A behind the scenes look at the flame painting of “The California Kid”, 41 years ago.


cal kid hot rod flames
Rarely seen before photo flames. Photography by Gray Baskerville from Rod & Custom, shot in his driveway leading up to hi home. The car has a coach built quality to it with its Dale Caulfield paint job.

Depending on your viewpoint, nothing says Hot Rod more than a vivid flame job. More than painting skills or color selection – is an out-of-the-box flame design. Proper design for the patient, as you will. A doctor of flames, in this case me, Manuel Reyes, can attempt to bring a whole new life and visual impact to almost any car.

In this case though not just any car, but a classically styled and Pete Chapouris built, full fendered 1934 Ford chopped and louvered coupe.

When I first viewed this assembled / black lacquered beauty it had a coach built visual appeal to it. Totally different from the majority of hot rods being built at that time in the early to mid 70’s. Most early Ford hot rods at that time followed the resto rod look with all the bling that was made available by the car maker and installed on the car.
This car was different though. Clean, utilitarian and with tons of visual appeal.

But, I digress. The goal of this flame job was to accentuate the build style in order to return to the hot rod aesthetics of the mid-50’s. That was one of the reasons I dated it ’56 under my signature, out back below the license plate.

Before I get too far into the behind the scenes of this flame job, let’s really start at the very beginning, or as they say – First things first.

The Connection

Pete and I have known each other and have been friends since the summer of 1955. We met at the beach during summer vacation where our parents went every year. As a result, we connected partly because of our mutual interest in all things automotive. Not just the latest new zoomy Corvette or Thunderbird, but modified cars too, be it custom cars or hot rods.

We didn’t have our drivers license’s yet, but that didn’t stop us from participating in 50’s car culture. We devoured Rod & Custom, Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines. At this time we got into building model cars with modifications and custom paint jobs.

(What red-blooded teenager, wanna-be hot rodder didn’t build model cars.)

During our vacations at the beach we also went to circle track racing (Jalopy Cars) across the highway from where we were staying. Met even more friends there that we still associate with today. Also, to cement the deal, Pete’s dad was a custom car guy and joined us by driving us to car shows.

After graduating from our respective high schools I moved in close vicinity to where Pete lived and he introduced me to his car club buddies and I eventually joined this bunch of usual suspects. Some of the best times of our young lives.

During this time period, cars were numero uno. Working on them to look better and plenty of cruising. Some of the cars exchanged hands, even within our car club. I sold Pete my ’54 Ford and he quickly put his own stamp on it by changing its stance, replacing whitewalls for blackballs on chrome rims. Then, to cap it off, with a TJ black tuck and roll job.

By this time I had a small paint shop doing (of course) custom paint jobs. Candies, Pearls, Flames and Striping. Eventually, I painted a ’52 Ford and later a wild street custom ’56 Ford F-100 for Pete. We double dated, spent tons of 23 cents per gallon gas cruisin’ and generally joined in typical car related activities of the early 60’s. We were / are tight, with our unique form of humor.

Currently, Pete’s company got me started on my ’36 Ford coupe project by doing all the chassis upgrades and modifications.

Still connected after all these years,

It all started with a phone call

A phone call 41 years ago, as of this writing, (where were you in’73?) from my old buddy. Pete informed me that he had just purchased a ’34 Ford coupe. An ex drag racer, chopped and full fendered. He envisioned a dependable, mean looking street rod with a definite 50’s vibe to it. No rest-rod here. As we talked more about his latest project he asked if I would flame the car in a style that would reinforce that 50’s vibe. I told him I was his man! Of course, my actual contribution to “The Look” would have to wait until the car was built and painted. No problem, I still was kept busy with my other paint projects. But in the back of my mind I was trying to envision what the flames could look like. Something that would not have been out of place in 1955 or 1956. That kind of narrowed down the style of flames we would eventually put on the car. Also, the color choice of the flames was pretty well established by the time his car was brought over to me, since most hot rod flames really looked good in yellow, orange and red with white pin striping. So … to the books I went. Rummaging through my car magazine collection in search of inspiration. Pretty soon, I / we had enough reference material to basically confuse us. So many styles, some cool looking and some pretty odd looking. But in the end, we knew what we didn’t want to do, and that enabled us to focus better on how we wanted to design the flames. As this is being written, it may sound like it was a complicated process, but in reality, it was really straight forward. Two car guys with a common goal for the visual direction. Stuff we had been doing for some time by then.

Cars and flame jobs that influenced us.

This is a no-brainer!

Speaking for Pete, I’m pretty confident that Tom McMullen’s ’32 roadster, with it’s wild flame job for 1963 and the Tom Pollard ’29 roadster with its super different flame job, circa 1955, really influenced Pete years before he started on his ’34. At a real quick glance to an untrained eye, the colors and flames on the McMullen roadster and The California Kid bear some resemblance to each other, but of course they don’t. But the visual impact is common to both. On Tom’s roadster, Ed Roth laid out the flames and Tom masked and sprayed them. Then Roth did one of the wildest striping jobs on the car that was not often seen on rods of the early 60’s. It still stands out today. Timeless.

Unrealized by Pete and I at the time we were flaming his car, was that after painting the flames, his car would also achieve a timeless quality to it.

Partners in Lime. George Sein’s ’32 Coupe and Tom Pollard’s equally outrageous ’29 Roadster.

The Tom Pollard ’29 roadster besides influencing Pete, really had an impact on me as well. The colors, the layout, totally out of the park. Even today it’s wild. But imagine seeing it on the cover of Car Craft in the mid 50’s. Different from all flamed rods of the time. The rust colored flames on the lime paint job just scream out. (Lime Fire anyone?).

The design has the flames going under the windshield and spilling onto the dash. Unique is the word that comes to mind. Barris applied flames and paint job with Von Dutch striping, this was one of the cars that lit my fire.

Another car that rocked my world was the George Sein ’32 Ford coupe that shared the June 1957 Car Craft cover with the Pollard roadster. Most likely it was a street hot rod, but it was finished with show car written all over it. Another Barris paint job, but this time, the colors reversed as compared to the Pollard car. Wildly striped by Dean Jeffries, this car was burned into my creative mind. It might be a stretch, but The California Kid and the Stein ’32 share a general design element in the way they’re laid out on the side of the cars. Both flame styles not being typical at the time. But what do I know.

These two car stirred my imagination, but the Bob McCoy ’40 sedan, shown on the bottom of this cover, with its Ray Cook applied flames really inspired me to learn how to paint.

The first flamed hot rod that I can recollect is the Bob McCoy black ’40 Ford. This car with its Ray Cook flame job started me on my quest to learn how to pin stripe and spray paint. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like this car, but take away the flames and what do you have. Most likely a real neat black ’40 Ford that might not have made the covers of various car magazines. The flames really gave this car its fairly outrageous appeal, especially in the early to mid 50’s. The color combination is classic. We used the same colors on The California Kid, but my use of shading of the colors gives it a different look. This is another car that screams out “Hot Rod”.

O.K., this next “car” may not be a street rod, but it has always screamed out to me. The Reed Brothers Lakester, with its Von Dutch applied flames, striping and lettering was a show worthy beauty that held its own at Bonneville. The flame style really stood out to me and the unique striping, especially on the nose, greatly influenced me. Later on, when ever I painted flames, this car was my inspiration. Notice the flame licks on the end of the flames. I used this treatment on Pete’s car. Also, the striping on the nose influenced how I finished off the Tommy The Greek style striping on the bottom belt line by the grille on The California Kid. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.


The Reed Brothers show worthy belly tank lakester that really help its own on the Bonneville salt flats. Circa 1955.


The process, how it came together

Finally, the car was close to being finished. So Pete and I began to formulate the logistics. Do it all in his garage or bring the car down to my place? It was decided that I would stripe the belt lines at his place prior to Pete putting on the running boards and fenders. I would mask off and paint the flames at my place, since that was where I had all the equipment. The striping of the belt line would take a full day since I had to let the orange stripe set up before striping each edge in white, ‘a la Tommy The Greek. So we sat on his driveway, waited, discussed the Watergate scandal (remember, this was 1973), talked about music, kidded each other about anything, then I could finish the belt line stripes.

There was another reason to paint his car at my place.
At the time, we were both working full-time day jobs. Pete at Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena and I was working in L.A. as a production manager at an advertising art studio.
So that meant that I could work on the car after work on most nights. Pete would occasionally make the one hour trip to assist in any way on week nights. The week ends were different though. Pete would come up each Friday night, we’d work on the car and on Saturday morning we could attack it early. To make this as painless as possible, Pete would sleep over at our place.

Now it’s beginning to sound like a dragged-out affair, but in essence we were trying to keep pace to a schedule. What schedule you may ask. Well, the first schedule was trying to debut the car at the upcoming L.A. Roadster Show. (we missed that one). The next schedule was revolved around Rod & Custom’s primo photojournalist – Gray Baskerville.

He was documenting the build of Pete’s car for a future feature, and besides this project, he had other assignments that he spent his week days on. So his schedule with this project was to spend Saturday’s at my place and shoot the different steps of flaming a car. So as it turns out, Pete and I would try to not lag behind or go too far forward in the flaming process, so Gray could shoot the sequence of steps. Basically, hurry up and wait.

Hot Rod Flames
Flames 101 – Sketching the flame design with a white Stabillo stub of a pencil. Any changes are made by just wiping the line off. Used tons of measurements and reference points to get both sides the same, or as close as possible.

So … the first thing that needed to be done was the actual flame design. I did this old-school, BC. (before computers). I found a good size side view photo of a black ’34 Ford, I cut the photo horizontally at the roof, and “chopped” it. Then sent it out for a couple of 16 X 20 prints. Then on my kitchen table I placed tissue paper over the print and started to sketch out the look. Pete was there at that time to be part of the design process. As I can faintly remember, the first 2 sketches were deemed not worthy. At this point I mentioned to Pete that being literal, real fire or flames would not start at the very front of a car, but start coming out close to mid-point on the hood. Thus, I moved back the flames start point. Once that design element was included in the design, the third sketch was a home run. We both instantly saw the unique design direction. A few minor tweaks and we were off and running. So, the next morning, the laying out and taping began.

Using the tracing paper design as a guide, I started laying out the flames with a white pencil on one side of the car. Again, some minor tweaks needed to take place, like more room for handles and hinges. Refine, refine.

Hot Rod Custom Artwork
Have some hair…anyhow, the taping begins by using 1/4″ tape following the white pencil lines I used to layout the flame design.

Once we liked what we saw, then using a measuring tape and reference points on the car I repeated the design on the other side. If I could have obtained some wider tracing paper I might have been able to trace out the final layout, flipped the paper and transferred the flames on the other side. But, that was not the case. But in hindsight, the method I used didn’t really add too much time required to layout the flames.

Now the flames were laid out on the fenders and sides of the car. Out came the 1/4″ masking tape. Once the flames were defined by the tape, the time consuming part of the job was begun. At this point, Pete lent a hand with the masking. Of particular interest was the masking off of the louvers on the inside of the hood panels. With the hood in place, that meant bending over backwards to mask the inside to prevent overspray on the inside of the hood and especially the engine compartment. That took longer than we anticipated. Feeling is just starting to return to Pete’s and my back muscles.

Meanwhile, Gray is documenting all this work with his trusty camera. We masked off the drivers side first and then Gray had us push the car outside so he could get a shot of the masking. That was it for one day, but after the sun went down and Gray left for home, we pushed the car back into my garage and proceeded to mask off the other side. We now had a week to finish off the masking and start sanding the paint prior to spraying the colors. We didn’t go to far ahead, since Gray wanted to still shoot the sanding and spraying part of the job.

Custom Hot Rods
Just about ready for paint. Now to finish masking the other side, some sanding and finally getting some color on this puppy.

One week later, Gray arrived in the morning and we continued with the work. Finish the sanding, applying wax and grease remover, and start the actual spraying of the colors. The colors I used were a new Corvette yellow, Hugger Orange, a Warm Red and Hugger Blue, sprayed over a white base. In order to minimize paint thickness, just two thin coats of each color was sprayed, with about three coats of clear on top. The following days included unmaskng the flames and color sanding them in order to minimize the paint edge and to match the smooth finish on the rest of the car. At this point, our good friend Julian Alvarez, the rub-out guru, pitched in to rub out the entire car. A lot of work to get done at nights before Gray returned the following Saturday to shoot the striping action. It took a while to stripe the flames, since I also had to also stripe through the louvers, but time well spent. Keeping with the 50’s vibe, I striped the flames in white using a #00 Mack striping brush. A thin stripe for sure, but flames of the 50’s didn’t utilize thick stripes. In fact, a white stripe looked thicker than using other colors.

Hot Rod Repairs
Looks like I’m halfway done striping the flames, but in the time consuming part – striping over the louver part of the flames. This part of the striping also took longer than anticipated. But in the final result – time well spent.

It should be noted that Pete’s ’34 was not “The California Kid” at this time. That came about later during the filming of the made for TV movie of the same name. The studio sign painter took care of painting the name on the doors.

Masking, sanding, spraying and striping flames is work. No getting around that fact, time consuming, yes. Being diligent in regards to proper paint preparation is numero uno, otherwise this flame job would not have lasted 41 years. True, it has been very well maintained. Both by the builder and the current owner, but the fact remains, it’s still a 41 year old flame job. Who would of thunk it! In fact, in 1997 while the car was in California, arrangements were made to transport the car to one of my buddy’s photo studio where I re-striped some areas of the flames that had worn very thin from years of polishing and waxing the paint. My photographer friend also took some photos of me putting restorative striping on the flames at this time.

A Good Time Was Had By All


Mixing up some 1973 and 1997 pics I came up with this montage. When I had hair – spraying this with my old trusty Binks #18, later in the ’97 re-striping over some thin lines with my old trusty #00 Mack. My photographer buddy shot me in action and sitting.

As I mentioned above, putting flames on a car is work, but that doesn’t mean it has to be drudgery. If you’re doing this on your own car it should be fun. It’s a hobby, building and finishing your car. But this wasn’t my car. One thing that made this painless was the working relationship between Pete and I. We had known each other for years, and with my unique sense of humor and his appreciation of trend-setting humor, the time spent together on this project was very enjoyable.

To add to the mix, whenever Gray arrived in his ’32 roadster, he brought in a case of Coors. (that’s what everybody drank in ’73). If you want to discuss humor, then Gray’s name has to be mentioned. He had an unbelievable wit. Word plays. I don’t remember him telling any jokes per se, his witty comments or actions created a loose and comfortable scene. Lots of laughs. When asked how late we were going to work, it was stated “until we ran out of beer”.

Doing this flame job was not just about two guys and a photographer stuck in a garage, doing something that was not the hot rod norm at the time.
Other bystanders would come by or hang out as all this was going down. The usual suspects were my buddy’s Julian Alvarez and John Swanson. They kept the creative lamp lit. Also, Pete’s friends from Blair’s also came by – Pete Eastwood, Eric Vaughn, Tom Vandenberg and Pete’s new friend Jim “Jake” Jacobs. They joined the party, cause that what it felt like some times. To set the record straight though, not all the time.

Trivia note – since Pete’s car had a real clean look prior to making it to my place, the Blair’s mob tried with no success to persuade him to change his mind regarding painting flames on this gorgeous black canvas. Pete took it with a grain of salt, he was determined to finalize a car that would turn everyone’s head. (which it did). Anyway, by the time their dissension was noted, we were too far into the process. Their thoughts regarding to flame or not to flame were never mentioned again.

The Legacy

By the time Pete finished his car and I had also finished the striping and flames, we were totally unaware of the impact this car would have. Yes, it looked menacing coming down the road. In fact, Gray Baskerville once said, if you want the true personality of a car, just look at it coming down the road. Or words to that effect. The director of the movie “The California Kid” must have heard those words by Gray, because that would be the opening visual to the movie. I was even impressed, even though I had my share of face time with this car. The car had that “Wow” factor. Bad grammar but – Later on to greater fame.

hot rodsThey say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well this car was “flattered” big time. In the first couple of years after painting the flames, I personally had to double take a few cars that I saw. It turned out to be “The Costa Mesa Kid” and then “The Illinois Kid”. Both ’33 or ’34 Ford Coupes in black and flamed like the original. I saw these two cars at the annual L.A. Roadster Show. Then a few years later at the same show, my buddy pointed out a slammed late model black Thunderbird with California Kid style flames. I wished I had my camera then, the car looked wild.

Another time as I was picking up a radiator for my car, when a slammed 1997 black Impala with the California Kid flames rolled by. That car really did look way cool.

Later, my friend and expert painter at SoCal Speed, Mick Jenkins, showed me a Prowler, a ’32 roadster and another coupe in black with “those” flames.

In reality, it doesn’t make any difference, but you can’t diminish the fact at the amount of times The California Kid has appeared on magazine covers. Embarrassment of riches, or something like that.

The car inspired, has stood the test of time and I am proud to be part of the The Legacy.

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