Originally Published July 1, 2018. Updated April 9, 2020
The year was 1980. Charles Lazarus had been crowned “The Toy King,” with his retail empire having grown from its modest beginnings as the Children’s Bargain Town into a household name as Toys “R” Us. What started in 1948 as a place to buy baby furniture had evolved into a place that kids across the country would dream of – a rainbow-striped paradise of toys and games stacked floor-to-ceiling. His mascot had become an icon, and Geoffrey the Giraffe would soon start a family of his own, with wife Gigi, son Geoffrey Jr. and daughter Baby Gee entering the fold. Of course, a growing family will often prompt a search for a bigger ride, and for Geoffrey that search led a meeting between The Toy King of the East Coast and The King of the Kustomizers on the West Coast – legendary car builder, George Barris. It was time to build “The Geoffreymobile.”
While Barris’ shop was famous for designing and building hot rods and vehicles like The Munsters’ Koach and Drag-U-La, it was The Batmobile created for the 1966 Batman television series that really solidified his place in pop culture history, arguably becoming known around the world as his signature ride. Like many of the vehicles credited to Barris, however, it wasn’t actually George who handled the build, nor was the Geoffreymobile actually built at Barris Kustom Industries. George Barris created the Giraffe-piloted hot rod, but it was another legendary builder who took the reigns for construction – Dick Dean.
Pictured: These photos of George Barris and the Geoffreymobile were taken during the cover shoot for Street Rodder Magazine in 1981, but were framed and hung in offices at the Toys “R” Us Global Resource Center in Wayne, New Jersey. They were likely sold during the liquidation process in June 2018.
Richard Dean Sawitskas had been building cars since the late 50s, adopting his shortened moniker when a car show judge fumbled on pronunciation and “Dick Dean” became his professional name for the rest of his lengthy career. It was his hot rod work that caught the attention of Jack Ryan at Mattel, who brought Dean into the fold to work on toys like the V-RROOM! X-15 Tricycle, but he’d soon catch the eye of Barris, who brought him on-board to run the shop at Barris Kustom City in 1964. He’d leave for a few years in the late 60s to collaborate with another famed builder, Dean Jeffries, on vehicles like The Monkees’ Monkeemobile and The Green Hornet‘s Black Beauty, but he’d ultimately return to Barris Kustoms. In working in collaboration with other designers, he’d earn another nickname – “The Ghost-Builder” – due to his stamp being put on so many vehicles that would never bear his name. In an interview with Hot Rod Online, he estimated that he’d built “40-50 vehicles” during his two stints with Barris alone, but by the late 1970s he was starting to spin-off and do his own thing again, but in tandem with his work at Barris Kustoms.
Cruisin’ Toys Inc. became the official shop of Dean Kustoms and an overflow garage for projects coming over from Barris. Soon, a big “toy” would soon be taking shape, and Dean’s son Keith would be working on the build in his dad’s shop.
Pictured: The Geoffreymobile takes shape inside Dick Dean’s Cruisin’ Toys in the summer of 1980. Steel frame tubing would form the shape of the “double-decker bus.”
Lazarus approached Barris to design the Geoffreymobile as a promotional and parade vehicle that would carry his four giraffes at events across the country. On paper, it was a classic hot rod – but one that had been extended to act as a double-decker bus, complete with stairs on the back. The interior would be functional storage, perfect for carrying costumes, people or promotional items to be given away. The vehicle would feature a C-cab and Model-T style grille shell, and it would be seated-upon chrome wheels riding Pro-Trac street rod tires. The engine and drivetrain was a Frankenstein’d affair, crafted from a German Ford Taunus industrial V-4 engine paired to a Volkswagen transmission and a Saab steering set-up. Eventually, the unique mechanics of the Geoffreymobile would lead to problems down the line, but soon it was complete and about ready to hit the streets.
Pictured left: Baby Gee loads the alternative fuel into the Geoffreymobile’s Potato Chip Power Intake. Pictured right: The family gathers to watch the Potato Chip Combustion.
With bright red paint accented by intricate pinstriping performed by hand, the traditional hot rod elements were joined by some whimsical additions. The headlights were painted to be cartoon eyes, the curved brass bumper serving as a mouth. The Toys ‘R’ Us logo was painted onto the grille, while both the hood and rear bumper featured intakes for potato chips. Officially, the Geoffreymobile was fueled by “Potato Chip Power!” – a fact touted in official materials issued by the company (Toys ‘R’ Us corporate would sometimes erroneously cite the Geoffreymobile’s birth as taking place in 1985). Black glass windows on each side would help with the illusion that the Geoffreymobile was a double-decker.
On November 28, 1980, the “World Premiere” of the Geoffreymobile would take place at the National Rod, Custom and Van Show at the New York Coliseum. Newspaper ads invited families to “Have a Toys ‘R’ Us day in the city!” with discount coupons and an an opportunity to “meet builder George Barris” at the show. Three months later, the Geoffreymobile would grace the cover of February 1981 issue of Street Rodder Magazine, complete with a feature on page 54.
Pictured: I tracked down and purchased a mint copy of this issue. I think I’m going to frame it to hang in my office.
At some point, plans were put in motion for a line of Geoffreymobile merchandise, with a trademark on the real-world vehicle filed on December 5, 1980, and a trademark on an “inflatable toy” version filed in 1982. Thus far, the only pieces I’ve been able to locate are a 1980 watercolor paint set by Lash Tamaron (an import division of Toys ‘R’ Us) and a 1984 musical scrolling TV by MyKids Toy Manufacturing Company of Hong Kong. Perhaps the reason that there wasn’t more of it was because the actual Geoffreymobile wasn’t doing so good.
At some point after making the trek from Los Angeles to New York and then to Toys ‘R’ Us HQ in New Jersey, the Geoffreymobile wound up in the suburbs of Detroit. For a vehicle designed for parade use, the unique engine and transmission configuration had presented some big problems… it wasn’t making it through a parade without breaking down. Eventually, local shops put in bids to rebuild the vehicle, and at some point between 1983-1984, the Geoffreymobile wound up at Tatro’s Collision.
The Tatreaus are a car family, and I caught up with John Tatreau Sr., son of the second man whose name would be emblazoned upon the Geoffreymobile. While the rear of the Geoffreymobile bore the mark of Barris Kustoms, eventually the engine compartment would bear another signature – “Modifications by Hank Tatro.” John put me in touch with his dad for more on the story of how the Geoffreymobile got a life-saving upgrade.
Hank Tatreau is retired now, but there’s a lot of excitement in his voice as he discusses some of the cars he’s worked on in the past – but the real glimmer is when he speaks about his family… his kids and his late wife. As for the Geoffreymobile, he didn’t hold back on its condition when it rolled into the shop at 1319 Fort St. in Wyandotte, Michigan.
Pictured left: The original engine build at Dick Dean’s Cruisin’ Toys in California, 1980. Right: Deconstruction at Tatro’s Collison in Michigan, 1983/84
“The engine and transmission were a joke,” he told me, confirming an additional oddity that John mentioned earlier – “it had a hand-throttle.” Perhaps because the company viewed it as a promotional item instead of a legit custom-built hot rod, there were some corners that had been cut, and it wasn’t exactly street-legal. “There were no gauges and there was no dashboard in it, so we added both of those,” he explained. “We took the entire thing apart and used an Oldsmobile Toronado subframe and a ’72 Olds 350 Rocket engine in it. Before we sent it back to Toys ‘R’ Us, we had a party with all the neighborhood kids. We had ice cream and pop, and my wife gave the kids rides around the block. I charged Toys ‘R’ Us $11,700.00 for the rebuild.”
Pictured left: Mrs. Tatreau prepares to give the neighborhood kids a ride in the rebuilt Geoffreymobile. Pictured right: Hank Tatreau and the kids enjoy snacks before taking a ride around the block.
About a year later, the Geoffreymobile was back at Tatro’s due to a problem with carburetion. Turns out that the original, custom gas tank was contaminated due to the wrong type of metal being used. “The people at Toys ‘R’ Us didn’t want to pay us for it,” Hank said. “We just took care of it, and two or three years later they were back. They wanted some touch ups on the Geoffreymobile and wanted a rebuild. They wanted it to be a new thing that was more modern. I thought about it, and told them that it would be better to build something new instead of updating the existing vehicle. I told them we could make a new Geoffreymobile, and I would’ve based it on a Ford 9,000 1-ton diesel chassis. I don’t recall what price I gave them, but I never heard from Toys ‘R’ Us again. We closed the shop in 1988, and I quit working full-time in the 90s.”
The Geoffreymobile continued making appearances in parades and at store grand openings in the following years, and on Thursday, January 23, 1992, the vehicle would become a question in the “Transportation” category of Jeopardy! “The Geoffreymobile was built to carry this toy company’s trademark giraffes in parades.” In a St. Patrick’s Day Parade that surfaced on YouTube from the same year, the chrome wheels had been swapped out for a fresh set, similar, but different as the Geoffreymobile made its way down Grand Avenue in Kansas City, MO. Additionally, the driver’s side door was now sporting a curious horseshoe icon.
Where the history of the Geoffreymobile gets muddy is in the late 90s to mid 00s. At some point between 1998 and 2001, the vehicle did receive its requested overhaul (roughly 15 years after it was first considered), but during that process it lost a lot of its charm, and was wiped of its history. I’ve been unable to locate who performed the work or what the direction was at the time. The glass windows on the sides were removed, as were the potato chip intakes on the front and rear of the vehicle. Perhaps there was another mechanical challenge at some point, but the angled hood and grille would be replaced by rounded versions. The smiling face look was eliminated, and the entire vehicle would be painted red, eliminating any mention of George Barris, Dick Dean and Hank Tatreau’s work, and the Toys ‘R’ Us “star” logo (used between 1998 and 2007) would adorn the sides along with a cartoon version of Geoffrey. Additionally, the leather upholstery and C-cab roof was re-done in red, eliminating the previous yellow and orange stripes.
In recent years, the Geoffreymobile made its way back to New Jersey, making occasional appearances at the Toys ‘R’ Us Global Resource Center in Wayne. It sill popped up at the occasional grand opening or parade, but it largely became a forgotten relic. Most recently, the Geoffreymobile’s home was the Toys ‘R’ Us distribution center in Mt. Olive, NJ. Jaime Pohero was tasked with driving it to-and-from events, while Maintenance Supervisor Steve Gumann and his crew helped to keep it running, eventually crafting ramps to get the vehicle on-and-off of traditional Toys ‘R’ Us trailers.
Pictured: The Geoffreymobile in a recent sighting inside the Mt. Olive, NJ distribution center where it was last known to reside.
Sadly, the current status and ultimate fate of the Geoffreymobile is in question. Last seen on a trailer in Mt. Olive, there is seemingly no mention of it being listed as an asset in any of the court documents pertaining to the Toys ‘R’ Us bankruptcy. It’s entirely possible that the administrators had no idea that it even exists – especially since there was probably no title ever issued for it and the trademarks have expired. Recent rumblings are that the Mt. Olive distribution center and its contents have been sold as-is to a single buyer, so someone might have possession of the Geoffreymobile and not even know it – with it later to be discovered collecting dust in the back of a trailer. The fear would be that this strange little piece of Toys ‘R’ Us history ends up being sold for scrap, potentially ending up in a junkyard somewhere.
Should it be located, there are places that would love to have it, and one such location isn’t far from me here in Illinois. In researching this story, one of the first people I reached out to was Brian Grams of the Volo Auto Museum. He wasn’t aware of it, but said that it “would be something of interest to hunt down!” Volo has a number of Barris-connected vehicles, so it would be a fine home for the Geoffreymobile. Additionally, since George Barris, Dick Dean and Charles Lazarus have all passed, I did try to reach Barris’ daughter to see what information on the original build might be on-file at Barris Kustoms, but there was no response before going to press.
With the doors to Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us stores in the United States now closed for the last time, the 70-year retail legacy of George Lazarus has come to an end, at least in terms of the original company’s lineage. I’m confident that Toys “R” Us will see a rebirth, and the name will live on in some capacity, but as of this writing there’s still more to unfold as the bankruptcy process continues. As for the ultimate fate of the Geoffreymobile, hopefully it will be found and saved. While the company likely looked at it as an old, dated, throwaway piece of promotional material, it’s a piece of hot rod history that shouldn’t be lost forever.
UPDATES — Changing Hands:
Only July 23, 2018, the Geoffreymobile surfaced in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania. I spoke with Robert Teel of Teel Auctions at the time, and the vehicle had been cleaned up and he’d been letting family and friends enjoy it around his shop. Teel said that he’d paid a visit to the former TRU Distribution Center in Mount Olive, NJ to purchase pallets of boxes when he was introduced to the Geoffreymobile. “They knew exactly what they had,” he said. Teel bought the vehicle and its trailer for an undisclosed sum.
In August, the Geoffreymobile was on display at the Das Awkscht Fest classic car show at Macungie Memorial Park in Macungie, PA. Following a quiet fall, I spoke with Robert again in December, at which time it was decided that the Geoffreymobile would be hitting the auction block. I broke the news at the Toy Book, noting that the auction was scheduled for Feb. 12, 2019. At the time, the vehicle was expected to sell for between $50K – $200K. Following a brief delay, the auction took place on Feb. 20, pulling in just $22,500.
On June 24, 2019, the Geoffreymobile surfaced in Branson, MO at Celebrity Car Museum: The Velvet Collection. A single Facebook post showed the vehicle cruising a parking lot with a caption questioning where it would be displayed.
In August, the Geoffreymobile was reportedly back on the West Coast. In Los Angeles, not far from where its story began, the Geoffreymobile was reportedly headed back to the auction block. On Aug. 31, 2019 the vehicle was sold during GWS Auctions’ “Artifacts of Hollywood & Music” presentation. Now being touted as “museum exhibited” following its stint in Branson, the Geoffreymobile reportedly sold for an unverified $110K this time around.
Oddly enough, while the dates don’t match up in terms of its July appearance in Branson and its August auction date, the Geoffreymobile never left Missouri. It went into storage for a few months. On November 21, 2019, Andy Simpson of the Celebrity Car Museum got in touch to let me know that the vehicle is out of storage and on display.
As of April 2020, the Geoffreymobile is on the show floor awaiting visitors when the world re-opens following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Do you have information about the Geoffreymobile? Please shoot me an email – email@example.com
Photo credits: John Tatreau Sr., Harold Parnes, Russ Turk, Bryan Sohayda.