Archive | March 2013

Art of the Hot Rod: Weaving a Tale With Cars

street machine illustration

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with cars, photography, and motion pictures. Cars were something I had no control over being into. I was simply born with that gene. On my build sheet, someone checked the RPO for Car Nut, and the deal was sealed. But photography… capturing a moment in time… man, that sparked something in me. And motion pictures? Well, damn. Telling a story with a photo narrative, and having it grab that in an animated sequence? I was sold.

I studied Fine Art, and honed skills like drawing and painting, design… And then went further, studying animation and digital art, and finally working to apply these diverse techniques for creating imagery in one piece.

The majority of my commissioned work happens to be renderings, which, by nature, require strictly static images to supply some direction for a project. As a fan of both animation and painting, as well as someone who has always enjoyed writing and the thrill of crafting a narrative, well, you can imagine the turmoil which surfaces each time I grab a pencil or stylus or brush.

40 merc rear
There’s always the drive to take the subject that extra step… to get something to move in the image, to put it over the top. Some time back, I experimented with backgrounds in my renderings that included scanned and reworked splashes and splatters. They had that ‘frozen in time’ feel I was looking for, and allowed me to play with contrasting colors to get some visual pop and movement… And that laid the groundwork for future pieces, sparking inspiration to play with textures, atmosphere, and finally, crafting a story.

The idea, in and of itself, was straightforward. Simply create the setting for the story, and shove the car in there. Right? No… in my world, things have to be a bit more complex when weaving the tale or painting the image. I began taking notes on cars I’ve drawn, would like to draw, and those I simply find interesting.

I began to imagine where these cars might turn up… who would drive them.

Why they would drive them there in the first place. Inspiration began to strike.

merc story illustration

There was a way to connect all of the images, but have these little sub-plots running, and even include a car in each of these unique stories. I’d build the stories individually, but have some underlying theme carrying throughout an
entire series, or even a few series.

Game on.

The example above, showing that blue Merc was bouncing in my head for some time. I always saw the car as a bit sneaky-looking, even when designing it. I imagined the kind of guy who might drive it, where he’d go… inventing little stories as I sketched ideas and details, keeping those notes handy.


Right on about this time, I took on the AutoWeek Magazine/Rad Rides by Troy 2012 calendar project. Twelve cars to be illustrated, creating some bad-ass, modern hot rods from new cars. Here it was: the opportunity to play with narrative, and work to tie a dozen cars, all different in their inspiration and beginnings, but having some underlying story, a connection that went just a step beyond simply being some cars I was designing and illustrating for a calendar.

custom miata

The challenge became finding a way to make them all work together, yet retain some unique identity. Then it hit me. A calendar helps to mark the passage of time. I would mark some passage of time with the cars, as well. I would break the year down as if it were simply one day. I’d tweak the colors to represent the cycles of the sun, the passage of seasons, and yet, do it in a way that presented itself as a single twenty four-hour span. I’d move around a fictional region, from urban to dry lakes and everything between, and pass time from dawn through nightfall. Each vehicle needed a place, a setting to complement its purpose, and needed to make sense with that particular time of day.

What a can of worms that was. Light shifting throughout the day, atmospheric changes filtering intensity of light, I had even considered altitude of each setting, plotting how the air molecules might scatter the light. I became almost obsessed with color and light theory. But I managed to pull it off.

But the work that led to that grand project only sparked a deeper need to weave some tales. I experimented relentlessly. I dragged old work out of the archives, and played and tweaked and painted and scanned and printed and brushed and sketched and repeated the process for months. I was on to something.

…of course, there were a few pieces that played to my inner nerd:

zombie hunter van

We all need to hunt a zombie or two now and then… and at this point, I was finding ways to craft an entire tale in one shot.

There’s a LOT going on in this image, from the lighting to the smoke and atmosphere to texture… But the key was in making it look simple.

Note taken:When creating the narrative, find the central theme, and work to craft a setting that slips the drama in almost secondary to the drama created by the car. One should brace the other, and tell the tale, but not completely. Leave a few gaps in the story. Allow the viewer to ask ‘how did the vehicle end up at this particular moment, and what’s around that corner?’ Misdirect on occasion, especially on two-panel works. This could be fun.

My little notebook speaks to me sometimes, and those late-night scribbles tend to be correct more often than not.

Additional note: Sleep-deprived self may be smarter than well-rested self. Definitely finds farts funnier.

Oddly enough, the images didn’t make it into the final calendar in the order I had hoped and presented, but the idea seems to have played off well enough. I was approached by people who caught what was going on, and were excited to have felt a part of the narrative and understood the story. Now we were moving into part two of the plan:

Involving the viewer in the tale.

After all, as a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Brilliantly written in that you felt a part of the action, and a certain excitement at uncovering some side story or alternate ending that your friends may have skipped over. It was that personal involvement, that ‘look what I just found’, eureka moment that attaches someone to the art, versus simply saying ‘wow… neat wheels’.

cab's coupe

I began to find ways of making the cars live and breathe. Illumination of lamps, the light trace of exhaust… Those little things that allow your mind to fill in the blanks, to become a part of the story. After all, I wanted the work to become an almost captured memory. And memories play off of little sensory grabs: A scent, a picture, a sound, the feel of light mist as rain begins to fall on a cool evening. I wanted to offer art that was something more than simply a car in a picture. It needed to be a conversation piece. It needed to spark someone’s imagination much the same as it did mine.

kustom desoto

I had always made a habit of photographing odd things while on trips or vacations. I’d see things that interested me: Cobblestone streets, a tree, a lamp post, an alley, a door… I had a large archive of reference photos to draw from, and began to arrange and categorize them, and make notes, find uses for them. I’ve always hidden little things from my past in my work, from license plates to buildings, and so-on. I have even gone as far as sketching a city map, designing the layout of the main streets, side alleys, parks and neighborhoods where my tales would play out. A series was born.


Like any tale, the players (both main and secondary) would cross paths. There might be drama, there may be harmony, but there would be interaction. I began to work with environments where I could present multiple angles and viewing points. I found that I could move this fictional camera around, and find another car hiding in the shadows, or show it from the reverse, and complete one small tale in two images.

drawing cars

Case in point, that Merc from earlier:

kustom merc

First frame: the car in an urban, industrial environment. A simple photo-perfect opportunity? Sure. But when we see the rear view, we learn that the car’s owner is on a late-night visit to a lady friend. Each piece can stand alone… but together, we have a tale!

Taking this idea a big step forward, it only made sense to completely narrate the scene, and add as much drama as possible:


…and the polar opposite:

western effie

…a quiet moment before that storm we see brewing in the background. A little foreshadowing of drama can have just as much impact as an all-out gunfight. All of those years spent studying Hitchcock are paying off: The trick isn’t always in heaping the big stuff into someone’s lap… occasionally, all you need to do is hint at it.

That all said, I hope you enjoyed a little back-story to the, uh, stories I’m trying to tell in the art. Look for more in this series soon, as well as prints… and a behind-the-scenes look and tutorial on making one of these. Thanks, as always for your time, and I look forward to your questions, comments and more!

The Age of Inspiration


…is defined by Webster’s as skill or cleverness in devising or combining: inventiveness, or: cleverness or aptness of design or contrivance.

It’s been a word that has spent an unholy amount of time bouncing around in my brain over the years. I find it to be a powerful word when applied to our hobby/industry of hot-rodding in general, as it’s really the backbone of what we do. Consider an engine builder, working to tweak every last ounce of power, Sam Barris chopping the first Merc roof, or the first guy to conceive the idea of using lace to create killer patterns in custom paint. Hell, each day I’m confronted with the challenge of bringing unique ideas to a project, and in some cases, finding ways to stretch a budget, and draw in some wicked little details to set a car over the top. It’s a matter of using what’s there in front of you (and occasionally what doesn’t exist!) in a new or different way, and then getting it all to flow.

A recurring theme here in the old blog has been that of cool details and inventive use of materials on a project, and this entry brings in some really neat stuff. The human mind is capable of solving problems with amazing agility at times (there’s even some grace in banging a sheet metal panel to shape over a 2×4 when it’s in the right hands!), and when it comes to creating tools to aid in work, provide convenience, whatever, it’s always cool to witness.

Speaking of ingenuity, a recent side trek on the web, seeking more info on Sam Barris’ Mercury led me to a video highlighting a car that’s always kept me fascinated (and, amazingly, another Barris-constructed car — I say “constructed”, as the majority of the innovations on the car were those of the owner), the Golden Sahara II, from the ingenuity (see a theme here?) of owner/designer Jim Skonzakis (aka Jim Street). Every inch of this car is loaded with ingenuity, and inventive, if not a step beyond state-of-the-art for its time (this was pre-1962!)… Man, consider that this was the FIRST car to have a TV in it, much less every other technical marvel thrown in. You may know this ‘53 Lincoln Capri from the Jerry Lewis movie Cinderfella:

golden sahara

Hey nice laaaadeeeee….

…or even the old Rob’t. Williams Leadsleds poster (it’s there in the original incarnation, anyway… prior to the double fins being added later on), too! In any event, over on YouTube is the following video… take a peek, and we’ll pick this back up in a few:

How absolutely freaking cool is THAT??!

…and those light-up tires? Dig this:

illuminated tires

Bringing new meaning to “light ’em up!”

In the ’60’s, Goodyear toyed with translucent polymers to create pastel-colored, illuminated tires! More likely than not, they were to be marketed toward women (color matching everything was in fashion, after all), yet the material proved to wear too quickly, and they never made it to market…

tire lights

Tires to match your eyes, hair, underwear…

Ponder the thought that went into this car, the forward thinking, the sheer inventiveness… the INGENUITY. Granted, there’s a lot of gimmickry going on here, but isn’t this car just the perfect illustration of the times? That whole “world of tomorrow” kinda vibe going on, and all wrapped up neatly in a pretty slick custom.

I had shown this to my kids, and they flipped that the car had a TV, a remote… and then they said “they had TV back THEN”? Illuminated tires, whoopie…. TV? Amazing to kids. Go figure…

Perhaps more interestingly, as designers, we often tinker, adapting the latest styles and technology to our projects… Viewing the Golden Sahara as a the techno-wunderkind it truly was, it’s obvious to see the impact it had on today’s techno-rides. What new technologies do you see making their way into your next designs? Even better, what retro-inspired technology would you like to see make it into your next “traditional” design…  and why?

Salsa and Whipped Cream

blue 63 impala

I like looking at things from a decidedly different angle, and am often inspired to seek out the inspiration behind a trend, or a particular style… I’m a fan of mixing and matching themes, styles, whatever…and an even bigger fan of just having fun with whatever I’m doing, and often seek out things that reflect this attitude. Whether in friends, books, movies, or music. Occasionally, this leads me to seek out stuff that’s a bit off the beaten path. Such was the case here in the studio once again.
(Yeah, it’s gonna be another musical jaunt… and it’ll all wrap up nicely, as usual, with cars. Stay with me, I think you’ll dig this little side trip.)

Anyway, I got to thinking, of all things, about Herb Alpert (not Marv Albert. That’d be weird.), and gave a listen to “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”… A far cry from what I was listening to a week ago, to say the least…. and by far much stranger cover art (if not quite risque’, considering its 1965 release date):

album cover

Granted, this album was released before my time (granted, there may be another me in some other dimension, hanging out in a lounge giving this a listen back in an alternate ‘65…), but man… how cool were these cats? If you’re not familiar with the Tijuana Brass, here’s a quick history lesson:

Herb Alpert was a trumpet player who developed a unique sound that was a mix of south-of-the-border, mariachi and distinctly lounge-y sounds, probably best described as Ameriachi (as I learned from a few sources). If you’re really lost here, think of the theme from the TV show The Dating Game, called “Spanish Flea”, which was a Herb Alpert/Tijuana Brass tune, and you’ll have an idea… or their version of “The Lonely Bull”.

Anyway, the ‘Brass cranked out a few albums in the ’60’s (even a cool Christmas album! Find a copy, and mambo your way through a Christmas Wonderland…), until Alpert called it quits, and took his (and business partner Jerry Moss’) record label A&M, and signed some heavy talent, releasing a few albums of his own along the way (out-selling Michael Jackson in the late-’70’s, which says a lot for that era, I suppose), before selling the company to PolyGram in the late 1980’s.

So what’s this got to do with cars? Think traditional lowriders. Bellflower custom style(named after the city in LA county where the look spawned). A mix of the lowrider and custom car, and you’ll see where I’m headed.

Consider Watson’s Caddy:

watson caddy

It is the embodiment of the Bellflower look… the low stance, simple (if often ANY) body mod’s, the bold, yet somehow understated paint technique (much like his T-Bird that came before), and those killer pipes. The East LA style, mixing elements from two cultures (like the Tijuana Brass did!), and coming out the other end with a clean, cool style. It’s all about class, luxury, and style. Just like a lowrider, but with custom roots.

Lowriders embodied Mexican tradition. Crusing in a decked-out ride to impress the ladies, and show off your skills was more than just about the cars. Cruising may be traced back to the “paseo”, where singles would walk around in the central plaza of the village, basically checking one another out. The idea here was to impress. Put these kids in cars, and it sure looks a lot like cruising… Which brings us forward a few years to the end of the second world war. Hot rodding was booming as young men returned from military service, eager to make creative use of their new mechanical skills. On the other end of the spectrum, the Mexican immigrants were making their cars look luxurious. It was style over speed… lowered stance, different hubcaps, an accessories like spotlights, skirts, pipes… many items shared in traditional customizing.

Fast-forward a few more years, and combine this look with the growing custom scene, and well, you got some clean, mild cars that made the most of the new styling coming from the factory… Apply it to a luxury car, and you’re well on your way to a crossover look beyond compare. Imagine in late 1957 (coincidentally, the same year Bellflower was incorporated as a city), a young Larry Watson cruising into the Clock Drive-In in his panel-painted T-Bird…

I have a soft spot for this look… A number of years back, I sketched up a modern take on the look, combining it with the pro-touring look — note pinstripe whitewalls on a 5-spoke as a nod to the classic “Supremes and pinners” look (OK, and a mild chop, extended quarters, relocated and shortened trim…):
blue galaxie rendering

The idea behind the Bellflower look is clean lines, cool, vibrant and rich colors mixed with just enough chrome to keep your eyes happy…Make use of some ‘flake or pearl, some striping… In other words, think mild custom, but dressed a notch higher. It’s a fun style, to be sure, much like Herb’s band of session musicians belting out Ameriachi cover versions.

And speaking of cover versions, consider how just a few fresh chords, or an alternate take on a solo in a cover song can change things up drastically, consider the lowrider style, versus the custom car style. One change can send the car from one camp to another… For instance, this pickup is pure lowrder-feel:

lowrider pickup drawing

Yet, this ’50 has a distinct hot rod/custom feel:

50 pickup rendering

Straddling that line, and walking a bit closer to contemporary style (yet still working-in some retro-style mods) is this unibody Ford:

f100 unibody sketch

Consider the Impala and Rivieras of the early (and even mid-to-late) 1960’s… the kind of cars that walk between street machine, muscle car, custom, lowrider… And never seem to get lost along the way:

lowrider and pinstripe panel

Simply adding or removing an accessory can dramatically change things up (sort of like adding a horn section to your punk band can suddenly change things to sound much more like Ska…) :

63 impala illustration

1963 imapala convertible rendering

Imagine swapping wheels on this beast… it can go from mild to menacing, and be equally at home almost anywhere:

custom riviera illustration

A wheel and tire combo change on any of these could easily change the look and overall feel in a matter of minutes. It’s all in the vibe the vehicle sends… if you pay close attention to that, magical things start to happen, and soon enough, you’re leaving any ‘theme’ behind, and heading into that wild territory of making it your own. Take one thing, and spice it up with another influence, and man, you can’t help but feel the vibe, and nod your head approvingly as you smile.

And that’s how my mind works: From whipped cream to salsa, stopping in between for some quick history, and leaving you to consider mixing up some styles on your project…

The Way to San Jose…

57 ford the maze

…apparently involved a maze.

Well, THE Maze, actually.

maze rear

Recently, a conversation with a client (debating the merits of a few avenues we could travel with his ‘57 Ford) turned to one of my all-time favorite late-50’s customs, Jerry Devito’s “The Maze”.

The car is a great example of restyling at the time, employing seven scoops of Grande Brothers bodywork (not to mention shaved trim and handles, extended peaks over the tunneled head and tail lights) all covered in a green/gold, and finally, a topping of scallops in seven colors by Bob Hendricks. Outrageous? Certainly… Are we going to duplicate the car? Unlikely… but there are aspects of this car that are so “right”, it’s scary, and will make the final cut. (however, if anyone is up to creating a similar, maybe even a tribute car…. I’m ready for you!)

Dig on the stance for a bit… It’s awesome.

the maze 1957 ford

The right amount of sidewall on the tires, the chrome reverse wheels are incredible, and the lack of a rear hubcap hints at performance potential. Devito’s ride utilized the original engine, with the addition of an Offy three deuce intake, Isky cam, and the ever-popular Magspark ignition — we may go likewise! Interesting to note is that the car had some chrome engine dress-up parts… This was the era when such underhood detail began to gain ground… As the cars became lower and more “custom” in appearance from the factory, the emphasis on body modifications (current example exempted!) began to wane, and it was in vogue to simply drop the ride height, and go wild on paint. Consider that this same car, if built a couple of years later, may have worn thin whitewalls (Royal Masters, perhaps?), no lakes pipes, and the body restyling would have been decidedly different… ‘59 was the tail end of wide whitewalls, and the beginning of a steady decline of the “golden age” of customs.

In any event, I thought it would be cool to share this car, as it had a profound effect on me so many years ago when I first saw it, thumbing through some “little pages” at a family friend’s shop (imagine a kid in the ’80’s discovering this car in his VERY early teens… “impressionable” begins to describe it!). Later in life, I’d stumble across a piece of art by VonFranco featuring this car. Wild! While I’m certain many folks knew of the car, it was awesome to see it immortalized by a modern master in that way.

Odd fact: The car appeared in print wearing the stock front bumper on at least one occasion (as seen here):

peaked headlamps

and then later in print, with an odd split bumper and molded pan…

maze ford jerry

It seems that the car was wrecked sometime before early 1960, received a more radical body transformation, and, ironically, much more subtle paint. The front fenders saw the removal of ten inches from the front, effectively setting the upper headlamps deep in the body. A new grille shell and front pan houses more lights, and a pair of grille bars created from ribbed exhaust pipe (I built models like this as a kid!):

maze redux

This round of custom work was done by Gene’s Body Shop in San Jose… anyone have info on them, or maybe any other notable customs? (how about Burns Upholstery while we’re asking? I swear, this thing is becoming an obsession! Any help is greatly appreciated.)

wild kustom

The car, in this version, has a style similar to the Trendero, built around ‘61 by Trend Automotive (in Lyons, IL!! See? Great mid-west customs from the early days!):

trendero yellow

Anyway, the Maze, by this time, had gold paint, and no longer wore a rear bumper, utilizing a rolled pan and nerfs that shared their shape with the sloping “beaks” off of the roof scoops and tail lights.

the maze gold

Sadly, it’s another of those great customs that have disappeared. While we may no longer have many of these greats from the age of excess (although, the Trendero lives!!), we have the archives to study them from. Of course, seeking out info on this one car has led me through some amazing territory, and truly whetted my appetite to pen some late fifties/early sixties show customs… anyone up for something truly unique?

I had reported what I found through research on the car, and was left with a few lingering questions about the car… so I did what was natural, and asked for help finding those answers.

I was fortunate to not only find those answers, but got them FROM THE MAN HIMSELF! Mr. DeVito took time from his day to chat for a while, and I walked away from that great conversation with not only some fantastic insight, but a great new friend. I’ll report more on this soon, but wanted to share my excitement over meeting the man who created a car that left an impression on me as a car-struck kid, and one that always creeps into my imagination as I draw and design.

Suffice to say, there are a few facts that need ironing out from the first posts on this car (as I said, the research materials were limited), and we’ll do just that in subsequent posts… But to answer that nagging question about the split bumper treatment, they were ‘57 Pontiac units, and the change was made in the first year (after the peaks and scoops). Jerry’s inspiration was to always keep the car fresh, making changes after each show, always remaining at the of of his game…

We’ll trace the car’s history in the near future, from delivery at San Jose Ford in ‘57, through to its sale, and subsequent loss. Thanks for the interest, and especially to Mr. DeVito…

Great 8

And the impressive field is narrowed to the eight finalists competing for the Don Ridler Memorial Award at the 61st Detroit AutoRama.

A diverse field indeed, in a most-impressive year for the show:

’57 Chevy by Hot Rod Garage:

2013 detroit autorama great 8

1940 Ford by Cal Creations:

1940 ford great 8

Harker’s wild coupe:

harker coupe detroit

John Mayer’s 1935 Ford:

1935 Ford Great 8

Buddy Schulz’s 1972 Chevy:

1972 C-10 Detroit AutoRama

Ken Seresun’s ’34:

1934 Ford Detroit AutoRama

Mark Willman’s ’56 Special:

rad rides great 8 buick

The Greening Corvette:

Greening 1965 Corvette

More info and coverage on our site: Great 8 Finalists at the 2013 Detroit AutoRama

2013 Detroit AutoRama Pictures

2013 detroit autorama

Our man on the scene is busy getting up-close and personal with the cars as they hit the show floor, and we’re updating our coverage on the website as he sends in the pictures, so stay tuned to see more of what looks to be a very strong year.

greening corvette Detroit

A lot of the cars we’ve seen so far appear to have a great shot at the Don Ridler Memorial Award, or at least nailing a spot in the coveted Great 8.

2013 detroit autorama

Much more coverage to come on our site… stay tuned!

61st Detroit AutoRama

ridler award winners

We got to talking about the 61st Annual Detroit AutoRama, and when the schedule (and the workload that comes with it) dictated, among other contributing factors, to my not making the show, our pal Josh stepped up to the plate, and offered the greatest solution: He’d wander the show floor during set-up, and grant us a first-hand look at the cars.

gil losi 1961 bubbletop

This is brilliant on a few levels. First, we’d have ample time to check out the coolest new cars, well before anyone else. Second, we could discuss the potential Great 8 cars, and see just where the bar is set this year (which, I have to say, is pretty damned high), and third, you, oh valued visitor to the Problem Child Kustoms Studio website (and its affiliated social network pages and so-on), get a FIRST look at the cars as they are set up on the floor.

iron orchid show rod

The plan, then, is to post-up some pics as they come in, get a close look, and continually add to the coverage as the weekend rolls on. What does that mean for you? That means that you’ll have to check in here to see the cool stuff as it comes in (and well before anyone else has it!), as well as on the Facebook page. We’ll have some exclusive images that will be on our website only, so get that bookmark button nice and toasty.

Be sure to check it out, and thanks for looking in!

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