COLUMBIA — Four hours before the football season’s opening kickoff, one of Missouri’s oldest traditions rests on the outskirts of Lot M.
Keith Miller’s “TigerMobile” sticks out from the pack of tailgaters like an auto-feline oasis on this 100-degree Saturday afternoon.
A coat of fresh gold paint lies under dozens of painted black stripes, 2-foot-high wooden cat ears poke out from the top of the vehicle and a 15-foot-long black-and-gold-striped “tiger tail” muffler runs from the back license plate to the car’s midsection. Ray Odom, the original owner, created the tail with an old oil hose.
The car itself is a 1969 Checker Airport Limousine, discovered by Odom at a parade roughly 30 years ago, when it was dressed as Mickey Mouse.
In the early '80s, he redesigned the car to its current likeness so he could travel to Columbia and spend time with his daughters before games. By the end of the decade, his kids were out of school, and Odom had no use for the TigerMobile. He sold it to his mechanic, Louis Miller, who drove it two-and-a-half hours from Clinton for every home game until 1995.
At that point, the vehicle was passed on to its third owner, Louis Miller’s son Keith.
The younger Miller has been able to take better care of the TigerMobile. When he and his wife, Amy Miller, moved into their new house in Columbia a few years ago, they made sure to check one important detail.
“When we bought our house,” Amy said, “we walked around the garage with a tape measure to make sure we could get it in.”
The indoor space keeps the TigerMobile’s paint from fading, and the shorter commute is easier on the engine.
Keith Miller also installed sound effects: The car alternates between the Missouri fight song (played with tinkling ice-cream-truck notes) and what the Millers call an “ooga” horn, an old-time vibrating honker that sounds like a revving motorcycle combined with a jingling bag of quarters.
But the mechanical upgrades have coincided with real-estate downgrades. The TigerMobile used to reside in Lot A when Odom owned it, but it’s moved from Lot C to Lot O to Lot M over the years.
One of Missouri’s finest treasures is now hidden away at the edge of the pregame festivities, and Keith Miller blames the new-millennium priority-parking system that materialized shortly after the Gary Pinkel era began.
“I guess I don’t donate enough money to have that priority,” Keith Miller said. “It’s getting so expensive for the average fan.”
At least the charm is still intact, and the memories are plentiful. There was the time when a drunk Tigers fan hopped into the car on Providence Road, and a friend of the Millers shoved him right back out onto the street.
One night, the headlights went out, and another friend leaned over the backseat with a hand-held floodlight to lead the Millers home.
“It’s stressful driving it,” Keith Miller said. “It doesn’t stop on a dime, as heavy as it is. If it does break down, you’ve got all your family and friends with you.”
On game days, the Millers roll down College Avenue playing the fight song to rile up the Greek students. Once at the lot, they pop up a tent on the back side of the car and grill up tasty eats before kickoff.
“It’d be nice to have a closer spot reserved for something like this,” Keith Miller said. “I doubt that’ll ever happen.”