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How a cigar-smoking duck became the most sought-after hood ornament on the road

By on November 2, 2015

If any other director had called John Billings for permission to use “The Duck” in their movie, he might have declined. But this was Quentin Tarantino.

“Of course I said yes,” says Billings, owner and producer of The Duck hood ornament made famous by the 1978 trucking movie Convoy. “I’m a huge Tarantino fan. If it had been another director, I might have said no because it could’ve cheapened The Duck. But he’s such a cult director, and ‘The Duck’ already has a sort of cult following. It made sense.”

Death Proof, released in 2007, stars Kurt Russell as a psychopathic stunt man who uses his “death-proof” stunt car (complete with an angry-looking duck hood ornament) as a murder weapon.

Now known as both “Death Proof Duck” and “The Convoy Duck” after the two movies that feature it, The Duck was created by Billings’ father, John Billings Sr., in the 1970s. He’d grown up near Van Nuys Boulevard, a road in Southern California popular with hot-rod cruisers in the ’60s and ’70s.

“Every car had a hood ornament back then,” says Billings. “My dad made this duck and put it on some of their hot rods. Someone from the prop department for the movie Convoy saw it and thought it would look great on the truck.”

Director Sam Peckinpah agreed and The Duck became part of trucking movie history. Convoy, based on the hit country song of the same name by C.W. McCall, told the story of trucker Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) going up against an abusive sheriff (Ernest Borgnine) by getting his fellow truckers to form a mile-long convoy.

Truckers remember

In the years after the movie’s release, The Duck was retired to a shelf in the shop. Billings’ father tried to get the kids to go out and sell a duck from time to time, but they held firm: “We always thought nobody’s going to buy that silly cigar-smoking duck!”

Then, in 1999, the younger Billings decided to give it a shot. He refurbished the mold, cast one duck and put it on eBay. It sold for $600. He started “casting like crazy.”

He got emails from truckers saying they’d been waiting for this for years, ever since they were kids. He set up a shop, and now they produce more than 1,200 Convoy/Death Proof Ducks each year.

“It’s kind of my pet rock,” he says. “I had no idea! My father’s the manufacturer of the Grammy awards, but we’d never sold anything to the public, so I had no idea how it would go. Now my full-time job is ducks.”

Though it’s less profitable and more time-consuming, Billings insists The Duck will always be hand-cast, high quality and made in America.

“It’s not something I’m ever going to become wealthy doing, but it’s something that’s become a part of me,” he says. “All my close friends call me ‘The Duck.’ And it’s fun to see a truck driving down the road and know that you made that hood ornament. It’s really a labor of love.”

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