The History of the Flame Job in Motorsports
By Daniel Burke, Dragster Australia
Photos by/courtesy of Lee Davis, Motorbooks International and www.rumpsville.com
When we’ve got nothing else to do and the boss is away we sit around asking stupid questions, like "Where the hell did those flames come from?" ... so if you’re thinking of adding a lick or two to your new car, this might interest you. DA Art Director Dan Burke digs deep down into the coals for this idle summer report.
As you might imagine the burning question of the origin of flames painted on drag racing cars, hot rods and motor bikes sounds a bit of a fizzer, at least at first, but as I found out after a little digging in the coals, the fire trail gets warmer and more interesting by the minute.
Some years ago I came across a few photographs of aircraft circa World War I that had flames (sort of) in the designs on the fuselage. In World War II similar photographic sightings, mostly related to the practice of painting something rude about Hitler or the Emperor of Japan cropped up on bombs (big ones).
Whether these were random acts of graffiti designed to lift the spirits and relieve boredom between flying into the path of enemy fire is difficult to work out. Besides, there are not enough of these flying flames to constitute a serious movement to emblazon everything in sight with fire - thereby providing a hot, deep and meaningful experience, and a reference point for future hot rodders and drag racers to flame their vehicles. No, in fact several stories from old pilots came to light that show some very sound reasons why aviation may have been the wrong place to start a fire.
A Real Flaming Hell
During the air battles and bomber missions over Europe in World War II the pilots of new aircraft, or the many new variants of the type they were flying, were startled on night missions to discover the blue flames from exhaust manifolds were giving their position away to enemy gun crews on the ground. Pilots of the Hawker Hurricane, with a fuselage made largely of cloth, were also given a fright when they saw flames.
The thought of flames in the cockpit in the middle of a dog-fight at twenty-something thousand feet over hostile territory would also be a genuine reason why there was not much of a leaning towards the use of flames as decoration on wartime aircraft, and then look at what happened to the Zeppelin, famed and flamed all in one infamous moment!
The Flame Trail
All this stuff about aircraft left me feeling cold so I thought I should change direction and go to the heart of the matter. No, not go to hell, but to fire fighters. Then I had second thoughts, reckoning that they might be a little sensitive to the subject of gratuitous fire. Anyway it’s too obvious, fire-fighters and flamed vehicles. This part of the trail had to be as cold as a dead match.
I began leafing through a few auto books and magazines looking for warmer clues. The earliest example I could find was 1938 from ‘The American Hot Rod’ by Dean Batchelor. That far back you say? In a time when the legal driving age was just 14, George ‘Skip’ Rubsch was the proud owner of a Model T with a speedster body built for him in 1934 by his father in Los Angeles. The car was rebuilt in 1936 and then again in 1938 when it was given a Red and Cream flame job. Pity the shot is black and white. Is it the earliest flamed car or just the earliest recorded example? Or is it the only one I could find.
Perhaps now is a good time to suggest a trivia spot - who knows of an earlier example?
Not satisfied at this, I waded into the world of Rod & Custom magazines dating back to the 50s and damn it, every second vehicle was flamed, there was fire everywhere in there! Really, I only wanted to know where the practice of flaming vehicles came from.
What became apparent on this leg of the trail was that the practice of flaming and striping vehicles ran hand-in-hand with Hot Rodding, Speed Trials and Drag Racing on America’s West Coast, with a touch of surfing and popular music thrown in.
A Fork in The Flame Trail
Drag racing in the 1950s was well known for its ‘characters,’ just as it is now. The practice of flaming cars is littered with characters like Von Dutch and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth (not to be confused with drag racing’s Don ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits), and this is as it should be, after all, burning a car up in flames, albeit with paint, was a little radical at mid-century, even for a bunch of wild ones. Looking at the style of these flaming aficionados is just as interesting as looking at the work itself. If you’re thinking right now that some of these guys were just a little bit eccentric, bent like a fork (you know, the ones you poke a fire with) - you’re probably right.
Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth was a stand out character in the flaming arts, an extrovert in most ways, an artist, mechanic, self-publicist and extraordinary vehicle designer. Roth is famous for his ‘out-there’ attitude and the grizzly little rodent ‘Rat Fink’ he created, and the T-shirt art Rat Fink and other deformed little monsters spawned.
Ok you say, so if this guy was a flaming artist then did he invent it or learn it from someone else? Well it seems Roth may have been better at pin striping, or simply ‘striping’, and designing custom cars than he might have been at flaming cars, at least in the beginning, but at any rate his teacher was a guy called Von Dutch. This character was almost reclusive by comparison to Roth, but Von Dutch, according to another Roth/Von Dutch contemporary Bob Burns, gave freely of his skills and knowledge to further the art.
The experience of Roth parallels others active in the US at the time in Hot Rodding and Drag Racing where decorative paint jobs became a creative outlet and a money-spinner for those who were good at it. Art Himsl still lights the world with his creations in the semi-private world he has created for himself and is notable as the person who developed such flaming innovations as the 3-D Flame and his new ‘Himsl Fire’ flames.
Rod Powell also worked with Roth and Von Dutch and helped to popularize flaming cars. He now licenses the sale of his flames in vinyl (as does Himsl) for anything from cars to skateboards.
George Barris, another ‘out-there’ Hollywood custom car builder responsible for such famous vehicles as the ‘Dragula’, of the ‘Munsters’ television show fame and the old ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ jalopy to name just a few, is also a big part of the flaming artists circle of LA. Their feats and legends remain like coals scattered around the campfire.
Stripes of Fire
Most of these artist/mechanic/designers have their roots in an art form called Pin-Striping, or Striping. The art of Striping appears to have evolved into highly developed design very early in the piece - all curves and fine angles, much of it symmetrical but always fine and artfully produced with the aid of special brushes designed for the purpose -rather than as pictorial compositions.
Striping was, and is, definitely an artistic challenge. The design is worked onto the already painted surface, generally without the obligatory frame or page edge of traditional art to aid alignment, and to add to the challenge, the vehicle body is rarely flat like a canvas...and none of this computerized stick on vinyl crap they carry on with today - this was skills territory!
It is easy, once you have examined a reasonable number of Striping examples to see how this automobile art form could have evolved to include flame shapes, red-hot flickers that have all but obliterated Striping itself. Flowing curves render up well as lines and solid shapes that are more than just a little reminiscent of the Sunday barbeque - well, at my place anyway.
Striping had been evident as decoration in the study and practice of lettering in applications such as publication and advertising typography, sign writing and calligraphy, and can be traced back through signage well into the 1700s. Today, we are more likely to see Striping on truck cabs and on museum exhibits such as coaches and wagons, than on Dragsters. The curves and flowing lines from various ethnic roots, such as the art of the Celts and Polynesian Art, and then more recently art movements such as Art Deco and the earlier Art Nouveau had also been feeding the fire of Hot Rod flames and stripes of fire found in Striping from the 50s and 60s.
Art Himsl in fact, credits a guy called ‘Tommy The Greek’; real name Tommy Hrones, with far more ability and influence in the field of car striping than anyone, including Von Dutch. Himsl says of him, ‘He was the first and the best with scallops and those teardrops. In the early days, if you wanted your car done right you took it to the Greek. Heck, God himself went to the Greek.’
Tommy was also an out there sort of guy, ‘He was an absolute master, and fast. There was ‘wham-bam’ ritual about his work. He’d open a can of Veco lacquer with an ice pick, step back, fire the ice pick into the wall...Ping! ..set up like a rocket, stripe the car, bait and antagonize the customers, and finish up the job.
‘One time, he and Von Dutch met at the Oakland Roadster Show. One thing led to another and soon the two of them were out there striping and painting the curb all along 10th Street.’
At least they were damn well enjoying themselves; it’s damned near impossible to have a flaming good time like that these days!
While stripes may have been the visual signature of Hot Rodders in the 50s and 60s Flames have lasted the distance and excite the imagination of today’s drag racing fans. Not just any old flames I might add. Good old burn-in-hell red and yellow flames are almost passe these days.
Celtic flames are hot in Europe these days and gaining popularity here. We now have Seaweed flames (a cold day in hell?), Tribal flames, Interlocking and overlapping types, flat designs, three-dimensional designs, color-changing flames, silver ones, pin stripe edged flames and crab claw flames, licks, locks, symmetrical and asymmetrical flames - the Devil’s the limit!
There are designated flame designs for drag racing cars. Glance through the pages of DRAGSTER Australia for any few issues and you will find all the common types including a pair on the cover of issue 658 (Maurice Fabietti from Australia, and Andy Robinson in Europe), there’s Brett Stevens with a similar version gracing the East Coast Nationals poster and the pages of Jack Daniel’s promotions. Stevens’ yellow flamed Chevy is arguably the most recognized Australian drag racing vehicle outside Top Fuel, and now he has the Kitten car burning up the track in blue. The Stevens Racing Corporation has almost made an industry out of flaming anything that moves, even the wife is in on it!
Of course, none of this tells us how it all started. You might have guessed by now that I have a theory about how flames ended up on every fast street, rod and drag car since the late 1940s, but more of that later.
The Elusive First Fire
I recently fired off an email to Bob Burns (hmm, Burns,
a coincidence?), a long time associate of Von Dutch who is responsible for
one of the main Von Dutch websites (the one on the man himself -not the
fashion junkies) asking his thoughts on the matter and guess what? Bob
‘Von Dutch is attributed for being the first to use flames. His famous Mercedes Gullwing flamed from bottom to beltline was probably the most notorious, but, according to Dutch himself, the FIRST was done for his local Fire Dept. sometime around 1949 or 1950! They wanted their newly painted ladder truck lettered and striped, so Dutch flamed the whole thing... apropos for a fire truck!’
Is This The End Of The Trail?
Is this the end of the (Fire) trail? Certainly not, the fire is just beginning!
Flames haven’t been overlooked by academia either. Timothy Phelps, the Assistant Director of Art as Applied To Medicine at The John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland is an expert on flamed vehicles -he should know, he has painted over 400 of them, all miniatures! ‘Most of the work I do during the day is somewhat confining because I have to stay true to anatomy,’ he says. ‘In the evening, I can just let my brushes go wild.’ Now that sounds more like drag racers after dark!
Getting back to that theory of mine, well, I personally think anyone with a big pile of red hot metal fuelled with nitro under their a*** with clear intentions to make it positively scream speed and power for at least a few seconds is half expecting some fireworks and to me that makes the concept of putting flames on that vehicle absolutely appropriate. It wouldn’t take much imagination to follow that experience with a paint can and a brush.
There cannot be much greater irony in the fact that the guy generally credited with the introduction of flames painted on hot rods, and hence dragsters and other racing vehicles, Von Dutch, should have begun by painting flames on a fire truck!
The Final Embers
As the coals in this fire trail slowly die off what’s left among the embers? It would seem flaming vehicles is not the recent innovation a lot of kids might think it is. For us older types it would seem that flaming vehicles is a little more complex and of historical note than it might at first seem. That the practice of flaming involved many of our sport’s historical ‘characters’ warms the heart. It also would seem that the ‘firies’ have been in on this from the start.
One thing’s for sure - there is right now someone out there somewhere trying to think up a new way to make flames of the painted variety and if nothing else the thought that more great flaming art is yet to grace our drag strips and magazine pages can only produce a warm fuzzy feeling in the heart of all of you who live for the next big meeting, the next great run, and the next unexpected flash of burning nitro.
Von Dutch, apart from his artistic side, also had a (very) dark side and is often referred to as a racist, a bitter and twisted soul who just happened to be brilliant. He was also withdrawn, reclusive and the designer of the original ‘Flying Eyeball’.
Von Dutch was born Kenneth Howard in 1929, the son of a sign painter. By the mid 30s he was striping cars and motorbikes while still at school. Artist Robert Williams, who met him while working at the Ed Roth Studios in Maywood in the 60s claims that one of the Von Dutch strengths was that he would take a piece of machinery and give it his personal touch.
Von Dutch was also a prolific worker, striping hundreds of cars over the years, painting monsters on clothing, producing surrealistic paintings, hand-crafted and etched knives and guns and completing a large range of individual vehicle paint jobs.
He is considered a father of the 60s ‘kustom car’ craze and was well known for his custom paint jobs. With people coming from all over the country to have their cars ‘Dutched’.
One of his most interesting projects was his rebuild of the truck eventually known as the Kenford. Find more on this on the Bob Burns Von Dutch website.
You can find coverage of the current court case and more Von Dutch history at the following online source: http://www.vondutch.freeservers.com/
Photos of Von Dutch and the ‘Kenford’ courtesy of Bob Burns from the above website and Motorbooks International.
Art began customizing cars at the ripe old age of 15 and has always maintained an individual style in his striping, flaming and graphics projects for autos. In his teens he had three jobs -at a body shop, a newspaper, and in his own part-time pin-striping business and was the only kid in school to graduate with three cars and four motor cycles!
Himsl rates custom greats such as Von Dutch, Ed Roth, Bill Reasoner, Kenny Youngblood, Steve Stanford and Thom Taylor among his influences but adds that every artist in the trade affected his work to some degree.
For a while he became a show promoter, organizing the first Northern California Custom Bikes show and many others. In 1967 his customizing exploits saw him enter three flamed cars in the Oakland show, and despite calls that flames were out, he could barely keep up with the work the show generated.
Art Himsl still belts out a good flame design, along with a range of other designs and is quick to assist other painters, ‘I’ll help anybody that needs help. It doesn’t bother me a bit. I wish somebody would’ve been there that I could’ve called.’
Art is a member of the Hall of Fame at the Oakland National Roadster show and was honored as builder of the year in 1995. He lives on a half-acre property in Bay-area Concord, California.
Ed Roth was born in 1932 and lived and worked in Maywood, a suburb of Los Angeles where a good deal of automotive design and development of the hot rod and custom type was going on in the latter half of last century. He was affected by many things but most importantly by a need, like Von Dutch, to be as original as he could and to just get in there and do it.
Roth is quoted as saying that he could never conform to the "Art Centre Phobia" that he saw as channeling creativity toward the expected. He designed and built from scratch, experimented as if his life depended on it and carved out a niche in the dual worlds of Hot Rodding and Drag Racing.
In his later years Ed traveled the show circuit in America with a variety of his home-spun vehicles and unique range of t-shirt designs but in between his creativity traveled the widest possible route from striping and flaming cars to sculpture and design to manufacturing and the development of new ideas and processes that were both new and improvements on the existing. Love him or hate him he is undeniably one of automotives’ own sons. Ed passed away in 2001.
© Competitionplus 2005