It cruises at 55 mph, gets 37 miles to a gallon, has a four-gear stick shift and a rear engine that has gone 64,000 miles. Surely the car is a Volkswagen. But it would cost you $28,000. It's a Volkswagen that has had its body lifted and replaced by a glistening armor of chromium bumpers—Buick bumpers, Pontiac bumpers, Ford bumpers—40 bumpers of all sorts rescued from scrapyards. The look is no longer that of a boxy economy Fastback; instead the VW has a living body of rippling, swelling muscles. It's a Mr. America on wheels. And it's art, a museum piece, a shimmering monument to recycling.
The creator of the Seley Mobile, Jason Seley, is a noted American sculptor who has been working with bumpers since 1958. Although he has often been credited with the noble urge to better man's environment he did not start to collect bumpers in order to tidy up the landscape. "I'm not consciously making a statement about waste in America," he says, "but it's there. It's in the work. Things often occur that were never part of my original intent." Seley most eloquently expressed his fascination with bumpers in the foreword of a 1968 exhibition catalog. "To me an automobile bumper is an offering of nature's abundance," he wrote. "I am as much concerned with its pre-history as the wood-carver with the growing tree. The bumpers I use are chromium-plated steel of high quality. They come in interesting and exciting preformed sculptural shapes that are as much a source of inspiration for me as the irregular shapes of field stones were for John Flannagan."
Before turning to bumpers as the material for his art, Seley created human shapes in plaster or cast metal in the manner of Henry Moore. Then, on a cross-country drive in the summer of 1956, his wife Clara urged him to pick up a bumper that lay abandoned on a highway. It had belonged to a 1949 Buick. "From that day on," says Seley, "I became a welder." He developed a fixation for bumpers and on his daily commutes from his home in New York City to Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I. where he taught, he learned the shape of every bumper made and contemplated its adaptability. Most of Seley's works are giant abstracts. Many of them are owned by museums such as the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nelson Rockefeller has one eight feet high, vaguely resembling a rooster. Seley also has done smooth bumper versions of such classic sculptures as the Capitoline Wolf (bullet-shaped, rubber-tipped bumper guards serve as teats) and the Colleoni, the magnificent horse with rider that stands in Venice.
In 1972 Seley purchased a 5-year-old Fast-back. He kept only the wheelbase, windshield, interior, engine and, of course, the bumpers. Working four or five hours a day with a welder's torch, he finished the new body in 10 months. It has an antique flair and ornamental paraphernalia reminiscent of the '30s: running boards made of straightened bumpers coated with rubber, a replica of the winged Rolls-Royce hood figurine and a cluster of nine exhaust pipes protruding like organ pipes from the rear (a 10th pipe, the ungainly original one, still does the work underneath). Since the Seley Mobile is only 200 pounds heavier than a stock VW Fastback, it cruises easily at freeway speeds and corners well.
Seley did the actual building in The Foundry at Cornell University, where he now teaches. When it was finished, he had to remove part of the wall to get the car out. In October 1973 he drove it to Watkins Glen and parked it in the paddock area during the U.S. Grand Prix. It was the most photographed car at the event. Since then the VW has been driven 1,400 miles and displayed at many art shows, most recently at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where it shared the gallery with another sculpture entitled "Smiling Pink Nude."
These days Seley does not prowl junkyards. He gets most of his bumpers from Cutting Motors in Ithaca. "When a bumper is badly damaged, I get it for nothing," he says, "but I pay $1 for those in good shape. A used or slightly damaged bumper is as difficult to find as an empty beer can."
So far, Seley has had one halfhearted offer from a buyer, but the price tag indicates that he would not part with the Seley Mobile readily. "I'll sell it," he says, "when I know it's going to a good home. I feel that I can always build another one."