Wacky, Homemade Cars Will Soon Roll Down the Hill in SF’s McLaren Park Again

The first derby was the brainchild of late Bay Area artist Fletcher Benton. Benton wanted to bring local artists together to have fun and raise money for the museum at the same time. He hoped the museum would use any raised money to acquire more work from local artists.

“The Soapbox Derby started out as a whimsical statement that I made in the studio one day,” Benton told Pope’s documentary crew. “I said, ‘Why don’t we get the artists to build cars that would reflect their art or reflect their feelings or their fun? And we’d all get together and coast down the hill.'”

‘The flag is up on the first Artists’ Soapbox Derby’

Benton and his fellow planners got the go-ahead from the museum and started recruiting local artists to make cars and trophies for the derby. Artists got up to $100 per project to put toward expenses. Some of the more notable contributors who signed up included Ruth Asawa, Viola Frey and Carlos Villa.

Florence ‘Flo’ Allen, a beloved artists’ model, played the role of Derby Queen at the first Artists’ Soapbox Derby in 1975. (Courtesy Smithsonian Archives)

In addition to artists, there were community icons like the late Florence “Flo” Allen. A legend among artists’ models in San Francisco, Allen was sketched by the likes of Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko. She was Derby Queen, with a car-themed headdress that looked like a mini-version of something from Beach Blanket Babylon.

Some of the cars were more direct in concept, like a giant No. 2 pencil from renowned ceramicist Richard Shaw. Pope interviewed him about his creation back in 1975.

“I was really nervous about the pencil impaling somebody, so we flipped coins [about who would drive],” Shaw said. “And we just tried to tell the people to get back so that they wouldn’t get wiped out.”

Other cars were more conceptual. There was a giant hand holding a pen by artist Jim Finnegan that Amanda Pope remembers as “The Mark of the Artist.”

What looks like a giant hand holding a pen rolls down a hill.  Spectators stand in the background
Soapbox car by Jim Finnegan, at the first Artists’ Soapbox Derby, May 18, 1975. (Courtesy Rudy Bender/ San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Archives)

“Ingenious. At a certain point, he release[d] ink from inside the hand,” she said.

An artist known as Meadow created “52 Vibrations” — a mishmash of sculpted anatomy that included a row of hands clutching working vibrators jutting out like spikes.

“There was definitely a dimension of eroticism in some of the designs of the cars. Just a celebration. I mean, you’re talking ’70s. It was, you know, feminism, women’s rights,” Pope said.

But the car that is probably the most recognizable from the event — and which continues to capture the imaginations of people who are only just learning about the 1975 race — is “Moulton’s Edible Special,” created by artist Dorcas Moulton. The whole frame of the car was made from real bread — even the hubcaps, which looked like giant English muffins.

A woman in a car entirely made out of bread comes speeding down a hill.  A crowd of spectators look on with trees behind them.
Moulton’s Edible Special, by Dorcas Moulton, at the first Artists’ Soapbox
Derby, May 18, 1975. (Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Archives)

“Fannie Farmer had a hot roll mix, and I figured rolls were appropriate, so I did that for the white bread. And then the black bread was a Russian rye or pumpernickel,” Moulton said. “It was a plywood and chicken-wire frame on top of four bicycle wheels. We had axles. We had a steering wheel somehow.”

She miraculously stayed upright all the way down the hill, despite pieces of bread flying in every direction. When she reached the finish line, eager admirers swarmed the bread car, prying off pieces of the frame — either as souvenirs or snacks.

“I made this little quip about, if you get stuck in a traffic jam, you can just, you know, break off a piece of the fender and have a snack while you’re stuck,” Moulton said. Legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen printed the remark along with an Associated Press photo that ran in newspapers around the country.

The sense of humor and ephemeral nature of Moulton’s Edible Special echoed one big idea put forward by the derby: that art didn’t need to be inside a museum — or even permanent — to be worthwhile.

“I guess I am a ‘lifestyle artist,’ working in whatever medium I was currently playing with, like bread or, now, [in] my garden here in El Sobrante,” Moulton said, “Not every artist wants to be in museums.”

So much more than cars

You didn’t have to make a car to participate in the Soapbox Derby. Some artists made trophies instead. Categories included: “Most Amorphous,” “Most Macabre,” “Most Biodegradable,” “Most Illusory” and “The Booby Prize.”

Moulton’s Edible Special won the “Most Endearing” prize, but Moulton didn’t remember what her trophy looked like or where it ended up. I had to break the news to her that, according to SFMOMA’s records, the world-renowned sculptor, Ruth Asawa, made it.

“Oh, dear. What have I done? A priceless Ruth Asawa slipped through my fingers!” Moulton moaned.

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