Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 11...

A lifetime ago I wrote about the influential artist and hot rod pioneer "Big Daddy" Ed Roth. In case you were not familiar with the man he was the one that created Rat Fink and a plethora of bug-eyed, sharp toothed, drooling monsters riding on top of various hot rods. He would airbrush these grotesque figures on tee shirts and sell them at car shows. Teenagers bought them up and car clubs commissioned him to create mascots and paint jackets for them. All of this helped pay for his creative outlets. Roth was one of the first designers to create mock-up car bodies by hand and sculpt them out of fiberglass. The hot rod scene was still growing in Southern California when Roth took it into radical new directions. He demonstrated to fans that they did not always have to start with a rusted-out car and then strip it down before bolting on a powerful engine. They could create their own bodies and make them as wild as his cartoons were if they wanted to.

Roth ran with a circle of artists that shared a similar aesthetic. They were also capable of drawing monsters but more important, were able to caricature every car they came across. Ed "Newt" Newton and Dave "Big" Deal were in a class all their own. The artists became synonymous with cartoon cars. The small tires in the front, large tires in the back and smoke blowing out of the rear became a hot rod trademark. Few artists could do it better than Roth, Newt or Deal. These monsters and cars were released on collectable sticker packs, think of them as the forefathers of the Garbage Pail Kids phenomenon. The thing that all the artists had in common were that they knew their cars and motorcycles. When they were not building and fabricating them they were known to race them as well in So Cal and even through Baja Mexico. This was "on the job" training that few cartoonists could have claimed.

No matter how exaggerated the shapes were people could clearly make out the type of cars that were being featured. The artists were masters of observation. They knew the position of the lights, bumpers, badges and lines of hundreds of vehicles. Good cartoonists learned the techniques of making a caricature out of a person but not every cartoonist could caricature a vehicle. The godfathers of hot rod art made it look deceptively easy but I would challenge an artist reading this to try and make aesthetically pleasing caricatures out of the next car they see.

Roth, Newt and Deal managed to build a career on their art. While they did not necessarily work for the Big Three, they still shaped American car culture. They captured the zeitgeist of the hot rod movement and visualized it. As the men became more and more influential within the community they began changing the perception of hot rod culture to the rest of the US. Model manufacturers like Revell turned the hot rods of Roth and Newt as well as the illustrations of Deal into model kits. For the first time kids got a chance to see actual 3D representations of the cars and monsters that they read about in the magazines. These models, toys and stickers forever warped the minds of young car buffs. As they got older they returned the favor. In the case of Pixar the boss guy John Lasseter and his brain trust were the kids that would have grown up with Rat Fink and his friends. They knew that they had to reach out to the master while developing the art and design of the Cars film.

Every car in the film oozed personality. Each character had its own temperament which seemed genuine based on the model of car that they were. The rusty Harvester tow truck talked with a country twang, the big city Porsche in a very no-nonsense intonation and the Fiat with a heavy Italian accent. The ways that each character was made to emote was superb cartooning. The animators used bumpers, fenders and tires in place of lips, shoulders and hands. The expressions were easy to read because the shapes of the cars were broken down and explained to the artists by Deal. Dave was working on pre-production for Cars 2 when he passed away in 2008. His fingerprints remained all over both films and the various Mater's Tall Tales Car-Toons. The Pixar artists and animators were exceptional in their craft, and many of them were passionate about automobiles but the Cars universe would have not been the same without the contributions of Dave Deal. On the other side of the Pacific there was a different sort of "car toon." Japan was not without its own skilled automobile artists. However they did not have a hot rod movement in the same way that the US did. They did have their own car culture and various youth sub-cultures that managed to interpret their love of the automobile in any number of ways. One of the best incorporated caricatures of cars in their work but remained relatively unknown for decades. The next blog will look at this person and their gift to the world.

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