Lake Stevens’ Tow Mater is on the block

LAKE STEVENS — Tow Mater is headed to the auction block but not without first driving a lasting impression home for his Snohomish County crew.

The life-sized replica of the instantly loveable, buck-toothed tow truck from the Disney/Pixar movie “Cars” is going up for bid in Arizona later this month.

Jack Walkley, owner of Everett’s Cobra Construction, and his crew have put $120,000, 13 coats of paint and 2½ years into perfecting every detail of the recognizable rusty rig.

“Jack spent so much time making sure everything was exact, not just close — exact,” said Marley Janes, Walkley’s bookkeeper. “He has put a lot of heart and soul into this truck.”

Walkley has used Mater’s cartoonish charisma to raise more than $760,000 for charity since completing the rubber-and-rust reproduction in March 2010.

“We’ve had a lot of fun with him,” said Walkley, of Lake Stevens. “You would not believe the fun.”

Mater has his own bank account, is on Facebook and Twitter, and has a nonprofit organization, the Rusty Wrecker. He has drawn attention from Larry the Cable Guy, who voiced the movie’s show-stealing, down-home country character, and Disney/Pixar executives.

“They said he was by far the best in the world,” Walkley said.

More than 2 million people have visited Mater in his travels from Alaska to Texas and many places in between.

“I call him an attractive magnet,” Walkley said. “Ain’t nothing that draws people in like he does.”

Walkley, dressed the part of the tow truck’s owner in a hat, Levi’s, a Carhartt coat and cowboy boots, said he has tracked the number of visitors with a fish counter.

“The more Mater traveled, the more stories Jack had to tell,” Janes said. “The smile on his face was just amazing to see.”

But as the traveling grew tiresome and Mater exceeded his charity goal, Walkley, 70, made the tough decision to sell. He also lost his travel mate and brother-in-law, Dan Epling, who died last summer.

“We called him ‘Showman’ because any place we’d go he’d put on a show,” Walkley said. “It was a hoot. We’ve done everything we wanted to do.”

Barrett-Jackson, the collector car auction company that sold the Batmobile for $4.6 million, is putting Mater up for bid. The live auction is schedule to be televised on Fox Jan. 17.

“We’re talking big dollars, big money being thrown around,” Janes said.

Walkley said he expects to get anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000 for his rig. He assembled it from a 1955 Chevy 1 1/2 ton farm truck found in Wyoming, a 1964 Mack cab from Montana, a 1955 Holmes wrecker out of Arizona and parts found across America.

“Talk about something funny, getting attached to a truck,” Walkley said. “It’s a damn piece of metal.”

Despite his metal exterior, Mater has made memories which Walkley will take on down the road.

One particular trip with his tow truck, Walkley said, had a lasting impact.

For the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Walkley took a 6-year-old girl for a ride. On the trip, the child told Walkley riding in Mater was like heaven, which was where she was going in three months.

“It broke my heart. It makes you realize what life’s about,” Walkley said. “It was all worth it right there.”

The lesson Walkley has taken from his time with Mater parallels the movie’s theme.

The film’s main character, Lightning McQueen, learns from a stint in Mater’s hometown to slow down and appreciate the small things. Lightning transitions from a selfish race car to Mater’s best friend, who through simple gestures brings life back to Radiator Springs, a deserted town on the iconic American Route 66.

The movie resonated with Walkley, who raced sprint cars when he was younger. He even came to know the famous NASCAR driver, “The King,” Richard Petty, on whom one of the movie’s cars is based. Over his lifetime, Walkley, too, has learned to slow his roll. He said the most important thing is to always have fun in one’s work.

An enjoyable part of his journey with Mater was bringing smiles to the faces of thousands of children who had their photos taken with the toothy truck. They left, memories in hand.

“It’s been amazing to me something so simple can bring so much joy,” Walkley said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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