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Death Proof Duck lives on

WHITE CITY — John Billings was merely looking for something he could turn into cash as he combed through his father's Colorado workshop.

"It was 2004, right before the housing slump, and everything had gone through the roof," Billings recalled. "I needed extra money to buy a house."

His father, also named John, had relocated his metal-plating business, including production of the Grammy awards, to Ridgway, Colo., from Santa Monica, Calif. While rummaging around, Billings stumbled across a duck hood ornament, an original prop from the 1978 movie "Convoy," starring Kris Kristofferson.

He collected background information then posted the duck on eBay.  He hoped for $100, but figured $50 was more likely. Improbably, the duck fetched $600.

"I thought, 'Wow, we have something here,' " Billings recalled. "Lo and behold, I found my Pet Rock."

Instead of buying a home in Ouray, Colo., or nearby Telluride, and taking over his father's business, Billings saw he had the makings of something special.

The "Convoy Duck" and later "Death Proof Duck" aren't mere replicas, but are cast from the original mold. They fly out of his shop for $175 apiece or more.

He has sold thousands of duck hood ornaments, as well as key chains, in a decade, including 1,200 hood ornaments in 2015 alone.

Billings knows it is and will remain a niche market with loyal devotees. On weekends when he has put his wares on display, scores pass by either nodding tacit approval or shrugging and moving along to the next booth.

But those in the know — the following created by Sam Peckinpah's "Convoy" duck hood ornament or Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" duck ornament — are willing to fork over $180 for what Billings claims is the priciest production hood ornament on the planet. And they're apt to ask for an autographed version.

"Convoy" became a cult-classic among truckers and propelled the acting career of Kristofferson (Martin "Rubber Duck" Penwald), whose Mack truck sported the "Angry Duck" hood ornament. Tarantino said he loved "Convoy" so much he used the same hood ornament on the main vehicle in his 2007 movie "Death Proof."

Part artisan, part entrepreneur, with a streak of biker and a trace of wanderlust, Billings operates deathproofduck.com in an unmarked (unless you count the Porta Potty out front) metal shed next to BioMass One in White City.

As much as anything, he likes to hoist the "Gone Fishin" sign and head for the lake. Yet, his connection to the iconic duck burns deep in his breast.

Billings has other financial resources, so even though he makes money at what he does, he doesn't sweat the lean times. He admits he struggles with a production cycle that primarily pays off like many gift businesses do in the months and weeks leading up to the holidays.

Billings moved back to Oregon, where he previously lived after escaping Southern California when he was 20. He's taken a labor of love and built it into a small business with a couple of employees, along with his wife. He likes it that way, even though he knows it could be something much bigger.

"I throttle it down intentionally and live within a certain means," he said. "I can't cheapen the quality, I reject ducks all the time and refuse to sell seconds."

Sometimes the heads are cut off, he said, and refashioned into gearshift nobs.

Billings has also produced limited $200 Camo Death Proof Duck editions in which 10 percent of the sale price goes to the Wounded Warrior Project.

He holds patents to fend off counterfeits and earnestly patrols eBay, among other sites, to thwart knockoff sales.

"I've been fighting them for years," Billings said. "I'm constantly removing them from various websites."

He steadfastly turns down offers to sell his business, figuring it would end the meticulous craftsmanship and detail applied to each piece.

"I'll never become wealthy," Billings said. "I work in a little, cruddy shop and live in a rental house. But I employ a couple of people to work on something made in the U.S. It's not something mass-stamped out of China, I don't hire people for $2 an hour. I don't know if I could live with myself if I sold out. The trade-off for me is that I haven't punched a clock in over 11 years, I do my own thing and am my own boss."

That meant taking his employees for an eight-hour fishing expedition last Friday at Lost Creek Lake.

Nostalgia coupled with social media have coalesced followers into a niche market. The cigar-chomping duck has multiple Facebook pages, including one with nearly 5,500 followers, and delivers images on Instagram.

The past weekend produced orders from Ohio, Texas, Mississippi, Indiana, Finland, France, Ireland, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. Of late, Billings said, the UK and Australia have been big customers.

"A lot of people thank me for bringing Duck back," he said. "I get emails from people who stumble across it and are blown away."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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John Billings
Daniel Gandee files away seams on a fresh cast of an iconic Death Proof Duck Monday in the deathproofduck.com shop in White City. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta