While the majority of today's car designs are almost undistinguishable from one another, there was a time, not that long ago, when that was certainly not the case. Along with the distinctive, era-defining, mass-produced offerings that Americans fell in love with during the 1960s and 1970s, the era also proved to be the golden age of the custom car.
Born out of the wild imaginations of artists and designers, one-of-a-kind custom vehicles fascinated car aficionados and allowed those, with the financial wherewithal, to put the most personal of imprints on everything from restored vintage classics and luxury models to dune buggies, trucks, vans and motorcycles.
For those who couldn't afford to buy or build an over-the-top ride, they were still able to participate in the custom car craze thanks to Monogram, the maker of scale model aircraft, spacecraft, ships, cars and military vehicles.
Founded in the city of Chicago in 1945 by Jack Besser and Bob Reder, Monogram's early offerings were made of balsa wood. However, in 1953, when their model-making rival, Revell, started making plastic kits, Monogram responded with what they called "Plastikits" - all plastic model kits of cars, planes and boats.
From the mid-to-late 1950s, Monogram increased their line of automobile models and, as time went by, became known for their hot rods and custom creations. This latter genre of fantastical vehicles really took off in the late 1960s and hit its crescendo in the early 1970s.
To compete with the other model kit manufacturers who had looked to well-known custom car designers of the era such as George Barris, Mike and Larry Alexander, Bill Cushenberry and Dean Jeffries, Monogram hired artist Tom Daniel whose specialty was designing radically unique creations that weren't even based on actual vehicles.
These wildly imaginative vehicles, with even crazier names such as "Ice-T," "Red Baron," "Cherry Bomb," "Paddy Wagon," "S'cool Bus," "Sand Crab," "Pie Wagon," "Thunder Bug," "Roarin' Rail," "Dragon Wagon," "Tijuana Taxi," "Mean Maverick" and "T'rantula," became icons of early 1970s popular culture. Along with being offered as Monogram model kits, they also inspired a half dozen Hot Wheels cars and a 23-card set of trading cards. These cards were never sold in packs and were only available inside selected Monogram model kits that offered two cards: one representing the model and another random card.
The Man Behind the Monogram Cards
Tom Daniel, an East Los Angeles native who designed every card in the Monogram set except one, "Lil' Coffin," began sketching cars when he was in high school. Encouraged by a teacher to visit the Art Center School (now known as the Art Center College of Design) in Pasadena, Daniel did so and decided to pursue a career in mainstream car design.
During his senior year of high school, Daniel applied to the Art Center School in spite of the school's prerequisite of junior college study. Realizing he would have a high hurdle to clear in order to be granted admittance, he put together a portfolio of work that was so impressive, the junior college requirement was waived and he was admitted.
While working his way through school, Daniel began selling illustrations to Rod & Custom magazine. Upon graduation, he accepted a position with General Motors' Advanced Transportation Department where he designed futuristic trucks, and thereafter returned to work for Rod & Custom where his drawings caught the attention of the people at Monogram.
With the craze of slot cars, model kits and customized vehicles at its peak, Monogram believed Daniel was the man they needed to infuse their offerings with designs that reflected the era and America's love of wild wheels.
Looking to California lifestyle and beach enthusiasts for inspiration, Daniel noticed that young surfers were adopting German military helmets and iron crosses as symbols for anti-establishment sentiments.
Capitalizing on such German-themed paraphernalia, Daniel incorporated the look into a Model T hot rod. With a chrome Pickelhaube helmet as a roof covering a pair of Spandau machine guns, a scaled down German aircraft engine, six zoomie pipes and iron crosses adorning its grille, roof and wheels, Daniel's design would go on to become the highest-selling model car kit of all time.
Searching for the right moniker to hang on his design, Daniel has said the idea came from a Florida-based rock band, The Royal Guardsmen, who had a 1966 hit single "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron."
The song is based on Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz's canine character Snoopy who had a recurring dream where he was a World War I airman fighting the Red Baron from atop his dog house. Although merely a novelty song from a relatively unknown band, the title itself clicked with Daniel. Naming his Monogram model kit creation "Red Baron," the design became the artist's signature creation and an instant hit, selling more than two-and-a-half-million kits between 1968 and 1970.
A Meeting with the Man
Today, at the age of 79, Daniel lives in Southern Utah where he maintains a studio and still does commissioned work. He recently sat down with Sports Market Report to talk about his life, his inspirations and the impact his designs have had on American pop culture. We began our visit by asking when and how he first became fascinated with cars.
Tom Daniel (TD): My fascination with cars came early in high school. This was right after World War II and, in Southern California, a lot of the hot rodders who had been serving in the war came home and picked up where they left off. That was when you started seeing a lot of really neat cars on the streets. I was going to Huntington Park High School, and at the time the Barris brothers' [custom car designers and builders George and Sam Barris] shop was close by, so there were always some nice customs cruising around Huntington Park. That was when I really got into cars and started doodling ideas for custom cars.
Sports Market Report (SMR): We thought, perhaps, it was because your dad had some sort of cool car when you were a kid.
TD: That wasn't the case at all. My dad didn't even have a car when I was very young. We were at the bottom of the rung when it came to the economic ladder. The first car I remember him getting was a used 1934 Ford Woody.
SMR: You mentioned you started drawing cars in high school. Was that when you realized you had an artistic talent?
TD: It went back further than that. I knew I had a talent to draw since I was very young. I was living with my maternal grandmother for a while, and during that time, I remember I was always copying cartoons. Then one day I went into the kitchen and showed my grandmother something I drew, and she said: "Tommy! You didn't draw that." Well, I knew I did, so that's when I first became aware that I had the capability to draw.
SMR: Were either of your parents artistically inclined?
TD: My dad liked to draw cartoons and my mom also had a little talent to draw, but neither of them ever did anything with it.
SMR: In 1967, Monogram's co-owners Jack Besser and Bob Reder, along with Roger Harney, who was their model shop supervisor, came up with the idea of designing a custom Mack truck and gave the project to you. That became the "The Beer Wagon," which went on to sell in the millions and led to your being contracted as Monogram's exclusive designer and consultant with full freedom of creativity. Of all the great designs you did for them, what was your favorite?
TD: In a way, that's a difficult one to answer because they are all kind of like my children. But as far as being a success, there is no questioning that the "Red Baron" is at the top. It has gone on to become an icon. It was the best-selling model car kit of all time, and the second all-time model kit period! The only thing that outsold it was a 1:72 scale model of the British Spitfire airplane, which was made by Airfix in England. That was the only thing that ever outsold the "Red Baron," which, by the way, also became the all-time favorite Hot Wheels car.
SMR: Tell us about some of the other "children" of which you are especially proud.
TD: [laughing] While the "Red Baron" will always be number one, there are really a lot of them I especially like - the "Beer Wagon," the "S'cool Bus" - just so many. I guess I really love them all, so it's hard to single things out as being favorites.
SMR: Along with the iconic vehicles you designed for Monogram, you also played a role in creating some of the most iconic vehicles to ever appear on television.
TD: The Munster Coach from The Munsters, and the Batcycle from the Batman television series were the two I worked on. The stories on both of those are -- well, let's just say there were some bad feelings over those. Back when I worked on them, I was a young guy and was not, nor am I now, that hot of a businessman.
So, take for instance the Munster Coach. Who knew how popular and iconic that would become? When I designed it, I certainly didn't. George Barris was involved with the creation of the Munster Coach, and he went on to make a fortune off it while my total remuneration was like $200.
As for the Batcycle, which was the second Batcycle used in the series, it wasn't my idea, but I did the styling of it. Again, a bunch of money was made on it, but I never saw any of it. Suffice it to say, I had some difficult times dealing with the custom car people.
SMR: Tom, how does a Southern Californian end up living in Utah?
TD: [laughs] My oldest son discovered it during a trip, and he thought it was a great place. I had actually been living outside of Southern California for a while. I was in Vegas for a time taking care of my mother, and after she died, I lived in Sedona, Arizona. Today, where I live in Utah is a lot like Sedona - it's the high desert and truly God's country. It has a style that is very 1940s, and I'm a happy camper being here.
SMR: And are you still working?
TD: I am. I have a dream studio here at the house, and I still do some design work as it comes along. I'll continue to do that until they carry me out. I still love creating, and anything I work on today gives me a charge. I also have a little online business, so along with my [art] work I take care of emails and orders. I'm a one-man-band, so I do it all, and the days go by too fast - just like the years do now.
I guess that at some point in time, in my late 60s, I began to realize, like everyone does, that you can see the end of the game. To me, life has been like the four quarters of a football game, and when you get into the fourth quarter, you start seeing the goal posts coming up pretty fast. And the thing none of us knows is if we'll get any overtime. But nobody is immortal, although you sure think that when you're young. I sure did.
SMR: Are there any current projects you would like to share with us?
TD: Well, I'm a horrible procrastinator, but after many years - decades actually - I have decided that I am going to publish a "how-to-draw with Tom Daniel" book. So I've been working intensely on that. I have most of the chapters ready and the drawings are done, so now I just need to assemble the page layout and get it published. Ultimately, I will be making it available through my website.
In the introduction, I state that the book is intended for both young and old [readers] - for anyone who is interested in learning to draw. I know a lot of people only start exploring what artistic talent they may have when they are older - when they have retired. So this will be a book of simple tips and tricks to allow them to create better work so they can feel proud about what they produce. I'm hoping it will be well-received.
Also, I have designed it to be a spiral-bound book so that it will lie flat on a table or so it could be propped up in a tent-like style. It will be strictly [focused] on drawing with pencil and paper - old school, art 101 [basics]. And if it is received well and does well, that would motivate me to do a follow-up [dealing] with more complicated concepts - like using colors and working in different mediums.
SMR: Have you moved away from those "old school" ways and into the digital realm?
TD: No. I still work the way I have since the beginning. And if I ever need something done digitally, my son, Kelly, is very adept in this area. He designs all my t-shirts and is great with the computer, but I still do it the old way. I realize it is more time consuming, but I'm one of those old dogs. In fact, up until recently I still used an old drawing board from my college days, of which I just sold to a great guy named Kevin Burfiend, who is a huge collector of my work.
SMR: After developing so many unique car designs over the years, many of which seemed to come straight out of a dream world, we're curious: did you ever have a "dream" car of your own?
TD: Yeah. I still have my 1970 Corvette, which was the inspiration for the Monogram kit. In fact, it was just recently in the shop being redone. I also once had a 1967 split-window fastback Corvette that I loved and wished I still had. What a great car. Oh, and I also had this great little Fiat racecar that was a lot of fun.
SMR: Your model kits, Hot Wheels and trading cards have all been an indelible part of the lives and memories of so many people who grew up in the 1970s. That has to be incredibly satisfying.
TD: It's humbling to realize the things I created have become a part of so many people's childhood memories. I never really gave it that much thought until my later years, when I first started working with a computer and started receiving emails. [I would receive] wonderful emails from so many folks - from guys who got into cars in some way or another through building models, playing with the Hot Wheels cars and collecting the trading cards. Today, when I think about that, it puts a big smile on my old mug.
The Collectors Who Love His Cars and Cards
The Monogram Models set, composed of 23 cards that were inserted into Monogram model kits in 1970, may not be the most popular offering with mainstream card collectors. However, for three men - Darrick Swigart, his twin brother, Darrell, and their long-time friend, Kevin Burfiend - these cards have been embraced as some of the most beloved to ever be produced.
SMR: What is it about the Monogram cards that has so deeply captured your fascination?
Darrick Swigart (DS): I just love them. Every time I look at them, they make me feel like I'm seven years old again. But that wasn't always the case. I remember making the models when I was a kid and putting my paintbrush and glue down on the cards because they were the perfect place to set them. Plus, I also mixed my paints on the cards [themselves] because they provided a good surface for that. As a result, when the model was finished, the cards were trashed. The cards just weren't important at the time. The models were the important thing, and I don't think any kid bought the models to get the cards. I never did.
SMR: So when did your feelings about the cards change?
DS: As the years went by, I never really gave those cards much thought. I pretty much had forgotten about them. But then I saw a set at an auction and it was like having a big bowl of the ratatouille my mother used to make when I was a kid placed in front of me. When I looked at those cards, I got this warm and fuzzy feeling that took me back to when I was a kid. I knew I had to have them.
SMR: Do you have a favorite card in the set?
DS: I've never really thought of any of the cards as being my favorite, but as time has gone by, I have come to really appreciate one. I have the first "Thunder Bug" card that graded a PSA [GEM-MT] 10. I had been told by many people who know these cards that I would never see a 10, so that one is really special to me.
SMR: What is it about the designs of the cars that so attracted you to both the models and, later on, the cards?
DS: When you were a kid, making these models made you feel cool. They weren't just cars; they were cars designed with great imagination. They were the kind of cars that you would see in your dreams. The kind every kid wanted to own. Tom Daniel was way before his time with those designs. He was a guy who did amazing work in creating every card in the Monogram set, except the "Li'l Coffin" card.
SMR: How would you explain these cards to someone who isn't familiar with them?
DS: They suck you back into everything that was good about the 1970s. They're like a time capsule of all my good memories.
SMR: How did you first get interested in the Monogram cards?
Darrell Swigart (DS): My brother got me interested in them. He had bought a PSA graded set in 2009. When he saw those cards, he knew he had to have them and hoped to get them for a certain price. That didn't happen [laughs]. He ended up paying his [desired] price times four, but that was okay with him. He was totally hooked from that point on, and then he got me into them.
Then one day I showed the cards to my buddy Kevin, and all three of us were hooked. Kevin really got hooked. He has gone on to collect Tom Daniel's original artwork and has even made a few pilgrimages to Tom's home to spend time with him. My brother and I are obsessed with the cards, but Kevin has taken it to a whole other level. He has an entire room in his home dedicated to Tom. So the bug bit us all good [laughs.] We didn't just think they were cool, we all went head-over-heels for them. They are by far my favorite cards of all time.
SMR: Were you like your brother in that you only became enamored by the cards as an adult?
DS: I bought the model kits as a kid, and I certainly remember the cards. But all I cared about was that the designs were cool and that [the models] were fun to assemble. I never gave any thought to the man behind the designs or the cards.
SMR: Give us some insight on the cards. Is it difficult to build a set of them?
DS: In high grades, it is a very difficult set to complete. "Cherry Bomb" is the toughest card in the set, and it is extremely hard to get in high grade. That's the top rarest one on our list. "Screamin' Vette," "Thunder Bug," "Dragon Wagon," "Ice 'T'" and "Boss Mustang" are also tough cards. Remember, they only came in selected model kits during 1970, so they were only available for a period of a year. They were also produced in very low quantities, and most kids threw the cards away with the boxes when they finished building the models.
SMR: Do these cards have any inherent production problems?
DS: The cards got thrown around in the boxes, so many of them would come right out of the box with dinged corners. There are also a lot of off-centered cards, and miscuts are very prevalent in the series. I have found "T'rantula" to be off-centered a lot, and the cards that seem to have the most problems associated with them are "Screamin' Vette" and "Li'l Coffin."
SMR: Not many card collectors are knowledgeable about the Monogram set. Tell us how you would describe the cards to someone who knows nothing about them?
DS: Well, I have an engineering background, so I have a great respect for Tom's meticulous attention to detail and the perfection he achieved in his designs - even his initial sketches are perfect. I love their retro look, which perfectly captures the era of the 1970s. Tom was a genius in the way he designed cars and how he combined fantasy with reality. As for the cards, they rekindle your youth. The great feelings you had when you [first] saw those designs [on] the models, the Hot Wheels and the cards as a kid, they all come back. What can be better than art that rekindles your childhood?
SMR: The Swigart brothers got you involved in collecting Monogram cards and you took it to a whole new level. What is it about the cards that fascinate you?
Kevin Burfiend (KB): In the 1970s I was into building model cars, and I remember being struck by how cool the Monogram models were. Back then I collected baseball cards and then became a really avid sportscard collector in 1982. I am still a card collector, so when I realized there was an entire set of Monogram cards, that excited me. I think like most kids, I remember the cards that came with the kits, but I never knew that they were all part of a set until years later.
SMR: Tell us about your Monogram set.
KB: It took me about two years to complete my first and best set. My set is PSA graded and has a GPA of 8.41, and besides that I have quite a few other sets - more than 600 cards in total.
SMR: Do you have a favorite card in the set?
KB: Oh, definitely - "Cherry Bomb," which is also the toughest card in the set.
SMR: Kevin, is completing a Monogram set something that is achievable for a collector of average financial means?
KB: I would say it is, although not in high grades. I have a lot of cards that are PSA [EX-MT] 6s or PSA [NM] 7s and they look beautiful, so a set in those grades could be put together by anyone. On the high-grade end, that would not be the case. It's not by any means a six-figure set, only because the demand is