Classic Cars as Billboards

Fifty years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter in Miami, Florida, there was a notable local institution known as Truly Nolen, the exterminator.

Not the kind in movies who terminates people — rather the kind which gets rid of the bugs and vermin which can devastate buildings in our warm weather states. The founder of this Miami pest control company was a jolly man named Truly Nolen, a familiar figure around town, especially because of his rolling advertisements.

1956 BMW IsettaThese promos were resuscitated two-place Messerschmitt and BMW Isetta “bubbletop” microcars, three-wheelers built by the Germans after WWII to fill the demand for basic motorcars. Not many were imported to the U.S. and they were rare even a half-century ago.

Anyway, Truly operated a fleet of these strange vehicles, adorned to look like giant bugs or mice, complete with bulbous eyes, antennae feelers, tails, and other standout adornments. Even unadorned they looked like bugs. Later VW Beetles supplanted them. They were funny and memorable, at least in the short term. What terrific rolling advertising billboards they were!

But I had forgotten all about them until a few weeks ago when I was cruising down US 41 near Venice, Florida, and saw a ’56 Chevy sedan parked alongside the highway with a large Truly Nolen sign on the side. A few miles further, there was a ’54 Chevy likewise signed, then a ’57. Near Bradenton, I flipped over a ’49 Cadillac sedan similarly marked with the exterminator’s logo.

What was going on here? It wasn’t hard to track down the extermination company — the displayed cars all showed a simple toll-free number to call, 800-GO-TRULY.

Truly attention-getting

The next morning I visited with Willie Langdon, garage manager for Truly Nolen in Sarasota-Bradenton. In the rear of the exterminator’s offices was a fully functioning classic car restoration shop, run by Langdon. It is one of several such shops the company operates around the country — the main one is in Tucson, Arizona — to restore cars for advertising display.

According to Willie, who has about 45 such cars in his area of Florida’s suncoast, they persuade various businesses to park the cars outside their establishments as attention-getters while at the same time promoting Truly Nolen. To keep them fresh, once a month the cars are rotated from one location to another.

Many of the vintage wheels in Willie’s charge are mid-Fifties Chevrolets simply because they are preferred by the second-generation Truly Nolen, who lives in Naples further south on the Gulf Coast.

Countrywide, Nolen has about 300 of these classics displayed, and they include such truly vintage models as ’23 Packard Touring, ’29 Nash, ubiquitous Model A Fords, ’34 Hudson, ’40 LaSalle, ’48 Dodge, ’50 Studebaker, a lot of increasingly rare flat-head V-8 Fords and — as noted — dozens of Chevys.

And get this: they’re all for sale — at a price. Actually, the prices I saw don’t seem out of line, ranging from about $3,000 to $70,000, for functionally running, reasonably restored — even some “frame-up” — collector cars. After all, this company is not in the car business; it’s in the pest eradication business.

Where do they obtain these aged beauties? “People call us,” says Willie.

“The word gets around. If it sounds like something we might be interested in, I go look at it, and if I like it, I take a picture and send it Truly Nolen. He approves every purchase.” Starting with the Old Cars price guide, they dicker with the owner to reach a deal.

'56 chevy under restorationThe cars are restored mechanically to be operational at a minimum, as well as having rust and Bondo cut out and new steel panels welded in. The Sarasota-Bradenton shop has its own paint oven with three employees, including Langdon. Paint colors are, like the purchases, approved by Nolen.

Nolen’s own daily drivers, by the way, are a ’47 Cadillac convertible and a frame-off restored ’57 Chevy convertible.

Willie’s own passion runs to Army Jeeps. He has three, a ’42, a ’48 and a ’49, plus a ’48 Chevy pickup.

The younger Truly Nolen got the idea for using restored classics as billboards when he was starting up his own extermination company in Arizona in the mid-Fifties. Both he and his wife had older — he’d always been a car nut — cars with his company name and telephone number painted on them. The engine on his wife’s ’37 Plymouth gave up the ghost and sat outside the repair garage while Truly was trying to decide whether to swing for a new engine or just junk it. The garageman told him that it was attracting a lot of passersby inquiring about the pest control company.

So, as his business grew, he started restoring interesting classics and parking them around as notable signboards. Later he merged his Arizona business with his late father’s Florida business to create the current company.

But what about the original trademark “mousy” rolling billboards? Truly Nolen still has ’em, albeit in modern configuration — VW New Beetles, Toyota small pickups, and other small cars, painted bright yellow with black tails, whiskers, noses, bug-eyes and clever slogans like “Nite Nite Termite,” “Adios Cucaracha” and “Don’t Mess with the Mouse” on their rears. They’re used on regular pest control service calls.

'73 Beetle KustomThus Nolen has two kinds of rolling advertisements — classics and working “mice.” There also are some special parade cars, such as a “Kalifornia Kustom” ’73 Beetle two-place convertible housed at Sarasota-Bradenton.

Nolen is one of the largest family-owned pest-control companies in the world, with some 70 service centers and franchises in ten states and more than 30 foreign countries, primarily in the Caribbean and Middle East. It was founded 65 years ago in Southeastern Florida.

The company uses mice-appearing vehicles at all its own service centers, all painted bright yellow with black trim. Classics-car billboards may be seen around Truly Nolen markets in California, Arizona and Florida. Sadly, they had to pull them from several areas because of vandalism and theft.

It’s nice to know that some good things really don’t change.

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