AFTON, Okla.--It looks something like a cross between a van and a platypus. Since its base is a 1972 Ford Van, the first part makes sense. The platypus thing, though? That's straight out of someone's wonderful, but strange, imagination.
Welcome to Darryl Starbird's National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum, a showcase tucked away here between a small state highway and Grand Lake O' the Cherokees for the best and wildest in automotive creativity.
Opened in 1995 by Starbird, known throughout the United States as a leading builder of custom cars, not to mention the producer of hundreds of car shows throughout the country, the museum is meant to be ground zero for fans of the genre to come and see both 26 of Starbird's own vehicles and two dozen others built by other stars in the field.
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As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to this tiny town of 1,000 people in northeast Oklahoma for a chance to lay eyes on a collection of cars unlike any I've seen before -- or may ever see again. Though pictures on the museum's Web site prepared me a little, it was nothing like what I found when I arrived. After all, how often do you get to stand just feet from a van that looks like it was eaten by a platypus?
Known formally as Vantasta, it was hand-built by Starbird in 1974. Inside, it features a stereo, a TV, a bar, a bed, and a "two-person cockpit." But really, who cares about all that when you're looking at one of the strangest vehicles in the world?
In 1995, the museum opened, Starbird told me, by honoring 13 Hall of Fame inductees, and every year since, two more have been added to the roster. At the same time, the museum's board issues several other awards and honors, including Builder of the Year, Lifetime Achievement Award, top Auto Journalist, and top Auto Designer.
Today, hot rod culture is stronger than it ever was before, Starbird said, with thousands of cars routinely turning out at shows across the country, such as one in Minnesota recently which featured 14,000 vehicles. Though he admits that there probably aren't as many "true custom" cars being made today, the hunger for mechanically updated nostalgic cars like Camaros and Mustangs is powerful.
But Starbird himself must surely be nostalgic for the days, in the 1950s and 1960s when hot rods were everywhere, and among those who were paying attention, his name was gold. On the museum's Web site, he nods at that era, and the futuristic car known both as "Predicta" and "Superflect Moonbird." "I guess Toad in 'American Graffiti' said it all when he was given the '58 Chevy custom car by his friend while he was away at college," Starbird wrote on the Web site of a scene from George Lucas' 1973 movie about cruising in small town America in 1962: ''This is better that Darryl Starbird's Superfleck Moonbird.' Come in and see what Toad was referring to and relive this American feeling of an era."
Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out most interesting technology, military, aviation, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, and much more, Road Trip 2014 will take you along with me.