Take 5 With Artist Steve Stan­ford

Hot Rod - - Front Page - John Pear­ley Huff­man

Steve Stan­ford speaks in a way that his en­thu­si­asm is a half-beat ahead of his words. And his ideas are an­other half-beat ahead of that. He takes a gulp of air be­fore he an­swers a ques­tion, of­ten gig­gles a bit, and heads into streamof-con­scious­ness sen­tences that are im­pos­si­ble to punc­tu­ate.

At 64, Stan­ford has been a fix­ture in the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia rod­ding and cus­tom scenes since the early 1980s. But he’s not a me­tal-ben­der, an en­gine­assem­bler, or check-writer. In­stead, he’s a guy with a sketch­pad, an eye for ex­ploit­ing the beauty of ve­hi­cles oth­ers can’t imag­ine, and an ob­ses­sion with car mag­a­zines.

He’s de­signed or con­trib­uted to hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent car pro­jects, but the one he seems des­tined to be best re­mem­bered for is “Eleanor,” the ex­ag­ger­a­tion of the 1967 Shelby GT500 that starred in the year 2000’s Gone in 60 Sec­onds movie. It’s the bigscreen car peo­ple im­i­tate when they just can’t come up with an idea of their own.

Stan­ford’s workspace is an old, beat-up trailer be­hind San­tini’s Body & Paint shop in West­min­ster, Cal­i­for­nia—quite pos­si­bly the least glam­orous place in the least glam­orous part of SoCal. He doesn’t use his own name on Face­book, he an­swers the phone as if he were host­ing a talk-ra­dio show, and he tends to dress in what­ever free T-shirt hap­pens to be clean. He’s had his own one­man art show at the Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum, con­trib­uted con­stantly to mag­a­zines like HOT ROD, and he’s pretty easy to dis­tract from his work. In the odd­ball world of car cul­ture, he is gen­uinely beloved and his balls are just about the odd­est.

He main­tains a pro­fes­sional pres­ence at Face­book.com/ Steve Stan­ford De­signs/.

HRM] You were born in St. Louis, so how’d you end up draw­ing cars in Cal­i­for­nia?

SS] The cul­mi­na­tion of a life­long dream. I took go­ing into the mil­i­tary to fi­nally phys­i­cally get out here. I didn’t have any skills. Grow­ing up in St. Louis, I had no job and no op­por­tu­ni­ties. I was the youngest out of eight. They ac­tu­ally made a doc­u­men­tary movie about the area where I grew up—the Pruitt-Igoe hous­ing pro­jects—talk­ing about the post–World War II pro­jects and mi­nori­ties and un­der­priv­i­leged peo­ple. From my liv­ing room, I could watch the Gate­way Arch go­ing up. So this was like 1964.

HRM] When did you start draw­ing?

SS] I don’t ever re­mem­ber not draw­ing. That’s one thing about my fam­ily: we were ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined. I have an older brother, Jimmy, he set the stan­dard. He did oils, he did por­traits, and he worked as an ar­chi­tec­tural drafts­man dur­ing the day. He’d do these pri­vate com­mis­sions and stuff at night. That was a high stan­dard to live up to.

HRM] But why draw cars?

SS] That’s the part I have never re­ally fig­ured out. It was just there. I used to go to the li­brary and check out Mo­tor

Trend and HOT ROD and keep my in­ter­est go­ing through that. Jimmy was so good at draw­ing peo­ple—it was sort of in­tim­i­dat­ing. So I thought, OK, I’m not go­ing down that road. He’s got that cov­ered.

HRM] You joined the mil­i­tary in 1972?

SS] My mom, after all those kids, said, “Once you grad­u­ate high school, you’re out of here. I don’t care how you do it, but you’re gone.” I hadn’t seen my dad since I was two. I went into the Air Force be­cause it was a me­chan­i­cal field and, like every­one else, I wanted to get into the mo­tor pool or the body and paint partly be­cause I wanted to learn to do cus­tom paint. I wanted to be the next Ge­orge Bar­ris or Gene Win­field, but they stuck me in mu­ni­tions. I can’t do any­thing with that when I get out. I used the Air Force as a piggy bank so at least I’d have some means of sup­port while I learned the craft that I wanted to get into. I’m com­pletely self-taught. My first duty sta­tion was in Cal­i­for­nia. Out in the desert. Re­mem­ber the old Ge­orge Air Force Base?

HRM] That’s the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Lo­gis­tics Air­port in Vic­torville now—about 85 miles north­east of Los An­ge­les…

SS] That’s when I saw, first­hand, things like Van Nuys Boule­vard and meet­ing guys on base who had hot cars. I was learn­ing to pin­stripe, and I was do­ing pin­strip­ing af­ter­hours in the park­ing lot. Learn­ing things like what 1 Shot enamel was and what a strip­ing brush was. From Cal­i­for­nia, I was sent to Korea for a year. There, I started do­ing lit­tle things for the squadron and at ev­ery other base I went to. I got away with a lot. Then I put in for Cal­i­for­nia, and the clos­est I could get is Utah. I could find my way from Utah to Cal­i­for­nia. I met some guys who ran a van shop in Salt Lake—Artis­tic Vans—that’s when things re­ally picked up. I got out of the Air Force in ’76. They hired me full­time to graph­ics and mu­rals. They treated me like a king there, and that set me to be half­way good enough to go to Cal­i­for­nia.

HRM] And you were learn­ing pin­strip­ing through mag­a­zines?

SS] Yeah, I still have the mag­a­zine. It was a one-shot Petersen did called

Ba­sic Body­work and Paint­ing. They showed Walt Prey do­ing the side of a ’55 Buick Road­mas­ter us­ing a let­ter­ing quill. And I’m us­ing these dime-store brushes won­der­ing why I’m get­ting such crappy re­sults. Oh, I thought, a

let­ter­ing quill.

HRM] Did you think you’d screw up the first time you pin­striped a car?

SS] I never thought that way. My pin­strip­ing style is so re­lated to my il­lus­tra­tion style that hold­ing the brush a cer­tain way just came nat­u­ral to me as I changed from pa­per to me­tal.

HRM] How’d you get hooked up with the mag­a­zines? This is way back in the 1980s, right?

SS] In about ’79, I found Chatsworth on the map, looked up Bill Carter, who was paint­ing every­one’s Funny Cars, and in­tro­duced my­self. We clicked in­stantly. So I did let­ter­ing and pin­strip­ing there and I had my sketch­pad. Then John Baech­tel [former Car Craft and HOT ROD edi­tor] stopped in. At the time they were do­ing the Car Craft

Z/28 project: the CC Ca­maro.

HRM] This is around 1982?

SS] They needed some touch-up on the hood, so I had to re­place the Car

Craft logo where the hood­scoop was. John had seen me draw­ing in the of­fice and stuff, so he said, “Let me do you a fa­vor,” and he gave me [then Car

Craft art di­rec­tor] J.R. Martinez’ card. I went down to the of­fice and brought my stuff, and that’s when I did my first “Sketch­pad” for Car Craft. Then they sur­prised me and made me a “Car

Craft Hi-Riser.”

HRM] Those were short pro­files in the front of the book? (I wrote a cou­ple.)

SS] That’s when things changed. I ended up go­ing back to the Street Ma­chine Na­tion­als with them. The street ma­chine thing was com­ing on; with my race-car back­ground, I was OK with that. But I’m still a cus­tom guy through and through. So I could swing ei­ther way on that. But I’m a cus­tom guy who doesn’t spell “cus­tom” with a “K.” To me, that was a Ge­orge Bar­ris pro­mo­tional thing. Cus­tomiz­ing started with a “C” and it started in, what, the late-’20s?

HRM] Were there other de­sign­ers who in­flu­enced you?

SS] That’s where the Alexan­der Broth­ers come in for me.

HRM] The guys who built the De­ora. They were in Detroit?

SS] Yeah, well, they had [then GM de­signer and later orig­i­nal Hot Wheels de­signer] Harry Bradley help­ing them out. I look at his sketch­pads in Rod

& Cus­tom and just drool. Tom Daniel [Mono­gram model de­signer] was an in­flu­ence, but only to a cer­tain de­gree. The guy who re­ally changed things around? [Former HRM staffer] Thom Tay­lor. When the whole Hot Rods by Boyd thing was go­ing—I think Thom was still work­ing for In­ter­na­tional Har­vester then—they hooked up and all of a sud­den made this a le­git thing. Be­fore that, these guys in the garages never had a clue about hir­ing an artist guy to draw up their con­cept. They were too busy bang­ing them to­gether. With Cod­ding­ton and these guys, it be­came an art form. It took an artis­tic eye to stand back and see this.

HRM] It’s easy to spot a car built in the 1980s, and all the cars in the 1990s had that sea-foam aqua paint. Are we in a pe­riod of greater cre­ativ­ity now?

SS] We can pick from all eras. You’re not stuck with any pre­vail­ing style of the pe­riod. You want to build a rat rod? Fine. Want to build an ul­tra-ex­otic Lam­borgh­ini? Ev­ery­thing is fair game. I like that free­dom. We’re not locked into a cer­tain look. Peo­ple are wait­ing for the next thing to come around, and no one has come up with it yet.

HRM] So when some­one hires you to do an il­lus­tra­tion, how much do you charge them?

SS] Around $2,000. It de­pends. It goes up from there. It de­pends on how much de­tail and what my sched­ule is and how many il­lus­tra­tions they want to do. Usu­ally, I’m work­ing on about four pro­jects, not count­ing on my own stuff.

HRM] What’s the most dif­fi­cult as­pect of draw­ing cars?

SS] Pro­por­tion. That’s true in any form of art, but par­tic­u­larly so in me­chan­i­cal things like cars.

HRM] You al­ways start with a blank piece of pa­per. How do you start draw­ing a car?

SS] I just make a box or a rec­tan­gle or what­ever. You fig­ure out where your pro­por­tions are go­ing to go. I like to start in the mid­dle and fig­ure out how far the front is go­ing to go, and how far for the rear. That mid­dle, the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment, needs to re­main con­stant. Once that’s di­aled in, the rest I can futz with.

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