Charlatan Buffs Prep for Car Show

1974 FMC Charlatan adThose who remember the ’70’s remember a time when manufacturing jobs were everywhere, gas prices were .45 cents a gallon and minors still needed phony ID to buy beer at the Check N Pay. They might also remember an auto manufacturing firm called the Flubug Motor Company (FMC), headed by Sheriff “Big Dog” Ramsey’s dad, George Ramsey.

But they might not remember The Charlatan.

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In the days of a diversified economy, FMC loomed like a giant over industrial Flubug. And George Ramsey’s mission was simple: produce a line of cars that offered the Average Joe pride of ownership without elevating his perceived station in life.

And the Charlatan did just that.

Priced at just $3,217 without options (like tires), Ramsey was sure he had a hit on his hands. And he did. So much so that Charlatans vanished as fast as they could be produced. But far from being an economic success, The Charlatan turned out to be one of Ramsey’s most pronounced failures. Theft was a constant problem. Many vehicles disappeared right off the assembly line, driven to nearby chop shops in Nailyard or Calhoun. Others were stolen from dealer lots. Those that were sold often ended in lakes or streams as owners tested the company claims that their cars would float.

Only two Charlatans are known to exist to this day. And those will be on display this weekend with other vehicular oddities at the Eunice Car Club in downtown Eunice.

But first some background on The Charlatan.

The Charlatan was introduced in 1974 as a hybrid between a bloated compact and mid-sized sedan. It was the first (and only) car to offer D.A.N. (Dolphin-Assisted Navigation). D.A.N. purported to summon dolphins in the event vehicles became submerged (which was highly likely given the fact that the cars were marketed as aquamarine vehicles). In theory, the navigation system would send “sonar pulses” to “nearby” dolphin pods who would then pilot drivers (and their sunken vehicles) to safety.

But the cars never lived up to the hype.

Charlatans were cited in at least a dozen drownings when cocky owners, smug in the belief that dolphins would come to their rescue, drove their vehicles into rivers, ponds, lakes and even the Miasma Rapids. Many did so purposely just to meet the adorable creatures. But as one survivor wryly noted: “There weren’t no dolphins for thousands of miles. I can’t believe I fell for it.”

Yet many did.

Among other problems that plagued The Charlatan was the fuel tank, which was placed under the pull-down child seat in back. A litany of explosions were attributed to the design, the most noteworthy of which took place outside the Pig In A Poke when a four-year old child was blown through the roof while clutching a doll. Yet despite public outrage (and calls for Ramsey’s resignation) none of the accidents resulted in legal proceedings, much less payouts. Ramsey maintained throughout that underage smoking, not design flaws, were to blame. But the accidents took their toll on the company’s image. They eventually shipped their operation to the Cayman Islands.

The spare tire was another bone of contention with Charlatan owners. The tire, which was mounted on the ceiling inside the vehicle, was held in place by four cotter pins. The pins, touted as “EZ-Mount” fixtures, were in fact impossible to remove without an expensive, understocked, wrench which was made in Somalia. Many owners simply pried the pins from their housing and threw the bicycle tire (or spare) in the back. The fact that the tire was only guaranteed to last 60 feet also caused friction between owners and FMC.

But there were features embraced by Charlatan owners. Among them was the Top-Mounted Pet Bin which could be used, not only for pets, but also for transporting hens, dung, hay and old copies of The Bugle earmarked for archival storage at The Dump. And the kudos weren’t confined to owners. Road & Flare magazine gave The Charlatan a grudging thumbs-up on its Oct. 1974 cover, only mentioning (twice) that the flares which came mounted beneath the driver’s seat had a tendency to explode on warm days.

But it was the options that really set Charlatan apart. Many have long since disappeared and would command hefty prices these days if they could be found. The lifesaver which hung from the driver’s side mirror was perhaps the most coveted. Curiously, it had the least orders of any option at the time. But it quickly became a prized backorder as owners became familiar with the vehicle’s deficiencies. The dolphin decal, which peeled readily from the right front end, is also in high demand these days as are the veneer oars. Only one pair of oars have survived to this day and none of the chrome-plated dolphin hitches which snapped like twigs when used to tow anything.

All in all The Charlatan is viewed as an historic disaster for FMC, though it was followed by several notorious copycats. It may also have led to Ramsey’s embarrassing political losses and his eventual relocation to a nudist colony in Brazil.

But none of that will sway the estimated 100 visitors who will flock to Eunice this weekend to steal a vicarious peek at Flubug’s past. And it probably won’t dissuade Ramsey’s son from attending either. As the Sheriff so succinctly put it this weekend while campaigning in Quagmire: “I love the cars here in Eunice. They just seem so right.”

Tickets can be purchased for the event throughout the week for $5.00 at the Civil War Theater in downtown Eunice or $10 on the day of the event.

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