Darryl Starbird burst his own bubble and then created another one.
Starbird aspired for some time to be an aeronautical engineer. This Kansas native — whose father, Austin, worked for Boeing — pursued those studies at Wichita State University.
But for many years, there was a desire stirring within the young man to build custom cars.
“I dropped out of college and started my shop building cars,” Starbird said this week during the Oklahoma State Fair. “I guess the aircraft influence of futuristic airplanes and aerodynamics and all of that influenced me to build a streamline aerodynamic type car.”
Starbird's dreams took shape in the form of a clear Lucite plastic dome on a customized 1956 Ford Thunderbird he called Predicta.
Instead of focusing on what his life might have been like as an aeronautical engineer, Starbird became known as “The Bubble Top King.”
The 79-year-old internationally known custom-car builder and designer has brought six cars to the fair as a treasure sample of his creations and that of other builders on display at “Darryl Starbird's National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum” near Bernice, in northeastern Oklahoma.
From his shows, such as the one held for decades in Oklahoma City and the one still going in Tulsa, to the scale models he designed for Monogram to having his creations featured in hundreds of auto publications, Starbird built not just cars but memories around the globe.
At the fair, Starbird has one car out front of an enclosed area in Centennial Plaza. Through the fair last day on Sunday, fairgoers can step into an open-air exhibit to view five cars — including Predicta — for $1.
His first bubble car
There it was, a 1956 Ford Thunderbird in a junkyard after a “run-in with a train,” Starbird wrote in an autobiography he co-authored with his grandson, Brice Bledsoe.
The 26-year-old Starbird gave $800 for the wrecked car and took it to his Star Kustom Shop in Wichita. When he was finished with it, he took the futuristic car — with its bubble top, television in the dash and a stick in the center instead of a steering wheel — to the 1960 Grand National Roadster Show in Oakland, Calif. Predicta was the show's sweepstakes winner.
A storied ride had begun.
There were a few changes to the Predicta through the years, and at one point Starbird sold it to Monogram so it could be scaled to make model cars. The models were made, and then the car was given away in a magazine's sweepstakes.
The winner later sold it to a motorcycle company in California, and Starbird eventually bought it back in the mid-1970s.
It was early in that decade that the movie “American Graffiti” was released. In it, one of the characters said of a friend's car that it might be even be better than “Darryl Starbird's superfleck moonbird!”
“Of all the cars I've built and all the recognition I've had fortunately, I probably have more people comment on that little phrase in ‘American Graffiti' than anything,” Starbird said this week. “It's the Predicta it was referring to. It was never called the moonbird, but it got Darryl Starbird in there, and that's the main thing.”
There it was, a 1934 Buick in Starbird's pasture for years. Starbird decided to work on it a few years ago and finished in 2010 with what he calls Spaced Out, also displayed at the state fair.
“I completely changed it, narrowed it, shortened it, sectioned it and bubble-topped it,” Starbird said of Spaced Out.
Whether it's driving cars or talking about them, Starbird enjoys it when others enjoy his work.
Although he created more than a dozen bubble-top cars, Starbird built more than 100 custom autos. Among those were Monogram's Big ‘T' and the Li'l Coffin, each displayed at the state fair.
Cars such as these added to his popularity in the United States and abroad. In the 1980s, Starbird took six cars to Europe for a tour. He made stops in 24 cities.
Within the past year, he traveled, without cars, to a big show in Switzerland to sign autographs.
“People like to reminisce,” he said.
“It still makes me feel good that people recognize the cars.”