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Celebrity Drive: Comedian Jeff Dunham and His CTS-V Wagon

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/4/2015 K.S. Wang

Quick Stats: Jeff Dunham comedian/ventriloquist
Daily Driver: 2014 CTS-V wagon (Jeff's rating: 9.5 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: Los Angeles to Napa
Car he learned to drive in: 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood
First car bought: 1984 Nissan 300ZX

Research

Although comedian Jeff Dunham could afford a fleet of supercars, his philosophy of collecting is more about being able to see his cars make people smile, whether it's waving from his street-legal tank as he drives through L.A. on Ventura Boulevard or floating by on his Amphicar in Los Angeles County's Castaic Lake.

Dunham has his share of cars, but this car enthusiast's go-to is a 2014 Cadillac CTS-V wagon, which he rates a 9.5 out of 10. "They did that right," he says. "I love all the iterations of it, but then I got the very last wagon off the line. They let me custom build it. The CTS-V is awesome."

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham He first saw a manual CTS-V at the Bob Bondurant racing school. "We were driving Z06 Corvettes, and I didn't know anything about the CTS-V," he says. "The instructors were driving the CTS-Vs, and they were all sticks, and they had to have enough room to put three students in the car to show you what to do. It was unbelievable; it was amazing. I came home—this is in 2010 and 2011—my daughters were like, 'Dad, that's the coolest car ever.' I thought, 'how in the world has Cadillac, GM, done such an amazing thing of taking what used to be branded as your grandpa's car and a joke to now being one of the most awesome cars out there?' "

As someone who developed an appreciation for cars later in life, Dunham thought he should attend racing school to learn the limits of sports cars. "I took the five-day course at Bondurant, and it couldn't have been time better spent," he says. "I also [witnessed] some amazing GM products. The Z06 Corvettes took relentless pounding from us, but much more importantly, this was my first introduction to what the instructors drove. Holy crap. A month later I'd purchased the sedan as our new 'family' car. The stick wagon came a couple years later."

When he found out GM was going to stop building the CTS-V wagon, he had to buy the last one. "It was like, 'Hold on a second; let me get a stick wagon,' " he says of the stereotypical car guy's dream mobile. "It can't be any better than that. The crew that built it actually signed the bottom of it. We've got the letter from GM stating it's the last wagon."

The reason Dunham doesn't give the CTS-V a perfect 10 is because he owns more unique cars that he likes better.

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham "That's a really tough scale because what are you talking about?" he says. "Are you talking about just drivability? Gas mileage? Does it fit other people? For all the way around, for everything, if I had to narrow a car down and only have one vehicle, this carries the family, but it's a badass car, 500 and whatever horsepower. And it's a stick … [and it's a] mommy car."

Dunham notes his wife's CTS-V sedan has more space than the wagon does in the back. "There's got to be a reason that they stopped making it," he says. "Obviously not enough people bought it. If you really want to get nitpicky about it, of that particular model, my model, and her model, the center console is like a joke. Most center consoles in cars, you can put stuff and keep it in there. These, it's the double level, but on either level you can barely put a sunglasses case inside there. It doesn't fit. That's my one stupid complaint."

The CTS-V is probably the car that gets driven most by Dunham, and he loves that it's understated. "I hate 'eff-you' cars," he says. "I would rather drive my Levi's Gremlin than a Testarossa because there's just so much more personality to it. I have a handful of what I call the 'horrible cars,' but it's the best of the horrible cars, like the Levi's Gremlin, the AMC Pacer. These are horrible, horrible vehicles, but everybody of a certain age has a story about one of those cars."

When someone pulls up to a gas pump in a $500,000 sports car versus a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, people have already made their judgment about the driver. "They know if they're going to talk to you or not," he says. "If you drive up in a '70 'Cuda, if you drive up in a Pacer, people are going to talk to you. I love that."

Car He Learned To Drive In

"My father believed the only purpose of a vehicle was to go from point A to point B, and you bought it at the cheapest price with as few options as possible and drive it until the wheels fell off," he says. "The two cars I remember my father having growing up was some sort of teeny tiny Toyota station wagon and the teeny tiny Datsun whatever it was, 510 or 210 station wagon. He literally drove that Datsun until the floor rotted out and fell off onto the freeway. That was his idea of a car."

Growing up in Dallas, Dunham got to learn in his parents' 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood. He got a lot of experience on one particularly memorable family road trip.

"It was the summer when I was 15 because you can get your permit when you're 15 in Texas," he says. "We took a trip from Dallas to Los Angeles for my dad to go to a convention, and then of course we were going to go to Disneyland. My dad wanted me to get experience and wanted me to drive. So there we are in the big giant Fleetwood boat of a car, driving across the desert and I would not go over 55 miles per hour. Would not. Of course my poor dad was so conflicted, wanting to get somewhere, knowing we could go a little over the speed limit, at least 64, but I absolutely refused. I was not going to break the law. I pegged it at 55 and kept it there. It drove him absolutely nuts."

Dunham's dad let him drive the entire trip. "I guess his desire for me to get the experience outweighed the frustration of getting there two days late," he laughs.

That same year he learned to drive in his parent's car, Dunham also taught himself how to operate a manual tractor when he was working at a summer camp. "There's a tractor, old Nellie out in the field, and with my boss, I said, 'Can I try and drive that tractor?' He said, 'You know how to drive stick?' 'No.' He says, 'Ok, let me explain how you do it,'" he says, with a laugh. "So one afternoon, I was on work crew and everybody was at rest time and I went out in the middle of the field and started up that little tractor … and taught myself to drive with a clutch and a stick."

Dunham is adamant that as a car enthusiast, one should know how to operate a gearbox and clutch. "If you're really serious about cars, you've got to know how to drive stick," he says. "It's going to go away. When I'm an old man, people are going to be like, 'Wow, you know how to drive stick?' My wife is pregnant with twin boys, and they absolutely are going to have to learn how to drive stick. I have three daughters who are now all in college, and none of them would have anything to do with it. They would not try and learn stick, just wouldn't do it. I tried everything I could. One daughter drove 10 feet and said, 'No, not going to do it, I quit.' "

Dunham's high school car was a Mercury Marquis. "Horrible. But it was a hand-me-down from my parents because that was the family car for a while," he says. "So in 1978 when I turned 16, that's the car I got, and it was god-awful, but I didn't know it was god-awful. All I knew was I had a giant car with a huge back seat. I drove that thing for a couple years."

In his senior year in high school, Dunham got the idea to do local car commercials with his ventriloquism act for Courtesy Datsun in Richardson, Texas, and hoped to drive some nicer rides. "Carl Westscott was a staple of Dallas television, and he would walk down the lot and hawk all his vehicles," he says. "I started making phone calls to the guy just to try to get him on the phone because I knew I could do this with my dummy and I would make it funnier and better."

Dunham kept calling and for a while couldn't got through to the owner. "Finally out of exasperation, the secretary finally got him on the phone, and I pitched him the idea, and he goes, 'Why don't you come into my office, show me what you're talking about,' " he says. "I showed up with my dummy, pulled it out of the suitcase, and shows him what I could do, and he says, 'You know what? All right! We'll try it. I'm tired of doing these things. We'll let you do it!' "

As part of the deal, Dunham negotiated that he would also get his own vehicle to drive as a demo driver. "Salesmen put 6,000 miles on them then put it back in, so he said, 'All right, what do you want, a Maxima? That's the new fun car.' 'No, I want the 280Z!' " he says. "In my senior year in high school, I went through four different 280ZXs, putting 5,000 miles on each one of them. That was my introduction to nice cars, a really nice sports car. I didn't know any different."

First Car Bought

After a few years of doing car commercials, Dunham went to college and bought a new car, his first car purchase. "The first car that I bought with my own money that the dummies paid for was a 1984 300ZX because I had been doing all those Datsun commercials now that turned into Nissan," he says. "And I still have that car. I drove the wheels off that thing."

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham When the car finally hit 115,000 miles in 1988, Dunham moved out to Los Angeles. "I knew I wasn't going to take that because by this time I had a Pathfinder," he recalls, "and the 300ZX was not going to be practical in Los Angeles with all my stuff."

Celebrity Drive: Comedian Jeff Dunham and His CTS-V Wagon

So Dunham parked the 300ZX in the back of his parents' driveway in the backyard under the basketball net. "There it sat from 1988 until 2008," he says. "This sat outside in the Texas weather. But my dad was very religious. He was so sweet about it, every three or four months he'd go buy a new car cover and put it on it. The car cover would rot away, and he would get a new one. It was on blocks in the driveway, and then I had it trucked out here and totally rebuilt it."

On his 300ZX, his vanity plate reflected his passion. "I've always had a comfortable view of what I do for a living, understanding that's it kind of ridiculous, so the license plate I had put on it was literally 'DUMMY,' " Dunham says, laughing, "because I was a ventriloquist. It made perfect sense at the time. I'd drive around campus, and everybody knew who it was."

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham Dunham's first car is a bit of a time machine now, left as-is. And he doesn't plan to get rid of it or change anything, either. "Even now, though, after we refurbished it, there are still receipts, there's still my log book," he says. "Every time I got fuel, every single time I got fuel, I would log it—how many miles, where I got the fuel. It was ridiculous."

The book is still in the glove compartment. "It looks like there was something wrong with me because every single time I got gas, I would religiously write it in that book. There's still receipts, there's a couple of notes from my old college girlfriend, so I haven't touched anything."

Dunham only owned his Pathfinder for a year and a half when he got to Los Angeles, and he didn't have an appreciation for cars until much later. "I realized I didn't really need the Pathfinder, got rid of it and then got a 1990 300ZX, only because I only knew Nissans," he says. "I didn't know anything else. Even in college the 300ZX was a great car, but it certainly wasn't a giant powerful vehicle."

Car Collection Began With a Viper

Dunham's car collection began with a Dodge Viper that caught his eye when he was living in San Diego in the early 1990s, although he was traveling so much by then he was hardly home. "I was driving down the road, and I had heard people talking about this thing called the 'Dodge Viper' and people going gaga over this thing," he says. "I paid no attention to sports cars at all except the 300ZX. That's all I knew. I knew nothing."

He was driving down the freeway, looked over at the window of a Dodge dealership, and saw a bright red car that was "like nothing I'd ever seen before," he says. "I went over to the dealership, and I thought, 'You know what's happened? Guys my age have started designing cars, and we're the guys that grew up with Hot Wheels. This was the first vehicle that, to me, looked like somebody designed a Hot Wheels to be a real vehicle. It was this amazing, charming, beautiful car that I'd never seen anything like, and I had enough money in the bank, and I wrote the guy a check, right then and there for the damn thing. They'd come out in 1992, but this was a '94. I got it at sticker, and apparently in L.A. they were jacking them up. People were paying way over sticker, and I got it for sticker and was just delighted."

Dunham would take his Viper to the dealership for maintenance with thousands of miles on his, always surprising the service guys. "It turns out that that's of course one of the most dangerous Vipers you could possibly buy," he says. "I would take it to the dealership, and the guys would shake their heads. 'We never see one of these with that many miles on it in one piece because there's so much power, if you didn't know how to drive a car, you'd put that thing in a tree in a heartbeat.' They couldn't figure out how I had so many miles on it and hadn't wrecked it."

He acknowledges that Dodge has improved Vipers since then, but even though he hardly ever gets rid of his cars from his collection, he sold that first Viper because it was from his first marriage. Dunham now has two Vipers, an orange-red 2009 Dodge Viper ACR and a 2014 Dodge Viper SRT. "To me, that's a sleeper," he says. "These are such a great, great cars to me, the new ones."

Dunham tries to drive each of his cars when he can, even the "horrible" cars, the "fun ones." "I love getting in those things because they create conversation and smiles," he says.

Early on Sunday morning, there's a car show at the Topanga Mall in Los Angeles, which Dunham tries to attend. "I love going to that thing because first Sunday of the month is the biggest one. There could easily be 500 cars there. On an average one probably 150. It's fun, I have friends there."

Sometimes Dunham enjoys getting laughs from people on the street by driving his Ferret scout car around Los Angeles. "It's street legal, and it doesn't have treads—it has tires and wheels," he says. "And the cops, what are they going to do, pull over a tank?"

The driver of the armored fighting vehicle looks out a tiny window in the front. "What's funny is when people drive with me, the passenger can stand in the turret and wave at people like you're a prom queen, so my father-in-law has stood there driving down Ventura Boulevard, my wife has stood there waving, and people love it, they honk," he says. "They think it's the greatest thing ever."

Batmobile From "Batman Returns"

Rating:10

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham With the mix of cars he has collected, Dunham certainly doesn't mind that they get so much attention, and that includes his Batmobile from "Batman Returns."

"This was the stand-in vehicle they used in the actual production vehicle," he says. "There's plenty of knockoffs out there, but we have papers from Warner Bros. They still have the two hero cars, the main one. This one was used as a stand-in in a few scenes, and this went from one guy to another, and the third guy sold it to me."

Dunham calls the Batmobile a typical Hollywood prop. "It had a Chevy 350 in it; it was made to drive 100 feet three times," he says. "It wasn't made to go on the freeway. … There's a very stringent agreement with Warner Bros. They have approval on who buys it. You can't use it for anything. You can only use it for car shows. You can't use it for advertising. You can't shoot porn with it. All those obvious things. You can't even display it in any other fashion than how it was viewed in the movie. You can't even open the hood in public."

The only time Dunham drives the Batmobile is to car shows. "But it's from my warehouse to the next car show or onto the trailer and to the next car show," he says. "If I had to get rid of every fun car and keep one fun car, I would keep the Batmobile. If the building was burning down, that's the one I would drive out."

That's because Dunham spent so much time and money fixing it up. "We took the 350 out of it and put a Corvette LS7 engine into it," he says. "We put air-conditioning in it and six video cameras because there's plenty of blind spots. You can't see anywhere past your ears. We have reverse cameras, every angle possible, so it's very drivable. But it does create havoc wherever you drive it."

Because people always gather when he does take it out, Dunham always has chase vehicles around to keep people far enough away. "You know when you look at something, you tend to drive toward it?" he says. "People pull up beside me and they've got their video camera, their phone stuck out the window. I've had to fight being sideswiped many times by innocent people [who were] just excited. It has to be a 10. You don't leave a 10 burning in a building."

1963 Amphicar

Rating: 4

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham Dunham had to get the Amphicar licensed both as a car and a boat. He doesn't take it out often, but when he does, like the time he went to Castaic Lake, pictured in the photo with his character Walter, the rare sight obviously turns heads.

"Built in Germany, English engine, same engine that's in the Triumph," Dunham describes. "They thought they were going to make a mint. They tooled up for making 30,000 of those cars, and I think they sold 4,000 of them, and U.S. was the market where they knew they were going to sell them, and it was going to be great because it's a boat, it's a car. Then the DOD and EPA regulations kicked in, I think it was '68, and that car did not even come close to qualifying. It killed it."

Dunham smiles when he gives the Amphicar a 4 out of 10 rating. "Here's the scale, on a 1 to 10: 'Oh my gosh, that's the coolest car ever!' —a 10," he says. "For drivability, it's the worst of both worlds. It's a terrible car and a horrible boat, but it does both. As one guy put it, it's the fastest boat on the road and the fastest car in the water."

For Dunham, these unusual cars such as the Amphicar aren't just about exclusivity. They're about eliciting emotion other than the thought that the driver has money or wishing one could afford that supercar.

"My wife and I did the maiden voyage," he says. "We assumed it was going to work, and we just drove off into the water. That's the other thing I'm talking about. You can have a $6 million yacht sitting there, but you drive up in that thing and off the ramp and into the water, people will stop what they're doing. People would stop having sex to watch this thing."

There were a lot of smiles and thumbs up when Dunham was on the lake with Walter. "People love it," he says. "They want to take pictures with it, and they want to talk to you, and they tell you about their best friend who had a boat. It's a conversation starter."

Sometimes they recognize Dunham, but other times it's just car talk. "I don't care," he says. "It's easier if they don't know who I am."

When asked if he has any advice for collecting cars and driving each car in one's collection, Dunham takes a page from the military. "Any machine like that, you've got to start it up and crank it up and get it going every three months," he says. "If it sits more than three months, then you're getting into trouble because things start to leak and all that."

1934 Ford "Achmedmobile"

Rating: 10

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham This custom hot rod is a 1934 steel-bodied Ford. "When you see it, you go, 'Oh, OK, this is not a normal vehicle,' " he says. "The engine is a 392 Hemi. The original car was built by Bob Biehler. It was originally called a Defibrillator and he had a skull on the top for the air intake where the carburetor is. When you step on the gas, the mouth opens and the air goes in."

Dunham needed a car for his popular character Achmed for his comedy special "Controlled Chaos" in 2011. "I thought we'll custom build a hot rod, and then I found this thing online," he says. "I called the guy who owned it, and I said, 'Will you sell this?' He said, 'No, it's not for sale.' I go, 'How about at this price?' 'OK.' "

After buying it, though, the skull on the top didn't look enough like Achmed, so Dunham scanned the bobblehead of Achmed with a 3-D scanner, printed the giant skull in six pieces on his 3-D printer, and turned that into the new skull on top of the car, dubbing the car the Achmedmobile.

Now it's a show car, and he calls it a perfect 10 because there's nothing like it out there, although Dunham never drives it. "Oh no, that'll kill you," he says. "It's like from the '70s called the Odd Rods and Ed Big Daddy Roth did a style of art. The Achmedmobile was one of those hot rod dragster cars that Bob Biehler made into a real vehicle."

2005 Ford GT

Rating: 10

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham Dunham chuckles when he rates his GT a perfect 10, as he recalls the first time he saw one. "I remember seeing the commercial, Superbowl 2004, and being mesmerized," he says. "What an amazing vehicle that was, and it looked like a toy in real life. Some kind of toy that some guy thought of and how cool would this be as a real car. It was a red one zipping around the track."

It wasn't until about six years later that Dunham bought a GT. "I was walking into a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, and there one sat on the street next to the restaurant, and I thought it wasn't one of those eff-you cars that anybody could get. It was this amazing vehicle, and I ask, 'What is that?' 'A Ford GT.' "

He started researching them and realized they were highly sought after and expensive. "I viewed it as an investment because they were doing nothing but increasing in value," he says. "And they have done nothing but go up in value. It's got to be a 10."

The day we spoke to Dunham, he was driving the GT. "But that's got to be in the realm of the eff-you car, but it's an American vehicle, and there's some American pride in that car. It's a Ford, it's fantastic, and you know they're coming out with a new one."

The GT was another reason Dunham took the Bondurant course. "Owning a Ford GT and having never been professionally trained to drive is like giving a Playboy Playmate to a 14-year-old boy and telling him to have a nice evening," he says. "I needed some skills."

1970 Plymouth Barracuda

Rating: 9.9

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham Dunham bought the Barracuda specifically for his wedding day, so the only photo he has with it are his wedding photos. "I thought, both our favorite color is purple, and I saw that car for sale, and thought this would be fantastic," he says. "It was a convertible, and she's wearing white. It had a white interior, it's a purple car, we were at a winery out in wine country, and I thought what perfect pictures this would be, and they were."

Dunham didn't drive it anywhere except the short distance from where the wedding was held for the photo op. "We drove it away and waved to everyone," he says. "We drove down the dirt road and got on the highway then turned around and came back then started drinking with everybody."

The person that refurbished the Barracuda put Dunham in touch with the car's owner. Dunham doesn't tell the owners who is buying the car until after the sale. Afterward, the owner called Dunham to tell him a funny story about the car and sent him photos of his family in the car.

"He said, 'I drove my wife in that car in 1989 to a comedy show, to yours,' " Dunham says. "He had driven that car with his wife to come see me at a show at a college. I thought, how charming is that!"

The Barracuda gets a 9.9 because it's just short of perfect. "We even had the Mopar guy that goes and inspects all the Mopar cars, Galen Govier," he says. "He came out, he charges like two grand, and he'll do a full report. The car was almost perfect. There was one little thing—this screw right here needed to be painted and not chrome. So the guy had done an absolutely perfect job. Numbers matching, everything, so that has to be 9.9 because one screw wasn't the right color."

Another car that Dunham still has but doesn't drive is the Hummer. It is perhaps the one car that he's driven the longest because it was his only vehicle for almost 10 years

"When I got married and got the Viper, I stuck it in the garage, drove it a few thousand miles, but it wasn't my everyday driver," he says. "When I was married with my first wife and raising my kids, I had to have a vehicle, so Schwarzenegger pushed and pushed and pushed and got the civilian version of the H1 Hummer passed, thanks to him. There were people driving these on the freeway, and I again thought, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever seen.' I wasn't making a lot of money at the time, but I was OK. Here was a vehicle that was 100 and however many thousands of dollars."

Dunham went to his accountant and proposed that because he mostly bought or leased cars every three or four years, what if he promised to drive this one for 10 years? His accountant agreed that it was fine to buy the expensive Hummer.

"The dealership had customized the Hummer with that flip-flop paint Dupont came out with it, where it literally changes colors, not just shades, but colors," he says. "We're driving past the Hummer dealership, and my girls go, 'Dad, look it's a blue Hummer up on the stage in front of the dealership there!' 'That's cool.' And they go, 'It's purple. Wait!' So they had completely customized this H1, and I went and got that."

Of course, he says gas mileage was "horrible." "The first ones, it was ridiculous," he says. "It was a small tank. They had to double the tank size. I'd easily spend over $100 filling it up. It was ridiculous. It was crazy. This was when Hummers were OK, when people thought they were cool … but then the tide turned, and you were a complete jerk, especially around here driving that thing."

Although he no longer drives it as much, Dunham thinks the tide has gone back the other way a bit. "People don't hate you as much," he says. "By the way, the mommies that hated me for driving that thing, their Suburbans got worse gas mileage than my Hummer did."

Favorite road trip

Dunham's favorite road trip was the week he and his wife took to drive up the California coast for their honeymoon, stopping at wineries. "It was the best," he says. "No schedule, nothing. We took the CTS-V, which is our go-to car for everything. And it couldn't have been nicer."

NBC's "Jeff Dunham: Unhinged in Hollywood" Sept. 17

Dunham has been on NBC's Leno and Carson many times, but he's never had a comedy special on the network until now. "Over the years, NBC has been very good to me, and a lot of great things have happened in my career because of that very network," he says. "To now have my own primetime special with them is nothing but spectacular."

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham The one-hour special is also his first on broadcast television and will feature popular characters such as Walter, Achmed, Peanut, and Little Jeff, as well as guests Brad Paisley, Chris Parnell, and Chuck Lidell.

Last month Dunham taped the NBC special at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, where the Oscars are filmed, and just three days later, he taped another standup special for Comedy Central with the same title at the same theater. It will be his seventh Comedy Central special.

Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham "This is what's amazing," Dunham says about the back-to-back shoot. "It's unbelievable. It's never been done before. It's pretty exciting."

The NBC special airs Sept. 17, and the Comedy Central show airs Nov. 1.

A DVD of both specials will be released Nov. 17. For more information, visit www.jeffdunham.com. Dunham's live act at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas runs through Oct. 4.

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Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Jeff Dunham
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