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New Mexico is no stranger to astronauts.
Borman Autoplex in Las Cruces is named for one (Frank), and two other New Mexicans – Harrison Schmitt and Edgar Mitchell – have walked on the moon.
But Steve Braithwaite has to be the first “banananaut” to traverse the Land of Enchantment.
He hit the Las Cruces area recently while driving his home-built Big Banana Car on his “The World Needs More Whimsy Grand Tour.”
And when he says “Big Banana Car,” the description is 100 percent accurate.
He finished building the car in 2011, and he kicked off the tour in April 2018 from the Santa Monica Pier in California.
“I’d built a lot of hot rods,” Braithwaite said. “But this time I wanted to try something ‘completely different,’ as they would say on Monty Python.”
And when he says it as they would say on Monty Python, he means it, with the same British accent as the Python troupe.
“I grew up in Woodstock, near Oxford, England,” he said. “But I’ve lived in the U.S. for 33 years now.”
But why a banana?
In line at a convenience store, waiting to pay, Braithwaite spied a basket of fruit, containing a long banana. He picked it up, began imagining where seats and wheels would go, and started laughing. He then realized he had not moved as the line in front of him disappeared, and the line behind him was piling up.
“Oh, sorry,” he said to the crowd, who must have been looking askance.
With the idea in place, he began looking for the right vehicle to turn into the Big Banana Car.
“I knew I wanted it to have four seats in a row,” he said. “And there were only two vehicles with a frame wide enough and long enough. And this 1993 Ford F-150 had two gas tanks that were inside the frame.”
The design was based on a real banana. Braithwaite sliced the banana into segments, traced the segments, projected the segments and enlarged them to create a wood frame. He put rebar around the wood, wrapped the frame in chicken wire, and then sprayed urethane foam. Then he carved the foam into a banana shape, wrapped it in Fiberglass and, of course, had it painted bright yellow.
“I worked mostly on Sundays,” said Braithwaite, who built the car in Pennsylvania.
It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest motorized banana.
Braithwaite had a sign business in Michigan, and he worked for many years doing aerial photography. His source of income now?
“Selling rides in the banana car,” he said with a shrug.
“In the summer, I go to the local ice cream parlor with the biggest parking lot, put the time out on Facebook, and start giving rides, mostly to children.”
As he travels the country, he bypasses motels and goes “couch surfing” with friends he’s met over the years, which is how he landed in Mesilla in late December.
He also gets many surprising donations, such as the water pump B&G Automotive put in the banana car.
“I asked them how much and they said, ‘No charge.’”
I can’t believe how people just give me free stuff. There’s no reason at all for it. I don’t deserve any of that.”
And then it struck him. The idea came with a soundtrack of the laughter and the giggles he hears behind him when driving kids around.
“A parent sent me a note that said, ‘Our child is 10. And once he saw your Banana Car, that’s all he talked about for a week.
“I was naïve, I guess,” Braithwaite said. “I didn’t expect the reaction I get from kids. It’s just magical. That I built a car that has that effect is amazing to me.”
His idea is to pay the magic forward.
“I want to find children who are sick or hurt, and who don’t have health insurance, and do what I can.”
He’s also doing a children’s book, currently being illustrated. Here’s one of the true stories from the book.
“In West Virginia, I was at red light,” Braithwaite said. “When It turned green I turned, and I looked in the rearview mirror and here was a police officer, passing the other cars behind me and pulling me over. He got out of the car, came up to me and said, “The reason I stopped you is, at that light back there, when it turned green, you peeled out.”
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Big Banana Car will be selling rides Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jan. 9-11 10 a.m.-dark, and Sunday, Jan. 12, noon-dark, at the Sonic on 1603 El Paseo Road. Part of the proceeds will go to help 5-year-old cancer victim Zymyrah Aguirre Nunez of Hatch. Learn more about the car at www.bigbananacar.com, or go to Facebook.com/BigBananaCar.