I have long been a fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. I was introduced to them as a small child during the 1970s, first seeing them on Sesame Street and then later on The Muppet Show. One of my fondest childhood memories of the Muppets was seeing them in their first feature film, The Muppet Movie, which was released in 1979. A musical comedy, The Muppet Movie was a hit with movie-going audiences, and won a Grammy Award and a Golden Globe Award.
Produced by Jim Henson, directed by James Frawley, and featuring an all-star cast (including Charles Durning, Dom DeLuise, and Steve Martin), The Muppet Movie’s plot centered on Kermit the Frog’s and Fozzie Bear’s cross-country trip to Hollywood for an audition, which they hoped would lead to fame and fortune in show business. Along the way, Kermit and Fozzie were joined by a crew of additional Muppet characters, including Miss Piggy (who became Kermit’s love interest) and Gonzo. Throughout their trip, Kermit was relentlessly pursued by the villainous Doc Hopper, who sought to make Kermit an unwilling spokesman for his frog leg restaurant chain. For much of the movie, the Muppets travelled in a distinctive car driven by Fozzie, which he inherited from his hibernating uncle: a 1951 Studebaker Commander.
The 1951 Studebaker Commander was built by Studebaker Corporation, a now defunct automobile manufacturer based in South Bend, Indiana. The 1951 Commander was positioned on the upper end of Studebaker’s model lineup and sold in the $1,800-$2,200 price range. The car was powered by a 232 cubic inch overhead valve V-8 engine, which was a rather advanced power plant for its time. The 1951 Commander also featured Studebaker’s famous “bullet nose” body, which was styled by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. It was well received by the American motoring public and became a notable sales success for Studebaker, which sold more than 124,000 Commanders in the course of the 1951 model year.
Two 1951 Studebaker Commanders portrayed Fozzie’s car in The Muppet Movie. For close-up shots in which Fozzie was portrayed driving his car, one of the Commanders was rigged with a camera hidden in its nose, and a steering wheel and a television monitor hidden in its trunk. This allowed the car to be driven by an unseen driver in the trunk while Henson puppeteer Frank Oz portrayed Fozzie driving in the front seat. The other Commander received no mechanical alterations and was used for far-away shots of Fozzie’s car driving down the road. Both cars were painted with poster paint (a psychedelic paint job courtesy of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem), which photographed better than automobile paint, but was vulnerable to rapid deterioration.
Out of the two 1951 Studebaker Commanders used in the production of The Muppet Movie, only the altered car used for the close-up shots is still in existence. This car is now on display at the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Indiana. A photograph of this car can be viewed on the Studebaker National Museum’s website.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: M-Z; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 1527-1534.
Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 768-769.
The New Studebaker for 1951: Studebaker: Trade Catalogs: Studebaker Range, 1948-1954, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.