Take 5 With Artist Steve Stanford
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
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
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.