Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the July 5 issue of Autoweek.
When we last left Florida artist Frank Bates (“Betting the Ranch,” Autoweek, April 7, 2008), he was in trouble. Some of his neighbors did not like his art project, and the county government was fining him $100 for every day he left it up – not enough to send him to the breadlines, because besides being an artist, he also owns a couple of RV dealerships that reportedly take an as much as $35 million in a good year. But it was the principle of the thing, you know!
The back story: Bates likes Airstreams, those moderately kitschy silver aluminum trailers owned by everybody form Matthew McConaughey to Sean Penn to Brian Johnson, the lead singer of AC/DC, who lives just down the road. Even Sandra Bullock has one; maybe that’s where Jess James is living now.
Airstream had recently celebrated its 75th birthday, so just after Christmas 2007, Bates conceived and executed Airstream Ranch, where he buried 7 1/2 1957-94 vintage Airstream trailers in a vacant lot next door to the dealership in Dover, Fla., on Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa. He buried seven and a half trailers because that’s 7.5, as in 75, the Airstream anniversary. One of them caught fire while he was burying it. In another, he forgot he had left a valuable little vintage trailer he bought at auction, and it was too late to dig it up. With art comes sacrifice.
Bates is a native of Texas, and he says everybody in Texas knows about Cadillac Ranch, the site where 10 old Cadillacs are buried nose-down in the ground along Interstate 40. Conceived by Stanley Marsh “3,” a flamboyant Texas millionaire of the sort they don’t seem to make anymore, Cadillac Ranch is widely regarded as art, particularly since the sad, rusting, graffiti-covered cars are supposedly facing west at the same angle as the pyramids in Egypt.
“The guy who did that, Marsh, is recognized as something of an eccentric,” Bates said. “I thought it might be nice to be an eccentric too.”
Actually, Bates was pretty well on his way even before Airstream Ranch. He has been known to dress up as a black-and-white cow for his TV commercials, dancing and holding up a sign proclaiming that Bates RV can save you “MOO-lah” on a trailer. He takes almost anything in trade, including a moose pasture in Alaska, two mausoleums (apparently vacant), a stuffed marlin, a handful of sapphires, a jukebox, player pianos, a seat from a B25 bomber and the 1960 Cadillac from the movie “Mad Dog and Glory.” He commutes to work in a red Robinson R44 helicopter, which he lands on the dealership’s roof.
Shortly after the construction of Airstream Ranch, things got interesting. Several residents of the neighborhood right behind the ranch were not amused and went to the Hillsborough County Enforcement Board. At a hearing, one of the neighbors called Airstream Ranch a “dirty deed” and a “cheap roadside attraction” and then cried on cue, so Bates knew he was in trouble. Others testified in favor of Airstream Ranch, including Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, who said that in his “expert opinion, this constitutes a piece of art.”
Bates was told to dismantle Airstream Ranch or face that $100-a-day fine. In March 2009, Bates appealed the decision. This February, a three-judge circuit court panel finally overruled the board and reversed the fines. In March, county commissioners declined to appeal the ruling. Now, after several months of waiting to see if there were any additional legal challenges, Bates has officially declared victory.
“People say we fought city hall, and we won,” Bates says. “They think it’s a victory for the little guy.”