offered to pay anything for it.
The guys haven’t decided if they want to sell.