rat finks and cars and kits

by Art Chantry:

back in the mid 1960′s, ‘monsters-driving-hotrods” became a huge fad. originally starting life as WW2 nosecone art, it drifted into the racing world throught he displaced WW2 vets and (particularly) through the person of ‘von dutch’, who seems to be the first guy to actually start making images of hotrod monsters. granted, a lot his monsters were part of his pinstriping work (making the lines become monsters). but, he also seems to be the very first person to actually airbrush a picture of a hotrod monster ONTO a tshirt. think about that. he was first!


granted, those original hotrod monsters that von dutch airbrushed on shirts were primarily on sweat shirts, regular button-front shirts and even sweaters. but, he also drew on tshirts, thus continuing a tradition begun in military and sports circles. so, it wasn’t that big of an innovation at all. but, think of the impact it made. every tshirt in america with a picture on it owes a royalty to von dutch. also, his original drawings on tshirts (at least those few that survive) seem to NOT be monsters actually DRIVING hotrods, but monsters that ARE hot rods – very similar to (maybe inspired by?) the work of boris artzybasheff, and enormously popular magazine illustrator of that era.

again, the origins are vague, but the next step in the poularizing of the hotrod monster – placing the monster IN the hotrod as the driver (thus symbolically changing the monster from the MACHINE, to the PERSON) – was a step seemingly lost in the annals of time. it could have been stanley ‘mouse’ miller who was doing monster tshirts at car shows way early. it may have been ‘monte’, who was doing crazy monster decals (popular on cars) and was actually hired by ed ‘big daddy’ roth to ‘perfect’ his personal monster icon/image (rat fink) and actually being the guy who designed some of roth’s earliest ‘monsters in hotrods’. or it could even have been any of a number of start-up artists in the car scene in southern california as well. we just don’t know.

but, it was defintiley ed roth who opened the flood gate when he started to mass-produce monster tshirts in the late 50′s/early 60′s. while mouse was already starting up a catalog sales business out in detroit (spurred on by his mom, apparently), it was roth that went into full bore competetion and silkscreening the ‘monsters driving hotrods’ images on to huge numbers of tshirts to sell through magazine adverts and car show events.

the next step in the history was stepping into the monster model car/monster model pop craze of the 1960′s. as a combination of both markets, the ‘dig daddy’ rat fink model kits were a smash. subsequent model kits by roth included ‘mr. gasser’, ‘brother rat fink’, ‘surf fink’, ‘mother’s worry’, etc. etc. – all becoming as big as ‘top 40′ hit records in the burgeoning baby boom demographic.

the success of the model kits soon spawned an industry of similar ‘monsters driving hotrods’ model kits. mouse put out a series (maybe the best designed). all sorts of small copycat model companies also did their level best to follow the lead and cash in. many of these kits were pretty abysmal. then the plasticine figures (like large ‘green army men’ toys) made big inroads with items like ‘nutty mads’ (you didn’t have to assemble them!) eventually just about very model manufacturer had their line of teeny bop ‘monsters-driving-hotrods’ (or similar) comic monster model kits.

one of the very last of the imitator kits that came on the market ware those made my HAWK. these were copyrighted as “weird-oh’s”. they were so popular that they swamped out all the competition (except maybe roth, who started to switch to ‘kustom kar’ model kits – often still inluding a little rat fink model as well). this was just before the fad went away. but, the HAWK ‘weird-oh’s” are still considered to be the high point of the craze.

HAWK was one of the largest and best of the military model kit manufactures (battle ships, planes, tanks, etc.) so, when they stepped into the monster fray, they brought along a host of top-line talent and an enormous and sophisticiated marketing/distribution network and abundant advertising/swag budgets. so, there were all sorts of ‘weird-oh’s’ sideline feature items to buy, including trading cards (like baseball cards), figurines, bubble gum machine toys, lunch boxes, puzzles, record albums and even (i seem to recall) a saturday morning cartoon show.

these kits were well designed, nicely detailed and clever to the point of being nearly definitive o

e style. but, what REALLY sold the model kits – made them fly off the shelves – was the cover art. an enormously successful commercial artist, david campbell, whose career had been western art, paperback book art, military art and even a successful gallery art career was commissioned to conceive and create a series of monster characters – all based on the basic thinking of the competition.

the resulting images are still considered by connoisseurs of this stuff as the very best of the best. the campbell monsters are the apex of the style. these ‘weird-oh’s’ are still the images the baby boomers recall when they think about (even) rat fink (fyi – campball had no hand in the rat fink character at all – except to copy cat).

these are a couple of the david campbell images – these were sold as water-transfer decals. you can see the much more sophisticated thinking of the classically-trained artist who worked in a career of technical perfection. these monsters were the only ‘cartoony’ style things like this campbell ever did. he thought they were silly and beneath him. yup, he did this stuff strictly to help pay the rent. to this day, he’s still a little embarrassed that he created these things.

a guy i know searched out david campbell to interview him for an llustration magazine. it was a profile of his entire illustration career (which is lengthy), but the writer also has a trash culture fixation on his ‘weird-ohs’. so, david campbell talked about the background of that work. a little reluctantly at first, but he filled in a lot of blank areas on their creation. he pointed out that he was commissioned to create several more characters, too, as the popularity and sales of the model kits actually warrented expansion by HAWK. but, the monster fad abruptly ended (almost overnight) and these additional monster designs/illustrations were never used.

then (!) campbell dragged out those drawings to show the writer. they were buried deep in files, but he found them. there were around a half dozen full color illustrations of other crazy “weird-oh” monsters – all executed in this same pinnacle high-style quality. now, here’s the strange part of the story. because david campbell thought this stuff was crap, he GAVE those drawings to the writer as a gift!!! he just didn’t care about them. he almost forced them on the guy (at least that’s what i was told). he thought this stuff was rubbish and he just didn’t really care to keep it around any more.

think about that for a minute. the greatest hotrod monster artist of them all simply thought he was working on crap. the reputation he had worked on his entire life was actually being DAMAGED by the fact that he worked on something this ‘lowbrow’. he wanted to push it away from his legacy. yet, his ‘weird-oh’s’ were the best of the best, the apex, the pinnacle of hotrod monsters. these little buggers are going to survive for generations to come – they even re-released them over and over and over. i think they’re still in stores today. people compete to get their hands on anything ‘weird-oh.” those original illustrations he ‘threw’ away could bring thousands at auction.

but the mainstream culture taught him that his very greatest creation was total garbage. what’s wrong with this picture?

Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Marketing/Advertising/Media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>