Rosenblum: Hey, Peter Max lovers: Did you paint this car?

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2012 - 8:19 PM
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Mike Mullen now owns this 1961 Citro├źn, painted years ago by an art school in Minneapolis.

Normally, Mike Mullen doesn't approach his work with giddy anticipation. Mullen, 55, is a court officer in Detroit, Mich., who evicts people whose homes are in foreclosure.

So imagine his surprise when he opened up a garage and found a 1961 Citroën parked beside five other European sports cars. This wasn't just any 1961 Citroën. This 1961 Citroën featured a psychedelic, pop art, Peter Max-inspired paint job from rubber to roof.

Turns out that the artists, possibly university students or teachers, transformed the car from ordinary to OMG in Minneapolis about 40 years ago. Mullen, who now owns the car, is dead set on finding them to say thanks and, probably, "What were you thinking?"

"Once you see it, you'll say, 'Oh, my God, who painted this?'" said Mullen, a divorced dad of two grown daughters. "The doors are done so perfectly. Just strokes, no layering."

He has a few leads but is hoping that the wide reach of this daily newspaper will net him an answer. Here's the story so far:

Last summer, Mullen was inspecting a foreclosed house in Detroit to determine what kind of crew he'd need to clean it up. The home featured three garages. He opened them up and found six classic European sports cars: an Austin-Healey, a Jensen-Healey, two Saab Sonetts, a Triumph TR8 and the eye-popping Citroën.

He tracked down the homeowner, who told him the cars weren't his. They belonged to a woman named Pam Hansen, who moved from Minneapolis to Detroit in 1992 for work. Her husband, Paul Hansen, an engineer, road racer and car collector, joined her a year later, bringing the cars with him and renting the garages to store them.

After Paul's untimely death from cancer in 1997, Pam couldn't bear to look at them. "Easier to forget about them and just write a check," she said. She made a few attempts to sell the cars over the years, without success.

In July, she received a phone call out of the blue from Mullen, telling her the cars needed to be moved. She drove over and Mullen immediately realized things were going to get emotional.

"Quite a few times, she broke down in tears," Mullen said. "She'd had the cars in storage for 16 or 17 years."

He helped her get the cars towed to her house. He told Pam, who calls him "a really kind person," to let him know if she'd ever sell the Citroën. Two weeks later, the car was his, for "under $10K," he said.

At a yard sale soon after, Mullen parked the Citroën in front of his house. "An airbrush artist pulled up, and he goes crazy!" Mullen said. "'Dude!,' he said. 'This is all Peter Max!'"

Mullen admits he couldn't remember exactly who Peter Max was. "The Beatles! Yellow Submarine!" the guy said. "If Peter Max painted this, it's worth a million bucks."

"What?" Mullen said.

(To be accurate, Max's pop-art style strongly influenced the Beatles' film, but he was not part of the production.) Mullen didn't waste any time. He called the Peter Max Studios. And?

"And they said Peter Max did not paint this." Mullen laughs. He still loves the car. But he hasn't driven it yet, although he had a "passionate impulse" to take it to the recent Woodward Dream Cruise, a popular celebration of classic cars, held in Michigan.

"I wanted to get dressed up as a hippie," Mullen said. "But, when that airbrush guy came by and said it might be worth a million, I thought, uh-oh, it's going in the garage." That's where it remains as his search continues, now with Pam's help.

"These were all my husband's babies," she said, "but I love to track histories of old cars. I'm interested in what inspired them to do this. It's beautiful work and well-preserved."

She tracked down original documents that showed Paul bought the painted car in 1975 from a man named Terrance Dickinson. Dickinson, who lived at the time in Richfield, said he bought the car from a college student who said it had been painted by his art school.

But which art school? What students? Or was it teachers? Anybody want to step forward?

Mullen wonders with a laugh if the artists might be afraid to own up to their work. Those 1960s kids are probably parents now, even grandparents.

Perhaps, Mullen said, they need more time to prepare their answer for when one of their precocious progeny asks, "So, Grandpa, what inspired you to put those huge mushrooms on there?"

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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