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The Long, Neat History Behind the Departed I-94 Mannequin Car

Here's hoping the local landmark reappears over I-35 in Lakeville.

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Goodbye, Minnie.

Update (4/16/24): Minnie found a new home!

As my colleague Em Cassel explored beautifully here, folksy signage imbues our increasingly sterile, commercialized urban landscape with a sense of personality and place. If it sticks around long enough, one of those signs might just became a city landmark.

Such was the case with Minnie MAPCO, a mannequin babe behind the wheel of a pole-topping Porsche 914 who, for 40+ years, delighted and intrigued motorists along I-94. Minnie had long since retired as the spokesmannequin for Minneapolis Auto Parts Co., the former highway-overlooking business at 4640 Lyndale Ave. N. Last week the newish owner at that address, Bille Bus, took her and her rusty ride down for good.

“We thought it was going to fall over any one of these days. And if it falls over into the highway, that's a risk [for others] and would leave us responsible, too," Bille Bus senior manager Hakim Abdilahi told Bring Me the News, adding that his team was unaware of Minnie MAPCO's status as beloved Minneapolis folk art. "I'm a Twin Cities guy too, so I would never do something deliberately to disrespect anyone who takes pride in where they are from."   

Earlier this week, members of the family responsible for Minnie MAPCO reached out to Racket, eager to share her origin story.

“My grandmother actually started MAPCO in like 1928, right before the war,” says Fern Garber, whose dad Joe ran the shop for decades. “It was a junkyard turned recycling center. The business originally started on Washington Avenue, but when they eminent domained it for the highway, they had to find a new place on Lyndale.”

Due to some bureaucratic rigmarole, Fern remembers, the city wouldn’t allow her dad to put up standard signage advertising his new location. Right around 1980, Joe got creative with a sports car he had initially purchased for his wife, Nancy, to take on parts deliveries around town. He gutted the car, used a backhoe to dig a hole for a towering pole, and welded the vehicle to the tippy-top of it. “That car was never gonna fall,” Fern says with a chuckle, noting her dad’s welding prowess.   

“He needed advertising, and it was a way to circumnavigate rules; my dad was very clever, very imaginative” she continues. “Initially there were a couple of mannequins, one was on the hood like an ornament, and he painted bikinis on them. He’d dress them up for various occasions, like in Twins uniforms and Santa Claus suits.”

Historically, when Minnie MAPCO went missing, people noticed.

Writes Chuck Haga in a 1991 edition of the Twin Cities Journal, "You can call it a landmark, a stroke of advertising genius or a monumental sexist joke, but it's gone again and people are asking why." Then-owner Harry Haluptzok had taken the bikini-sporting mannequin down for routine cleaning, we later learn. (The following week, a letter to the editor would would call Minnie MAPCO "just one among millions of examples of the way in which female sexuality is used to sell products.")

Minnie's absence from the highway sky caused locals to clamor in 1987 as well. Here's the Star Tribune's Dan Wascoe Jr., writing in a piece about local mannequin lore.

Perhaps the only mannequin in town invulnerable to human indignities is the most visible. Bikini-clad Minnie MAPCO waves to traffic from the hood of a red Porsche perched high in the air next to Interstate Hwy. 94 in north Minneapolis. She's the mascot of Minneapolis Auto Parts Co., 4640 Lyndale Av. N., and is so popular that when she was taken down earlier this year for refurbishing—"her 50,000-mile checkup," said MAPCO owners Joe and Nancy Garber—people called to ask about her well-being.

Upon learning of the car’s removal this week, the Garbers were delighted to discover the whereabouts of another quirky family character: the Mechanical Man, the smiling robot you see in the driver’s seat below:

Hakim Abdilahi via Bring Me the News

“We didn’t know where the Mechanical Man had ended up,” Fern says. “Dad used to take him to the State Fair—he’s made entirely of car parts. Dad battery-operated the Mechanical Man with a speaker inside, and he’d take it to the Dairy Building every year.”  

Joe sold the business around ‘91, Fern says, and a subsequent owner painted “PSALM 46:10" where the car had previously read “MAPCO.” Joe never really mentioned the car before his death in 2006.

“I think my dad would be surprised it became the landmark it once was; as a kid, I thought it’d be there forever,” she says. “He’d laugh and say, ‘That ol’ junker? People are still talking about that now?!’ It's a testament to his creativity and longevity. We’re happy to relay the legacy of my dad… it’s nice he’s still with us.”

Minnie, her Porsche, and the Mechanical Man were transported Monday to Hot Sam's Antiques & Foto Park in Lakeville, where they're reportedly being restored and may one day return to the top of a pole, this time overlooking I-35 in the south metro. Billie Bus gave the longtime north metro landmark to Hot Sam free of charge.

“When we come back to Minneapolis," Fern says, "we’re kinda looking forward to going to the place in Lakeville with my mom and sisters.”

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