By Paul Henderson
The automotive equivalent of a 1960s acid flashback, Sonny and Cher's custom cars were hideous then… and they still are
When it comes to the event that killed the 1960s, there are a few notable contenders. The war in Vietnam was one. The Manson Family murders were another. Could it have been the Zodiac Killer in California? Or Bobby Kennedy's assassination in 1968? According to Hunter S Thompson, it was The Rolling Stones and their infamous Altamont Speedway concert when “the sharks finally came home to roost”. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the automotive abomination that was Sonny and Cher's matching Ford Mustangs that marked the beginning of the end.
When 16-year-old high-school dropout Cherilyn Sarkisian was sitting in a coffee shop in Los Angeles in 1963, she wasn't waiting for the man of her dreams… she was dreaming of stardom. Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, on the other hand, was 28 and had been around the block. Having worked as a waiter, on construction sites and as a truck driver, Sonny finally got his break as a songwriter when Sam Cooke recorded one of his tracks and that led to him getting a job as a gofer for Phil Spector. On the day they met, Cher recalled: "Everyone else just disappeared. He was the most unusual person I’d ever seen."
Despite the age difference, Cher moved in with Sonny and they married in 1964. At first they performed as Caesar & Cleo, but a year later they released their first single “Baby Don't Go” as Sonny & Cher. An album followed – Look At Us – and in 1965 they released “I Got You Babe” and Cher had her dream. They became fully fledged superstars. She was the feisty, sexy songstress; he was her funny and funky foil. And they would go on to have a successful TV career with The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour.
But in 1965, they were the hottest folk/pop lovebirds of the decade (Simon & Garfunkel were up there, but Art never looked that good in hot pants) and the Ford motor company noticed. Having launched the Mustang in 1964, by the time “I Got You Babe” reached the top of the charts Ford had sold a million of their Pony cars. And that gave someone in the marketing department a great idea. Ford would gift Sonny and Cher matching 1966 Mustang convertibles and the company could watch the sales go, err, through the roof.
However, like all the best ideas, they had to go and ruin it. Instead of just giving the duo a car, Ford insisted on letting George Barris, the “King Of Kar Kustomization”, give them a makeover. And, boy, did George do his thing.
For those that don't know, back in the day Barris was Hollywood's go-to car guy. He built the Batmobile for Adam West's Caped Crusader, the Munster Koach from The Munsters and also the Monkeemobile for hey, hey, it's The Monkees. He also customised a gold Rolls-Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor, bespoke golf carts for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and a fleet of Mini Mokes for the Beach Boys. So George was never going to go for subtle.
Cher's was coloured Hot Candy Pink and Sonny's was finished in Murano Gold (both cars featured 40 layers of paint). Barris also gave the Mustangs fresh front ends, with rectangular headlights, "fake" metal grilles on the bonnet (that looked suspiciously like extractor hoods from an oven) and both came with classic OTT 1960s hippy shag-pad interiors. In other words, Cher's had ermine fur seat covers paired with black leather, while Sonny's was kitted out with shaggy bobcat fur and suede. Yeah, baby! High-tech eight-track stereos were added and the drivers' seats were both “swivel chairs”. Of course they were. (Oh, and Barris removed the door handles, presumably because he didn't like the look of them.)
Whether Sonny or Cher ever actually drove their Mustangs is unclear, but in better news the cars are still together (unlike Sonny and Cher, who divorced in 1974; custody of the cars was not an issue). The Mustangs are currently owned by car collector Ward Morgan and on display at the Midwest Dream Car Collection in Kansas City.
Depending on your point of view, these cars are either unique automotive artefacts that should be celebrated, or counterculture casualties of the 1960s every bit as tragic as Billy The Kid and Captain America in Easy Rider.One thing is certain, though: when it comes to good taste in cars, they blew it, man.