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Escondido muffler man’s Santa suit is back after 10-year absence

Joor Muffler owner Nick Manning, left, and Sickel’s Fabrics co-owners Michelle Guillen and Felix Guillen pose with Escondido’s muffler man statue, which is decked out once again in a Santa suit for the first time in a decade.
Joor Muffler & Auto Service owner Nick Manning, left, and Sickel’s Fabrics co-owners Michelle Guillen and Felix Guillen pose with Escondido’s muffler man statue, which is decked out once again in a Santa suit for the first time in a decade.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joor Muffler shop and Sickel’s Fabrics collaborated to revive a 25-year holiday tradition

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas again at Joor Muffler & Auto Service in Escondido.

For the first time in 10 years, the shop’s iconic 20-foot fiberglass muffler man statue at East Valley Parkway and North Juniper Street is dressed up for the season as Santa Claus.

For 25 years, from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, the auto shop decorated its statue for the Christmas holidays in a red and white suit, black boots and belt, white beard and stocking cap. But in 2009, shop owner Nick Manning reluctantly retired the tradition.

Damage from rain, the sun and vandals had left the costume in tatters, and in the midst of the recession Manning couldn’t afford to commission a new one. But with the encouragement and ingenuity of a neighboring business, Sickel’s Fabrics & Upholstery, the muffler man is now sporting a brand-new, all-weather Santa suit that should last for many yule seasons to come.

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“We just decided between us, Sickel’s and us, that we should try again,” Manning said. “They pushed a lot to do it and we all worked together to make it happen. I’m happy we did.”

Nick Manning, owner of Joor Muffler & Auto Service, left, with Sickel’s Fabrics & Upholstery store co-owners Michelle Guillen and Felix Guillen, pose with the newly costumed Joor Muffler Man in Escondido on Thursday, Dec. 5.
Nick Manning, owner of Joor Muffler & Auto Service, left, with Sickel’s Fabrics & Upholstery store co-owners Michelle Guillen and Felix Guillen, pose with the newly costumed Joor Muffler Man in Escondido on Thursday. It’s the first time in 10 years the 20-foot fiberglass statue has been dressed up for the holidays.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Joor family opened the shop in 1931 at 302 E. Valley Parkway. In 1967, they purchased the muffler man statue at a trade show. According to the website RoadsideAmerica.com, it was one of several hundred statues made by International Fiberglass of Venice, Calif., in the 1960s and early 1970s. The original statue was a Paul Bunyan holding an ax, and over the years the mold was used to adapt the statue into muffler men, cowboys, Indians, space aliens, a character named Big John and more. Originally priced from $1,800 to $2,800, the 100-plus remaining statues are valued from $15,000 to $20,000.

In the mid-1980s, the Joor family sold the shop to Don DePiero, an Italian immigrant who owned several downtown businesses, including Action Car Wash. DePiero, who passed away last year, was the one who started the tradition of dressing the statue as Santa. When he sold the shop to Manning 16 years ago, he passed along a fleece Santa suit, but it only lasted two years.

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Twice over the years, Manning said he commissioned local seamstresses to make new Santa suits at a cost of roughly $5,500 to $6,000 apiece, but they never lasted very long. The first suit was repeatedly attacked by vandals who stole Santa’s boots a few times and even set the pants on fire. The second suit turned pink overnight after a heavy rainstorm washed out all the red color.

“It looked like hell, excuse my French. We tried to dye it but it didn’t work. Eventually we just had to give up,” Manning said.

But the tide began to turn when another longtime Escondido business moved in across the street from Joor eight years ago. Sickel’s Fabrics & Upholstery was established in 1956 at Quince and Washington streets. In 1970, the Sickel family sold the business to the Guillen family of Escondido. Today it’s co-owned by brothers Felix and Ray Guillen and Ray’s wife, Michelle Guillen. In 2011, the business relocated to 311 E. Valley Parkway.

Michelle Guillen, who runs the business, said she and her husband were very disappointed in 2011 when they didn’t see the Santa suit go up on the mufflerman, which they can see out the front door and windows of their store.

“My husband is absolutely crazy about Christmas. He and I grew up in Escondido and we remember the statue being dressed up as Santa when we were kids. It was one of our favorite memories,” she said.

So about four years ago, the Guillens began encouraging Manning to let them build a new Santa suit at a reasonable price. After much coaxing and consideration, the time seemed right this fall. Using the old Santa suit as a pattern, Felix Guillen built a new suit using 51 yards of heavy-duty Sunbrella fabric. The project took about 50 hours of labor. On the morning of Nov. 26, a team of six Joor and Sickel’s employees got the Muffler Man dressed.

Although the costume never seemed to bring the shop any new business over the years, Manning said customers do seem happy to see the tradition renewed. Many passing motorists have slowed down to admire the costume over the past week and others have stopped to take photos.

When asked the price tag of the new suit, both Manning and Guillen said they haven’t figured that out yet. The Guillens promised to make it affordable by cutting back their labor charges and Manning said he’s confident they’ll come to a happy agreement.

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“We didn’t really discuss money,” Guillen said. “We just sort of did it. The price is not the object. It’s a good neighbor sort of thing.”


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