At parades, Maker Faires, and Burning Man, they’re a show-stopping sight. Giant muffins and cupcakes roll along, steered by drivers whose heads poke out of the tops. Built by a loose group of makers under the banner of Acme Muffineering, the electric, eclectic vehicles have been rolling since 2004. The tiny cars, which have featured in The Simpsons and on The Late Show, were dreamed up by two muffin-driving pioneers, the husband and wife team Lisa Pongrace and Greg Solberg.
While today’s muffineers number around two baker’s dozens, originally there were just the two of them, and they didn’t start with muffin cars: For the Burning Man festival in 2002, the couple made a pair of massive pink bunny slippers to drive around the desert floor. “Size seven-and-a half,” Pongrace tells me, and that’s in feet, not shoe size.
Two years later, she was wracking her brains for a new project. Her Burning Man name, she says, was Space Muffin, and she wanted an appropriate costume. Solberg suggested a muffin car. Pongrace remembers her reaction: “Yeah! A car!” It wasn’t exactly a leap for either of them to fashion two decorative, motorized muffins. Pongrace studied studio art at the University of California, Berkeley, and Solberg is an engineer at the electric car company Tesla Motors.
Of course, they each needed to have a car, Pongrace decided. And it would make an even better scene if their friends had muffin cars too. While they weren’t able to get up to a baker’s dozen that first year, the first batch numbered five decorated muffins and cupcakes, each eighteen times bigger than the actual baked good. The cars were a hit, and soon other friends were making their own.
The muffineers often sport hats to match their cars, which they decorate with large sprinkles, faux icing, or candles. It adds an extra element of whimsy to an already whimsical image. (Pongrace is delightfully whimsical as well. When our phone connection broke up, she sang “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” until we reconnected.)
Pongrace and Solberg still have their original cars, even 14 years on. One is a blueberry bran muffin, and the other a chocolate cupcake. In fact, many muffineers are really cupcakeers.
“Cupcakes are more interesting than muffins,” Pongrace observes, what with the frosting and decorations. Marc Stelzer, a muffineer of eight year’s standing, agrees. “I have a cupcake, so I take some umbrage with the ‘muffin’ concept,” he says. He got involved with muffineering nearly a decade ago, when his young daughter saw the cars on parade at the San Mateo Maker Faire. But when her father finished their car (chocolate sprinkles, Stelzer says) the intense attention from Maker Faire attendees proved to be too much for her. But Stelzer doesn’t mind it, proudly telling me that his cupcake is one of the fastest ones.
So fast, in fact, that when driving it from his home to this year’s Maker Faire, a digital traffic sign told him he reached 22 miles an hour. The typical top speed, Pongrace tells me, is around 17 miles an hour, “which is really fast for a cupcake.” Different cars move at different speeds, and some aren’t motorized at all. Muffineers have made pedal versions for children, while others merely look like small bikes, but have motors. The original muffin cars built by Pongrace and Solberg were made from scratch. But muffineers have modified mobility scooters as well.
While making the cars is fun, Stelzer likes the reactions even more. “It’s fun to put smiles on people’s faces. It’s absurd,” he says. Nearly ten years ago, the cars received a burst of attention beyond Burning Man and Maker Faire. In 2009, customized muffin cars were included in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, a once-a-year publication of that includes fanciful gifts for the super-wealthy. The problem was, “We really didn’t want anybody to buy one,” she says, “Which was one of the reasons we priced it so high.” The cars cost $25,000 each, making them the most expensive gift on offer that year.
While Pongrace calls the experience “super fun,” the cars are a little too dangerous for just anyone to drive. Pongrace and Solberg’s cars are fast and can turn on a dime, but they can tip over easily. The brakes aren’t great. Going down hills is especially challenging. “The liability would have been awful,” she shudders.
The publicity netted a muffin car appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. While the experience was interesting, Pongrace is still a little indignant about how Letterman drove. “Letterman tried to crash the muffin,” she says. A better tribute came in the form of a Simpsons episode that aired in 2014, where the eponymous family goes to “Blazing Guy.” “Cars shaped like cupcakes!” Homer yells in glee as a group of muffineers speed by. “I’m home!”
That could be you, too. “If you want to make a muffin, you should contact us and ask specific questions,” Pongrace says, pointing out that the muffineers have a website and a mailing list. While many muffineers live in California, she says that people in other states have used their website and advice from the community to build their own movable feasts.
“I’m just completely honored when other people make cupcakes,” Pongrace says. The one question that everyone asks is whether it’s hot inside the muffin cars. Not at all, Pongrace says. “They’re insulated so they’re not hot. If you’re driving them, there’s a little breeze that comes up through the bottom.”
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