One could conclude Mike Morphy is a guy who embraces change.
He and his wife, Gayle Hoover, moved from the west coast to Zebulon in 2002 and from Zebulon to Wendell in 2011. They are both recent retirees and the couple plans to move again – to Belize – some time in the spring.
It’s been over the last two years, however, that Morphy has dealt with change to an extent that would drive the average person insane. With the occasional assist from his wife, he has worked to affix 28,751 coins to the exterior of a 1996 Geo Metro hatchback fittingly referred to as “the penny car.”
“We tend to do unusual projects,” Hoover said. “We used to shoot professional fireworks. ... We’re not your normal hiking-in-the-woods-on-the-weekend couple.”
Morphy says the inspiration for the art car was worth more than the $287.51 glued to it.
“About 15 years ago, we ended up at Harrah’s Casino (in Reno) and adjacent was Harrah’s Auto Museum,” he said. “One of the unique, one-of-a-kind (cars) was about an ’83-’84 Mercedes four door that was covered in polished silver dollars and, according to the plaque, was owned by Muhammad Ali.
“That put the germ thought in my brain. Once I got ready to do an art car, but a little more practical, that was my inspiration.”
Morphy actually started to penny plate another Geo Metro three years back, but the attempt died early on along with the car’s engine.
Scrapping the first try and starting from scratch, Morphy found the eventual penny car in Richmond. When he arrived to pick it up, he found its door pockets full of pennies.
“I figured that was fate saying this is the new penny car,” Morphy recalled.
It wasn’t a daily project. There were periods over the past couple years when Morphy and Hoover didn’t work on the car for months at a time.
Morphy began seeing a light at the end of the tunnel after stepping away from his job as a general contractor earlier this year.
“(Retiring) gave me more time to go ahead and get the car finished,” he said. “Having an art car was something to achieve, but you don’t do that to a new car and have to be at a place in life where you have time to do it.”
About a year ago the couple learned Baltimore-based Artscape, the country’s largest free arts festival, designates a space just for art cars.
This year’s festival, held July 18-20, gave Morphy and Hoover a deadline to shoot for.
“I put the finishing touches on it the morning we left to drive up there, so there was a lot of cramming,” Morphy said. “Of course (we drove the car), cars are meant to be driven.”
The penny car, which has seen about 200,000 miles, got 43 miles to the gallon on the round trip to Maryland despite the near-190 extra pounds in penny weight.
Hoover, who was often in charge of going on glue runs when supplies ran low, went into the penny car’s debut not sure what to expect at the weekend-long festival.
“I had never heard of Artscape and thought there were going to be like 15 cars there,” she said. “Then I found out there were going to be 350,000 people there.”
With a sign reading “Please touch the car” on top of it, the penny car was a hit.
“You go to most car shows and they have these big signs that say, ‘Do not touch car on pain of death,’ and this was not what this was all about,” Hoover said. “You want people to be able to run their hands across it.
“People, especially the little kids, got a kick out of sitting in the car and having their pictures taken. It was good interactive art.”
Morphy said seeing the most people he’s ever seen on foot sauntering through Artscape with their jaws dropped in response to what exhibitors had done with their cars was an indicator he had done something right.
But he’s no stranger to the attention that comes with cruising in a car that’s plastered with pennies.
“Occasionally at a stop sign someone will pull up next to me and say, ‘A penny for your thoughts,’ ” Morphy said. He said admirers have gone as far as extending him a handful of pennies.
One of the car’s prominent features is a question mark on the hood, set apart from the underlying coins by way of silver-colored steel pennies. Morphy said it serves no real purpose other than to make people ask pretty much any question that begins with the letter W.
And while nearly every Abe Lincoln silhouette faces upright, some were intentionally upended. Hoover said it adds character, like the signature on a painting.
Completing the penny-car ensemble, Morphy and Hoover have matching T-shirts depicting the dark-golden Geo. His says, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and hers, “Turns up like a bad penny.”
“(Neighbors) sit out and watch me work on it and they’ve accepted it as part of the neighborhood now,” Morphy said. “But I’m kind of out on the edge of (town), so it’s not like I’ve got a bunch of neighbors staring at it.”
Morphy says the penny car is not Wendell’s only art car; that there is a local truck with various items symmetrically fastened on either side. As far as he knows, though, his is still one of a kind in town.
When it comes time to sell the car prior to the move to Belize, he’ll know down to the cent how much to ask for it.