Lamley Custom Feature: Here’s A Nod to Hot Rods! By Tim Phelps…

He’s back…

Everyone’s favorite flame-painter, Tim Phelps, is back with another article on his amazing flaming customs.  If you missed the previous articles in the series, you can find them here.

This time Tim throws a bone at a terribly under-covered element of car culture here at Lamley: the Hot Rod.  With our blah-blahing about JDM and other such delights, we have failed to cover the hot rod.  We hope that will change over time, as my foray into the world of Ed Roth a couple of months ago started me on a mini journey into the world of hot rodding, pinstriping, and other shenanigans.

So you hot rodders out there, I am looking for experts to submit some articles on some of the best of hot rod diecast.  Email us at if you are interested.  We need an education…

That education starts today, with this feature my Tim Phelps.  Enjoy…

(Thanks Tim.)

Here’s A Nod to Hot Rods! By Tim Phelps

Help Me! (or not!) There is fire in my blood! Flame painting over 600 diecast cars just was not enough! I have flame painted a pool cue, coffee mugs, a money clip, a toll road E-Z Pass, a table lamp, an antique tractor seat, over 30 birdhouses, and designed a flame logo for a model shop in Phoenix. I have created fire-inspired species of fish and fowl for a Hawaiian shirt company and over 30 species of other animals including owls, moths, butterflies, beetles and bugs and cephalopods (octopi and chambered nautilus’ to you and me) for my own weird and whacky enjoyment. I am continuing the Lava-Fest in this entry with a look at some fired up Ford hot rods, forever a favorite; timeless in their acceptance, and limitless in possibilities.

Many of the examples included in this entry can be considered “Rat Rods.” Living by the credos “Run what you Brung” and “Nothing is finer than original parts, rust and primer,” rat rodders lovingly build their rat rides with the intent of making them look beat-up, creative and unique. While considered low-brow, they have recently enjoyed their own celebrated spaces in Detroit’s Autorama and other show car venues.

Many of the rods you will see in this entry are in 1:50 scale from Hot Wheels’ Custom Classics line of a few years ago. These have offered the best opportunity to flame paint some traditional ’32  and Pre-’32 rods based upon styles popular since the 40’s favored and customized by some of the greatest builders in hot rod history. The rest of the garage will include a sampling of 1:64 to 1:24 scales from SpecCast, Johnny Lightning and Matchbox. 
I have included some flame history text from my book; Up in Flames: The Art of Flame Painting (MBI 2006). There will a quiz at the end. And the “final” is “Go paint some of your own!”

Pre-1932 Fords

Like others of his day, Henry Ford was quite the hot rodder, tearing down dirt roads in stripped down cars as early as 1909. Other rod enthusiasts in the Midwest raced in Indianapolis in pre-500 contests. Early rodders also raced out west in California, “the future home of hot rodding,” in the dry lakes and salt flats of Muroc and El Mirage, and Bonneville in Utah. Like so many more Ford models to come, the pre ’32s were stripped of their fenders and running boards to lighten the load, in fact; anything and everything that could be unbolted usually was! 

Early rodders created fenderless “high boys,” with rod bodies perched high on the frame rails and “low boys,” fenderless bodies lowered onto the chassis over the frame rails, to race in the desert or take to the street. Roofs were removed or tops were “chopped” to streamline the ride. Chopping a top refers to shortening the pillars of the roof of the car, which ultimately lowers the height of the windows and windshield. T-buckets, roadsters and coupes from various pre-30s years would become quite popular customizing fare in the 80+ rodding years to come. Pre-’32 Fords were powered by a 4-cylinder engine, but that would change soon enough. 

The 1932 Ford 

Ah, the prototypical hot rod, a fenderless ’32 “Deuce” highboy coupe or roadster, dark in color with cryptic flames; add a slight chop to the windshield or roof; here’s hot rodding at its very best! Stock pre-’32’s came with 4-cylinder engines.  The lightweight model T and model A bodies could be removed, to snugly fit now on the 1932 chassis with the new standard V-8. A stroke of genius or competitive drive inspired Henry Ford to put in the V-8, “We’re going from a 4 cylinder to an “8” because Chevrolet is going to a 6!” The Lincoln division had already been putting one in their models for almost a decade. The rush to produce the V-8 for the ’32’s came with a price, numerous initial mechanical problems followed. Once these were worked out, the prototypical flathead V-8 engine remained in a relatively unaltered state until 1953 (of course, until rodders got a hold of them). With the stock V-8, a top speed of 78 miles per hour was achievable, quite a feat by 1932 standards. Once in a rodder’s hands, the muffler was removed, exhaust pipes were straightened and multiple carburetors were added; this doubled the engine’s output, resulting in speeds of over 100 mph. An out-of-the-factory Ford sold for about $435. Wrecked or discarded Fords eventually became plentiful in area junkyards, making them perfect fare for young men with shallow pockets and expanding dreams. 

Many “hot rod” Fords in the late ’40s and early ’50s were backyard-painted in black primer and devilishly decorated with primitive flames or wavy scallops, also known as “sclames.” They were then driven to the dry lakes of California, which provided weekend hot rod playgrounds. Crowds saw hundreds of cars, 10 to 12 abreast, in racing heats streaming across the desert in a flurry of sand, salt and dust!  It was quite a wild and dangerous affair and the motoring melee was often taken into the streets. This gave rodders a bad name and they frequently caught heat from the law. In the mid -50s, stripped down “jalopy racing” “with a whole lotta crashin’ goin on” greatly reduced the number of available Ford rod body prospects. Years later, prefabricated fiberglass or steel reproduction bodies and “kit cars” have become readily available in every imaginable rod style to fill any rodder’s heart with desire.  

1933 Ford Coupe 
The 1933 model year continues to exhibit smoother lines but is fairly close in character to the ’32s. Styling stock changes included a six-inch longer wheelbase with smaller 17-inch wheels, and streamlined grille, shell, fenders and hood. The models of ’33 and ’34 are virtually cosmetically identical. In creative rodders hands, with a chopped top, “Bigs and littles,” big tires in the back, little ones up front, and fenders removed, this Ford becomes a different beast entirely. In all of its possible body reconfigurations, this year’s offering has always been popular with customizers and rodders.

Flame Painting History
It is unknown who first flamed their ride—could it have been the cavemen—after all, didn’t they invent fire and the wheel?  Crude attempts at flame painting can be seen in historical photographs of early racecars in the mid 1930’s. However, the art of “hot rod flame painting” began in the late 1940’s, in Southern California; racing and riding around in hot rods was a passion pursued by many young men. Some of the racecars they saw at the race tracks were decorated with graphics resembling fire and flames; they were painted to look just like World War I and World War II aircraft seen in magazines and on early movie and television news reels.  While dreaming about taking these fast cars off the racetrack and onto the street, some teenagers began painting flames on their cars with brushes and house paint in their own driveways. They would drive their cars to school and show them off at the local hamburger drive-in. Anyone who saw these hot cars could not believe their eyes! It seems that this new fad became popular almost overnight. 

In the beginning, Kenneth Howard (Von Dutch) developed a popular style of  “Choppy flames.”  His flame style resembled fire he observed and drew in his sketchbook at oil refineries around Santa Barbara, California. After he finished painting an automobile with a flame design, he used a specially tapered bristle brush to carefully outline a very fine line around the flame’s outside edge; this was soon to be known as pinstriping. Although pinstriping can be found on early Egyptian carriages, on fine automobiles of the 1930’s and on fire engines, it was Von Dutch who first made this painting approach very popular on hot rods. His pinstriping not only outlined his choppy flames but, also, was painted separately as squiggly geometric designs to decorate the hoods and fenders of cars. He even painted the undersides of car hoods, truck lids and inside glove boxes with flying eyeballs, squirming octopi, crawling insects and spiders, creating quite a monstrous and humorous motoring menagerie. 

The heat from Von Dutch’s spark ignited a generation of painters to come– in the span of only a few years, flames began to appear on cars up and down the coast of California, each with an individual personality.  As teenagers, Dean Jeffries developed “crab-claw” flames, Larry Watson created flames resembling leafy “seaweed” and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth became popular for his overlapping “flames within flames.”   Traditional flames –those flames that have a symmetrical and smooth recognizable shape became the most popular style. Rod Powell, Art Himsl, Herb Martinez and Cary Greenwood, each would play a strong role in the development of this most popular form of flame painting. Jeffries, Watson, Roth and Greenwood have each passed; may they rest in peace.

Feeding off each other’s fire, this first generation of flame painters decorated their own and other people’s hot rods and custom cars with a variety of flame painted variations.   Traditional flames became stretched into long and thin “streamers.”  Barely able to be seen “ghost flames” and “silhouette flames” were the next variations to become popular.  Not only did flame styles change but so did flame colors. What began as traditional color schemes of red and orange flames with white outline striping on black and dark color painted cars led to an exploration of every color imaginable in every combination. Who dared imagine blue, green or silver flames on a bright yellow car?  

Now, some 60 years later, flame painting has further blossomed and expanded– the artform has become extremely popular all over the world! Places like Australia, Japan, Sweden and Germany each appreciate and celebrate the beauty of art of flame painting. As an ever-changing artform, a variety of styles and treatments now include flames that look like pitted or pebbled rock, or slick and wet like water and spilled paint. Other painters paint flames that overlap with tentacle like branches weaving over and under each other with shadows and highlights into a delicate design. “Tribal flames” looking like medieval hatchets with round flowing shapes with sharp edges pointing in different directions, can be found on many famous hot rods and motorcycles.  Some painters are even talented enough to paint “realistic fire,” flames that look like they are moving in a soft breeze or roaring off of a blazing out-of-control campfire. Lastly, flame designs are often combined with images of checkered flags, shredded metal and screaming human skulls and in any combination with the types of flames previously mentioned. Because the artform has gained higher visibility and wider attention, most recently, flame painters are being profiled at work in numerous magazines and on automobile programs on cable television. Because of its overwhelming and worldwide popularity, this is an artform that will never be extinguished!

As always, I hope you have enjoyed this entry and have become inspired to light your own fire. Feel free to contact me and this blog with your questions and comments. The next entry will discuss Kustoms.

3 Replies to “Lamley Custom Feature: Here’s A Nod to Hot Rods! By Tim Phelps…”

  1. The article is very intersting, the pictures and cars are beautiful. I'm not a fan of hot rods but I'm interested in American history and culture. The Great Depression era (among 60's and 70's) I find the most interesting. And these cars are the part of those times. Great job!
    Best regards,

  2. buenos modelos, aunque no soy fanatico de ellos, poseo algunos, pero no tan personalizados, estan geniales…

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