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Tales of Toys ‘R’ Us: The Toy King x The King of Kustoms – The Mystery of the Geoffreymobile Hot Rod!

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Originally published July 1, 2018. Updated as a “Backstory” for The Toy Book magazine, July 17, 2023.

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 Supermart 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 dreamt of — a rainbow-striped paradise of toys and games stacked floor-to-ceiling. His mascot became an icon, and Geoffrey the Giraffe would soon start his own family, 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 to 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. Or so the story went. In reality, the truth was a little different.

Source: Gordon Summer

Building The Geoffreymobile

“It was I and not Charles Lazarus who contacted and contracted with George Barris to build the vehicle,” says Gordon Summer, the first Director of Marketing for Toys “R” Us. Summer, who worked for Toys “R” Us until 1982, developed the concept, spearheaded its creation, and authorized the build. The move came despite objections from a pair of future inductees to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

“Charles, the company Founder and Chairman, and my direct boss, Senior Vice President Sy Ziv, didn’t want the Geoffreymobile built.”
— Gordon Summer, former Director of Marketing, Toys “R” Us

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 really 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.

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.

Dean left for a few years in the late 1960s to collaborate with another famed builder, Dean Jeffries, on vehicles like The Monkees’ Monkeemobile and The Green Hornet‘s Black Beauty, but he ultimately returned to Barris Kustoms. In working in collaboration with other designers, he earned another nickname — “The Ghost-Builder” — as he put his stamp on many vehicles that would never bear his name. In an interview with Hot Rod Online, Dean 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” began taking shape, and Dean’s son Keith was working on the build in his dad’s shop.

The Geoffreymobile takes shape inside Dick Dean’s Cruisin’ Toys in the summer of 1980. Steel frame tubing formed the shape of the “double-decker bus.” | Source: The Toy Book

Summer approached Barris to design the Geoffreymobile as a promotional and parade vehicle that would carry 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 were a Frankenstein’d affair, crafted from a German Ford Taunus industrial V-4 engine paired with 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.

George Barris with Geoffrey and the family | Source: Gordon Summer

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 and black glass windows on each side were added to give the illusion that the Geoffreymobile was a true double-decker. Both the hood and rear bumper featured intakes for potato chips, because, officially, the Geoffreymobile was fueled by “Potato Chip Power!” — a fact touted in official materials issued by the company.

The family gathers to watch the Potato Chip Combustion. | Source: Gordon Summer

Some of those same materials issued by Toys “R” Us corporate erroneously cited the Geoffreymobile’s birth as taking place in 1985, but that wasn’t the only error in the timeline, as evidenced by some backstory presented to media ahead of the vehicle’s grand debut.

“One of the many fictions in the bio was the 1978 date given for the creation of the Geoffreymobile idea,” Summer says. “I wanted readers to think that there was a lot of planning that went into it. The truth is that I didn’t join Toys ‘R’ Us until about January 1980, and didn’t get the idea until probably that spring. So the vehicle went from concept to creation in well under a year — probably just eight or nine months, and maybe that’s why it got screwed up (pardon my French). And screwed up it got!”

On November 28, 1980, the “World Premiere” of the Geoffreymobile took 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 opportunity to “meet builder George Barris” at the show.

“Frank Malatesta — a good guy — from Horseless Carriage Carriers in Paterson, NJ, handled the transportation of the vehicle to the Coliseum,” Summer adds. “I was there when it was unloaded and the driver couldn’t get it up the ramp into the building. That was the first indication that a little English or German Ford V4 couldn’t pull that rig.”

Three months later, the Geoffreymobile graced the cover of the February 1981 issue of Street Rodder magazine, complete with a feature on page 54.

Soon, 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. History is hazy as to what made it into production, but 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 Co. of Hong Kong did hit store shelves. Perhaps the reason that there wasn’t more merchandise was that the actual Geoffreymobile wasn’t doing so well.

The Geoffreymobile rolls into the suburbs of Detroit. | Source: John Tatreau Sr.

Rebuilding the Geoffreymobile

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 that were hinted at when it couldn’t make it up that ramp in New Jersey, and the vehicle 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.

Mrs. Tatreau prepares to give the neighborhood kids a ride in the rebuilt Geoffreymobile | Source: John Tatreau Sr.

The Tatreaus are a car family, and I caught up with John Tatreau Sr., son of the second man whose name was emblazoned upon the Geoffreymobile. While the rear of the Geoffreymobile bore the mark of Barris Kustoms, eventually the engine compartment bore another signature — “Modifications by Hank Tatro.” John put me in touch with his dad in 2018 for more on the story of how the Geoffreymobile got a life-saving upgrade.

The long-retired Tatreau spoke with genuine excitement as he spun tales of some of the cars he worked on in the past — but the real glimmer emerged when sharing memories of his family, his kids, and particularly, 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.

“The engine and transmission were a joke,” he said, 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 for the rebuild.”
Hank Tatreau, Tatro’s Collision

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 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.”

Cruising into 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 became 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, Missouri. 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.

The Geoffreymobile at the former Toys “R” Us Global Resource Center in Wayne, New Jersey. | Source: LinkedIn

While the identity of whoever performed the work and what direction was given at the time remains unknown, big changes were made to the vehicle. The glass windows on the sides were removed, as were the potato chip intakes on the front and rear. Perhaps there was another mechanical challenge at some point, but rounded versions replaced the angled hood and grille. The smiling face look was eliminated, and the entire vehicle was 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) was applied to the sides along with a cartoon version of Geoffrey. Additionally, the leather upholstery and C-cab roof were re-done in red, eliminating the previous yellow and orange stripes.

The mysterious Geoffrey Van on a postcard from Toys “R” Us Times Square | Source: Michael Drake

In the meantime, a spotted “Geoffrey Van” hit the scene for the grand opening of the Toys “R” Us Times Square flagship in 2001. While little information exists regarding that vehicle or its fate, former Toys “R” Us action figures buyer Michael Drake recalls the van had difficulty navigating the intersections of New York City due to Geoffrey’s head hitting street lights and other obstructions.

Becoming a Relic

By 2015 or so, the Geoffreymobile made its way back to New Jersey, for occasional appearances at the Toys “R” Us Global Resource Center in Wayne. It still popped up at the occasional grand opening or parade but largely became a forgotten relic left to live at the Toys “R” Us distribution center in Mt. Olive. 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.

The Geoffreymobile circa 2017 inside the Mt. Olive distribution center. | Source: Facebook

Lost and Found

By 2018, the status and ultimate fate of the Geoffreymobile were in question. As the original, 70-year lineage of Toys “R” Us was winding to a close due to the pending bankruptcy and liquidation of the company and its assets, the vehicle was not listed as an asset in any of the court documents. Having last been spotted on a docked trailer in Mt. Olive, it’s entirely possible that the administrators had no idea that the Geoffreymobile existed, particularly since there was probably no title ever issued for it and the trademarks had expired.

Source: Teel Auctions

In the spring of 2018, the Mt. Olive distribution center and its contents were sold as-is to a single buyer that eventually re-sold the pieces.

Robert Teel of Teel Auctions paid a visit to the distribution center to purchase unused pallets of cardboard boxes. During his visit, he was introduced to the Geoffreymobile.

They knew exactly what they had.”
— Robert Teel, Teel Auctions, on being shown the Geoffreymobile

He bought the vehicle and its trailer for an undisclosed sum and it resurfaced in Mt. Bethel, Pennsylvania on July 23, 2018, cleaned up and being enjoyed by Teel’s family and friends.

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, Teel decided to put the vehicle on the auction block. At the time, Teel thought that the auction, initially slated to occur on Feb. 12, 2019, would bring in somewhere between $50-$200,000.

Following a brief delay, the auction took place on Feb. 20, and when the gavel dropped, Geoffrey’s once-iconic ride pulled in just $22,500.

It Belongs in a Museum

On June 24, 2019, the Geoffreymobile surfaced in Branson, MO at Celebrity Car Museum: The Velvet Collection. A Facebook post showed the vehicle cruising a parking lot with a caption questioning where it should be displayed.

In August, the Geoffreymobile was allegedly 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 where it was slated to be sold during GWS Auctions’ “Artifacts of Hollywood & Music” presentation. Touted as being “museum exhibited” due to its appearance in Branson, GWS published a report online stating that the Geoffreymobile sold for an unverified $110,000 this time around.

But, in another odd turn of events, the Geoffreymobile never went to Los Angeles. In fact, it never left Missouri and had simply been placed into storage. The GWS auction happened, but there was no buyer.

On November 21, 2019, Andy Simpson of the Celebrity Car Museum confirmed that the Geoffreymobile was out of storage and on display.

2023 Toys "R" Us Geoffrey Mobile
A digital render of the 2023 Toys “R” Us Geoffrey Mobile | Source: WHP Global

A New Geoffreymobile for a New Generation

Under the ownership of WHP Global, Tru Kids Brands relaunched the Toys “R” Us brand in the U.S. with a flagship store at the American Dream in New Jersey operated under license by New York’s Toys 4 U and branded departments in more than 400 Macy’s stores across the country.

On March 9, 2023, Geoffrey the Giraffe made an appearance at The Play Date in New York City, a media event hosted by Adventure Media & Events (publisher of The Toy Book) and The Toy Association. As the doors opened, Toys “R” Us revealed plans for Geoffrey’s Tour Across America, a full U.S. tour for which the company commissioned a brand new vehicle Christened the “Geoffrey Mobile.”

This Thursday, the new Geoffrey Mobile will make its debut at Macy’s in Manhattan’s Herald Square before hitting the road for a coast-to-coast adventure filled with activations for families to enjoy.

While the world, and the state of retail, are very different in 2023 compared to 1980, it’s a fun footnote in toy history that two different versions of the Geoffreymobile (or Geoffrey Mobile) made their formal debuts in New York City, 43 years apart.

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James Zahn
James Zahnhttps://www.therockfather.com
James Zahn aka The Rock Father is the founder and publisher of The Rock Father Magazine, and also serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Toy Book, and Senior Editor of The Toy Insider and The Pop Insider. Zahn is an Illinois-based writer, media personality, commentator, director, actor, adventurer, raconteur, and overall pop culture and toy enthusiast. James is frequently called upon for expert commentary on the toy industry and has been seen on or quoted in Yahoo! Finance, CNN, FOX Business, MarketWatch, Forbes, NBC, ABC, CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The NY Post, The Chicago Tribune, PopSugar, Fangoria, Starlog, and many more. He has been involved with business, entertainment, and media for more than 30 years, with a passion for music, film, retail, and publishing. Follow James on Twitter @TheRockFather. Email him: james@therockfather.com

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