Click on drawing for larger image
Dave Bell is a pioneer in the field of Automotive Art. His works have spanned nearly 50 years and have appeared on tee shirts, posters, cars,trucks, motorcycles and in hundreds of magazines across the globe. His love of cars and motorcycles, combined with a genius ability to draw, has made Bell a favoritte among car/truck/cycle enthusiasts and artists of all ages. His work can be seen monthly in Street Rodder &Custom Rodder magazines.
He also makes guest appearances at car shows across the country. Fortunate visitors are treated to a sketch, a signed print, good conversation or simply an opportunity to watch him draw. I had the pleasure of spending time with Dave, during his busy weekend- at the Detroit AutoRama and he was gracious enough to give me this interview.
DAVE BELL INTERVIEW 2/98: by Mark Brendel
MARK: Can you tell me little about yourself? Where were you born?
BELL: Well I was born in Southern Minnesota, 1939. I grew up a fairly normal kid, I guess. My parents were not artistic, particularly but my Father had a sister, who passed away in her early 30's and she was artistic. I think that was where I got the desire to draw.
MARK: Maybe genetics played a role?
BELL: It's a good possibility. I had an Aunt who was a former school teacher and she would sit with me at my blackboard, when I was about 5 and we would draw little cars. Two circles, a straight line would make the running boards and we were off to drawing cars.
MARK: So cars were some of the first things you started drawing then ?
BELL: I think there was an interest there, which certainly developed as I got older- I had a lot of fascination for cars.
MARK: How about your Father? What did he do?
BELL: He had a branch office at a loan company that he worked 37 years for and he passed away from a heart attack about a year after his retirement. My mother was a homemaker, she made it to about the age of 77 and she also heart problems. It seems to be another part of our family history. If you go to a Bell family reunion there's alot of Aunts and no Uncles.
MARK: What were you like as teen?
BELL: Well I cruised with my buddies, as a teenager and ummm... skipped lunch sometimes to buy car magazines - ya gotta have priorities.
MARK: Were there any cruising sites or drag strips nearby?
BELL: Yep, up in Minneapolis there was a drag strip and then in my home town there was a black county topped road out by the TV towers. This would be in the middle 50's. There were a lot of power packed Chevys and Fords, a few Hotrods and a couple of engine conversions in town. I used to do a lot of drag racing at night (Laughing). We were influenced by all of those great movies like "Rebel without a Cause", some of the B Flicks like "Running Wild" and "Hot Rod Girl" (more Laughing).
MARK: Did you have troubles with the law on these outings?
BELL: Not.. a... whole... lot ...until I got into motorcycles, in about the early 60's. There was a police officer in town that didn't like the megaphone, upswepted pipes on our bikes. Our bikes were all custom painted, everything was chromed, pearl painted stuff, tuck and roll seats. He didn't like the "megatones" on our motorcycles, as he called them. I had to go to court, one time, and I beat the muffler charges, cause the custom exhaust muffler was longer than the stock one from the factory. I just had to make some new baffles. Yeah, that cop was always after us... My buddy came back from the marine corp., in Vietnam, and during his first week back, he was out driving his Corvette and the same cop gave him a ticket- kind of like welcome home (chuckle)..
MARK: What was your first car?
BELL: It was a '29 Ford Coupe. It had white walls, fiesta hub caps and great primer (chuckle).
MARK: Did you do any customizing ?
BELL: As much as kid could afford back then- with no money, you know. It was crude, pretty much a stock drive train. Then I moved up to a '57 Chevy, that my Dad helped me buy. Everything was chrome plated under the hood. It was a black two-ten hardtop lowered in the front, bigger tires in the back, button hubcaps, positraction. The previous owner had held g gas with it. I always kept it very clean- hand rubbed it. I put carpets in it, there again- I was going to school and I didn't have a lot of money. There were chrome plated things, like the glove compartment lid, the ashtray and the dash. I was getting into painting, a little bit, with the spray gun and so I painted the dash all black around the instruments and everything.Then I fogged them in a silvery green, I was getting into custom painting at that point.
MARK: You were working on in the garage? In the yard?
BELL: There was a bodyshop that use to let me pull my car in to work on it. Then after that, I got a '53 Olds from California that was a real clean stock coupe with a stick in it and I'm not a big mechanic, I have limited mechanical abilities and if it wasn't for friends over the years- I probably never would have survived.
MARK: As far as the body work, you have such an attention for detail...
BELL: You do what you can and then at a local shop, "LeBaron's Autobody" we painted the Olds- "Freuhauf trailer" yellow. That was the big thing in California, at that time, yellow & orange, with black interiors. After art school, I went into the Army and they gave us $130.00 to get home on, our separation pay, and I rode a bus for 3 days and nights to get home so I could save $100 dollars to get my bucket seats tuck and rolled in the Oldsmobile (Chuckle). Well you gotta have priorities. I think my parents in the 50's were kind of lucky because if your summer job paid about 50 bucks a week - $49.95 went into the car- on pay day. They couldn't understand why I would just sit around the house, watching TV all the time or I was out in the garage.(laughing)
MARK: Can you tell me a bit more about your art career? You have been drawing cars since you were 5. Did you draw other things?
BELL: Oh sure, you draw all sorts of things in art school, things for friends or to pick up money -you draw a lot of things.
MARK: Was it traditional art background like art history and figure drawing?
BELL: I took industrial design with a minor in sculpture. .The teachers and most of the students there weren't too crazy about modified cars. In fact, most of them drove Volkswagens and VW buses. Back to your question - I had life drawing and still life drawing and that kind of stuff, too.
MARK: Did you throw yourself into any of course projects or were you the guy on the side drawing the cars?
BELL: Well ...I'd always draw cars on my own time or pin stripe, a little bit. In 1956, I came home from a toboggan party and I went to my bedroom and I had picked up the new "Carcraft", that day. It was Friday night, I was about 16 years old, and while changing my wet clothes I started looking at this car book. I sat on the bed and started looking at this great custom shoebox Ford on the cover, with the candy apple paint, the Olds motor in it, all tuck and rolled and everything. I started flipping through the book and there was this article on Von Dutch, the pinstriper. That was a very big night in my life, looking at Von Dutch's work. There was a guy who had all that abstract , Salvador Dali type art and he would paint it on these killer cars.
MARK: He started out in motorcycles, too, didn't he?
BELL: Yeah, he was a motorcycle mechanic, an engraver, pinstriper and did other things. He was a very unusual guy, a little troubled maybe- but a genius. We heard a lot of Von Dutch stories and I don't think he realized how many young people he encouraged. I think if he knew that, today, he would feel very good about it. Von Dutch passed away in 1992.
MARK: Were you influenced by other Artists, like that?
BELL: You know... You're exposed to it, going to an art school. Some unusual movies, films, artists and things from other countries. Yeah, there's a lot of influences- you go to a lot of museums and art galleries.
MARK: To me, your art shows influences from comic books and things happening in California ?
BELL: Well that's where this all started. That's the basis for most of the rodding, although there was rodding all over the country, California had the magazines and I think that's where we had our focus. I think Minnesota is a lot like Michigan. There has always been a strong connection to the West coast. You can see it in the Cobo Hall Show with AutoRama. There's so many traditional cars as well as the new direction folks have taken with high tech and specialty items on their vehicles - it's a happy mix with alot of nice work and craftsmanship going on here.
I think too with magazines- Street Rodder, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Rodder's Digest all these great books that are being written now , for instance, Motor Book International and other specialty books- I don't think there are any lags anymore. I think that in every area of the country there are progressive people. Like Posie, out in Pennsylvania, he's always up to date with everything. Just like the great builders, here in Michigan, that build great rods and customs with the latest technology.
MARK: I've seen you reference BOYD on page 273 of Street Rodder.
BELL: Yeah, Boyd has been on a steady course for a number of years in rodding and customizing. Boyd has taken the automotive high performance custom culture into Wall Street. He's even been on covers of magazines like the Smithsonian. He has done for the rodders what Tom McMullen did back in the 70's with custom motorcycles.Suddenly, you would see a Joe Nammath riding a Chopped Harley , on the cover of Esquire magazine. A guy like Tom McMullen would find himself being written up in magazines like Newsweek. All these influences, they are so big and so dynamic like the movie "Easy Rider". All of a sudden every kid in America wanted a bike with a long front end and a crazy paint job.
MARK: An American flag on the gas tank? Peter Fonda a crossing a bridge?
BELL: Steppenwolf playing in the background. Yep, that's as good as life gets (laughing).
Yeah, we're all influenced by all these things from books, from cars we've seen, from going to the drag races in the 50's & 60's, and we live in a time now -like with cable TV where you can enjoy all these things right in your own living room.
MARK: Yeah, I think there's channel out there dedicated to it.
BELL: It's definitely a great time to be a gear head (chuckle)
Click on drawing for larger image
BACK TO CRUISIN-USA