Rock and Roll's Red-Hot Hot Rod: ZZ Top and the Eliminator Car
There’s hardly a more iconic symbol of the early years of MTV than the ZZ Top Eliminator car. A fixture in several videos—including “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs”—the fire-engine red 1933 Ford coupe was the culmination of guitarist Billy Gibbons’ lifelong fascination with hot rods. After being dazzled by the appearance of the same model of car in the 1974 film The California Kid, which starred Martin Sheen, Gibbons tracked down the automobile’s owner, Pete Chapouris, and the long process of creating a similar vehicle for himself soon got underway.
“Hot rods and cars have been a passion of mine ever since I understood what the rolling wheel was all about,” Gibbons says. “The car that the world knows as the Eliminator coupe came from a little old lady in Tucson, Arizona. She bought it new, and she parked it, and that’s where it stayed—pristine, untouched, unblemished, and ready to go. I bought it from her, but it took five long years to complete [the transformation into] the Eliminator car.”
The process of custom-building the Eliminator coupe ensued after a lengthy correspondence between Gibbons and Chapouris, co-owner of a business called Pete and Jake’s Hot Rod Repair. Together the two enlisted restoration expert Don Thelan to serve as the builder. “After many mysterious months of waiting, I happened by chance to bump into both Pete and Jake [Jacobs] in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, during the East Coast Hot Rod Nationals,” Gibbons said. “That’s when we decided to construct this little red hot rod.”
Serving, in part, as the inspiration for two ZZ Top albums—1983’s Eliminator and the 1985 follow-up, Afterburner—the Eliminator coupe made its MTV debut in the video for “Gimme All Your Lovin’” almost 25 years ago. Whereas many bands that came of age in the ’70s had difficulty making the transition to video, ZZ Top embraced the new medium with flair and humor. Figuring prominently in that success was the Eliminator car, which proved especially potent when combined with drop-dead gorgeous models and a few other interests of the band.
Bassist Dusty Hill explains: “We decided from the get-go that we didn’t really know what we were doing. We would pick a song, then do a little story about the song. And we decided to utilize the things we liked. We pulled out the car, and we asked for some good-looking girls to be cast, and we asked for a guy to play the guy in the video. If you notice, in the first couple of videos nobody touched us. In other words, it was like we weren’t really there. We weren’t a big hair band or anything like that, so we just decided to go with what we felt comfortable with. It was like, ‘Here are some things we like: a hot rod, some pretty girls, and the song. Enjoy yourself.’”
In the aftermath of filming the video for “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” the band undertook what Gibbons characterizes as the Eliminator car’s maiden voyage. Forming a procession that included the original California Kid vehicle (driven by Chapouris), the Eliminator coupe, and a similar yellow ’34 coupe driven by Chapouris’s partner, Jake Jacobs, the cast and friends of the band cruised Sunset Boulevard with the idea of celebrating at Wolfgang Puck’s famous Spago restaurant. The trip wasn’t without incident, but all ended well.
“Both Pete Chapouris and Jake Jacobs are long-standing pals,” says Gibbons, “and because of the fame of their two cars, I insisted they be present for the filming of the first video. After that, we drove down Sunset Boulevard, and it turned out to be a big parade. We couldn’t go two blocks without something happening. We were stopped, we were honked at, and we were pulled over by the police. Finally we were let go and made it to the restaurant, and it turned into a great evening with a great meal.”
Eventually, of course, the Eliminator car was retired from service as a central component of ZZ Top’s videos. In 1985, however, a company called Monogram honored the car by producing a 1/24 scale model with careful attention to detail. Besides featuring a decal sheet with side designs and a license plate, the kit included a sprue tree containing 27 chrome-plated parts, a smaller sprue tree containing four clear parts, and 35 main body parts molded in red. The limited edition kit has long been out of production, but models can often be found on eBay. Recently, a kit housed in the original factory-sealed box was sold with a final bid of $15.50.
As regards to the actual Eliminator car’s post-MTV existence, the coupe went on to enjoy a lengthy period during which it was carted off to various automobile conventions. As befits a legend, upon arrival it was invariably cordoned off and augmented with visual accouterments intended to approximate the models who accompanied the car in the videos. Today, fans can view the vehicle on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where it has been housed since the late ’90s. Long before that enshrinement, however, Gibbons proved once and for all that the car was more than a mere showboat, when in 1989 he and some friends took the coupe on a cross-country adventure.
“It was me and Kymberly Herrin—she was one of the video girls—and Allison Ohnstede,” he explained. “We went from L.A. to New York, and had no problems with the car at all. All we had to do was fill up the tank. It took 10 days, and we drove in the fast lane. There were definitely times when we were glad there were no radar detectors around.”