The man who built the Batmobile
By Sarah Gerdes
Off Newport Way, a short distance from Cougar Mountain Zoo, is a nondescript dirt road with a metal gate ajar. Hidden from the main road is the home, itself surrounded by cars of all types, makes and models and in various stages of disrepair.
It is not the residence one would imagine for clients such as the King of Saudi Arabia or a French industrialist. But car enthusiasts around the world know the name of its owner, Staten Medsker.
Medsker rose to fame as a teenager when he was hired by Los Angeles-based George Barris to work on the original Batmobile.
“It was just after he’d created the Munster coffin car, and it was an exciting place to work,” Medsker said.
Medsker had never been to trade school and hadn’t entered his father’s body shop until he became an adult, but had a natural affinity for cars.
At first, Medsker “fixed all the problems created by the other hacks in the shop.” In time, he was given full responsibility for the production of the cars.
“In those days, it was all hand-tooled,” Medsker explained. “I created a mold, then laid the fiberglass and built the car by hand.”
His reputation as a perfectionist soon became the thing of legend. He was quick to throw an object at someone if the paint wasn’t perfect or receive a colorful yell when the product didn’t pass his inspection. It wasn’t uncommon for Elvis to park his car outside the shop and watch over Medsker’s shoulder as he worked on a one-of-a-kind auto.
It wasn’t long before Barris’ main rival recruited Medsker away to Modesto, where he built the Strip Star, which has toured cars around the world and was recently featured in the Rod and Kulture of the fall of 2011.
A naturally humble man, Medsker never sought the limelight or credit for the cars he brought to life, even in his twenties.
“Other people designed those early cars,” he pointed out. “I just built them.” It wasn’t until he started his own shop that Medsker found the freedom to start creating his own objects of beauty.
Fame and Tragedy
As Medsker’s fame spread among car enthusiasts around the world, he found himself battling more than tight deadlines and famous, demanding clients.
His first marriage crumbled from his raucous lifestyle, and Medsker left the family and his three children behind. He fathered several children he never met before marrying a second time. But Medsker hadn’t put his rowdy past behind him, and the vices of his earlier life kept the family in a constant state of tension.
He also suffered from chronic pain, the result of several fusions going up his back, three disks that are missing and bone grinding on bone.
Medsker acknowledges he was an angry, bitter man, constantly battling his own physical limitations.
“Every day was a physical hell, and my family suffered from it.”
Then tragedy struck. On Christmas Day, a fire was started by his eight-year-old child who was playing with the lights on the Christmas tree. Two of the five children died in the hallway and a third was burned on more than 85 percent of his body.
“The other children saved him,” recalled Medsker, his eyes watering and voice choking at the memory, now decades old. Three months later, his wife gave birth and the child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
It was more than either parent could handle. After his wife attempted suicide, Medsker left the family, relocating to Seattle’s Eastside.
A New Beginning
Medsker’s life started to change when a woman nearly chased him down on the street.
“I had never seen the car before and I just had to know what it was,” recalled Cherie Medsker with a laugh. It didn’t bother Cherie that he had two women in the car, nor that he wanted to ask her out. “I said yes, with the caveat he’d tell me about the car.”
It wasn’t long until they married and Medsker finally put his earlier ways behind him. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl, named Cassie.
“The shop was very busy and we had a healthy family,” recounted Cherie.
Medsker was still in pain and an unbending perfectionist, but his fame had given him clients from around the world. The King of Saudi Arabia sought Medsker out for a custom job that changed an off-the-line Corvette into a Ferrari Testarrosa.
“At the time, it was impossible for the King to get his original Testarrosa serviced,” Medsker said, explaining the country had a Chevrolet dealership but not one for Ferrari’s. “He saw mine and commissioned one for himself.”
Medsker paid cash for a new Corvette, took it apart and hand-tooled a new body in Germany, staying at a palace owned by the King. He completed the car in six months. Fourteen more orders soon followed.
Medsker’s talent and love for bringing his one-of-a-kind cars to market indulged his creative side, but didn’t produce the money Medsker needed to keep his family going.
“Between the engine upgrades, the materials, and the two months it took to make, I only made about ten grand on each one.” He found himself taking on insurance repairs to fill in the gaps.
“It’s not as exciting as hand-molding a custom fender on a Jaguar, but we take pride in the work.”
From Destruction to Service
As the family struggled to make it and Medsker dealt with his internal demons, he paid a visit to Lind Stapley, the bishop of his local LDS congregation. The two had known each other for a number of years, and Stapley had worked with the Medsker family through some dark times.
“I looked him straight in the eye and told him he needed to go serve in the temple,” Stapley said. According to Medsker, it was a turning point for the whole family.
“I was still bitter and in pain, but life it became more bearable.” Cassie agrees.
“Our entire family changed,” she recalled with a fond smile. “It became more peaceful around the house than it ever had been growing up.”
Medsker’s once long hair is gone, replaced with neatly trimmed silver hair. And his face is permanently tan with a tinge of red from the fumes from the shop.
Of the 12 children, three inherited their father’s passion and affinity for cars. Cassie has worked side by side by with her father since she was a teenager. Her mother remembers Cassie’s first experience in the shop.
“When Cassie was three, she stood the exact height of a slant-nose Porsche 911…”
“Which made her the right height to buff the hood,” Medsker said.
Like her father, Cassie has a knack for detail, and had no problem with her father’s temper, his long silences or demand for perfection.
“I’m a perfectionist, too,” Cassie said.
At 71, Medsker has no intention of slowing down or retiring. “The day I stop doing what I love is going to be the day I die,” he vowed.
For her part, Cassie is hoping that he’ll teach her a few of the last secrets of the trade before he hangs up his tool belt.
“I’ve been trying to get my dad to build one last custom car from aluminum,” she said. “Nothing would please me more than to have almost all his skills before he’s over.” If it’s up to her father, she may get her car after all.