I was going to title this column “The Unknown Artist,” but that’s not true at all. I’ve known Charlie Smith of Kansas City at least since the mid-’80s. I’ve published his work in Hot Rod and Rod & Custom, and you’ve seen it elsewhere. You’ve also seen cars he’s designed, though you might not know it. Just one example is Pete Chapouris’ “Limefire” ’32 roadster, loosely inspired by Tom Pollard’s green-and-flamed ’29.
This is another piece he did for Chapouris’ So-Cal Speed Shop (on spec) when they restored the belly tank and built similar vehicles for Chevrolet. But look at the detail and realism in this. That’s why I call it Unreal Art–because it’s so super-realistic.
Charlie says he’s not doing this to impress viewers, he’s doing it to show whoever is going to build the car exactly how he wants it to look. But just look at the texture of the Bonneville salt, the mountains in the background, and the detail in the gold-tinted and red-striped mag wheels in this rendition of a ’53 Studebaker pickup/push truck (note rubber strip on front bumper). And this was just a suggestion. It didn’t get built.
And of course builders don’t always follow the artist’s design. The late Egon Necelis of New Jersey came close on three pretty radical customs (street rods?) of the ’80s-’90s that you’ll remember if you’ve seen them. The first is this ’40 4-door Cad LaSalle, and I actually can’t tell if this is a photo or an illustration (I forgot to ask). The next, built in ’90, is this more radical ’41 Buick fastback, with a very chopped top and sculptured front and rear ends. This front view on a black background is obviously artwork.
But the profile view seen below I would have sworn was a photograph. But Charlie says, no. The grass he copied from his own backyard, the foliage came from a neighbor’s, and the car is all illustration. Amazing. Unreal.
The third was this very untraditional interpretation of a classic ’50 Chopped Merc.
But study this rear view. Charlie couldn’t tell me exactly how he did it. He said he “started out with some I-phone images.” But this is an illustration, not a photo. He said it took several hours to create.
But let’s back up a bit, because there are many facets to Charlie Smith. It’s a common name, but you don’t think of him as a car artist like you do Steve Stanford, Thom Taylor, Darrell Mayabb, Larry Wood, Chip Foose, Larry Erickson, Keith Weesner, and others whose signatures you see more often. That’s because car design has always been a sideline for Charlie. “I never made a living out of designing automobiles,” he says. “My real work has always been doing advertising art, logos, and similar corporate illustration.” He’s done a lot of design and display art for Hallmark Cards, headquartered in Kansas City. He’s designed McDonald’s Happy Meal products. He had his own company called Top Flite Concepts that made T-shirts and other sportswear. He ran his own website called Motorburg for ten years. To name a few.
But he’s always drawn cars and messed with their design, starting with T-Birds and Studebakers.
He did this version of a ’58 T-Bird, apparently on school paper, back in ’63. He points out the “capped” front fenders, an element he picked up from Bonneville ’53 Studes with their headlights molded off for streamlining.
But not only was Charlie drawing custom cars at a young age, an uncle had taught him to gas weld and even to paddle lead. So well before he got his license, he was already plying his redesign work on real cars. His uncle helped him chop the top on this ’51 Ford Fordor, and Charlie peaked the hood with lead, frenched the lights, made the tube grille, and formed the front pan from ’39 Chev rear fenders. One of the trickiest parts (I think) was remounting the rear handles to make it appear they were suicide doors (like later square Lincolns), even though they weren’t. This was all done by ’61.
This ’55 Ford Crown Vic is one he did for a friend a couple years later, when he got a job in a body shop in ’62-’63 (age 18-19). Charlie said he had designed further modifications to it, but the friend started a family and this is as far as it got.
At least this one lasted. You can tell from the wheels that these photos were taken in 2004.
Obviously a Ford fan, Charlie traded a ’57 for this ’62 T-Bird, which he painted in lacquer at a sign shop where he was then working, learning how to letter as well as pinstripe. To say this guy is multi-talented is an understatement.
Yep, Charlie loves square Birds. But when he sent me the image above, I seriously thought it was a photo of a real car. No. This is his concept drawing, along with a couple of details to show the shop that is actually building this car (for Charlie) as we speak. The chopped top is the most radical element. But the custom grille and taillights are very specific, and the photos below, of the actual car in progress in the shop, show that the drawings are being followed closely.
This is the real grille that has been fabricated out of metals. hopefully you can enlarge these to see detail. Also the taillight section is taking shape. Charlie doesn’t give an ETA on the car’s completion, but I sure hope this one gets done, and soon.
But don’t think Charlie doesn’t do plenty of the car design rendering you see others do. Here are some samples, in a variety of styles.
Charlie first displayed his version of the classic chopped ’40 Merc at a Design Center at the 1990 SEMA show. Then it was blue. He recently recolored it in this burgundy red. The front “wheelcovers” are hub-attached to stay stationary as the wheel turns.
Want more realism? This one has a bit of Euro-flavor to it, as well, which is faintly reflected in the village/mountain background. Calling this his vision of a ’49 Eldorado, the obvious change is a slightly chopped and hardtopped roofline. Other changes include the obvious extended stainless rear “skirts.” Less obvious are ’55 Chevy-type hooded headlights and slightly enlarged taillights.Of this one Charlie says he saw a picture of An Acura HSC Concept car and “I saw some similarities to the ’58 Impala, so I did this redesign with some Impala cues.” You don’t even notice them at first, but the more you look, the more you see. See?
Besides Prolific, Eclectic is another word to describe Charlie’s work and his talents. That means he does a whole lot of stuff, and all kinds of stuff. Consequently you’ll probably like some more than others–I truly appreciate all of it–but it also means I’ve got lots left to show you, and we’re, well, kinda getting full here. So I’ve decided I’ll show a few probably unexpected things now, and I’ll continue in the next column with something totally different from Charlie that most of you would never expect.
After Jack Walker’s clone of the Hirohata Merc done by metalman and customizer Doug Thompson, one of his next projects was a ’41 Ford convertible full custom. These were pencil-sketch design ideas done by Charlie in 1990, along with amazing likenesses of Jack and Doug posing with the Merc. Designing or depicting inanimate cars is one thing. Some artists specialize in animals. But accurate, expressive portraits of real live people are perhaps the most difficult type of art to do. Having known Jack and Doug, I’d say this is pretty good.
Likewise, I can understand why the finished product, which I first saw at the Oakland Roadster Show in pearl blue, didn’t look much like Charlie’s concept, seen at right. Says Charlie, “My idea was that of the ’40s customizers: Start with a base model, like a Ford or Chevy, and then blend in parts of more expensive cars–Cads, Buicks, Lincolns, Packards–to make the car look not only better, but higher-class. But,” he continues, “Once Doug started on it, I knew it was going to be his design, not mine.” Yes. The only parts of the drawing seen here that he retained were the mild section, the chopped white top, and the ’50 Buick rear quarters.
Speaking of people pictures, accurate portraits are one thing, but caricatures require a very different talent, like cartooning, but having to capture the person’s visage as well as expressions.
Charlie said when he first met Norm Grabowski, he had let his hair grow, and he hardly recognized him. But after he built his Kookie II roadster and got back into the street rod scene, he resumed his characteristic flat-top–though now with glasses–and Charlie started sketching several variations on images of him, just because Norm is such a character to start with. Norm didn’t like this early attempt, with a full body.
So Charlie played around with several head shots, starting with more realistic ones, but ending up with the pure caricature, which you have probably seen, because Norm adopted it as his personal logo.
More? Of course there’s more. You’d be surprised how much I’ve cut out already. I love most all of it, but I’m going to leave you with my favorite, because it combines art and a bit of wry humor.
Here’s a teaser lead-in. You can hopefully tell it’s a Corvette Stingray, specifically a ’63 Split Window. But what’s going on? The deal is the front is now the back, and the top has been turned around, with modified split rear windows and a race-car-type roof scoop. Now, who else would have thought of that?
But here’s the one that’s the clincher in creative car design. You know Charlie has an affinity for Studebakers. But as he was studying the highly “out there” design of the ’50-’51 Stude, with its unique, pointy bullet-nose and matching front fenders, being a fairly obvious reference to a jet-engine airplane, it dawned on him that the jet engine should be pointing out the back. The more he looked at it, the more he realized the car would look better turned around. So that’s what he did with the whole body, adding a sleeker, more contemporary roof with sail panels around the rear window. I think it works. It’s ingenious. And most of all, it’s fun.
OK. That’s way more than enough for today. Check in next time to see a totally different talent of Charlie’s not even hinted at here, but one many of you have requested more of. Wait and see.