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Flames On Cars, Where Did They Originate?

By Christopher P Clark

Burning rubber. Hot Rods. There are a lot of ‘heat’ related phrases connected to cars, so it may seem only natural to have flames painted on cars. But where did the idea originate? The history of painted flames remains enigmatic. Some folks argue that the history of flame-jobs can trace its roots back to World War 1. The original Aces of World War One often painted their planes with unique designs and symbols, and yes, sometimes this included flames. In a time when most cars came only in black, this idea of custom paint jobs was something completely novel and unusual. The idea of painting one’s vehicle as a tool for self expression had never been seen before.

During World War 2, many pilots and flight crews painted figures of women on their bombers. The P51 Mustang, and primarily the Flying Tigers, created a name for themselves by painting tiger ‘mouths’ on the noses of their planes. It’s plausible that following the war the returning soldiers and airmen started to paint unique design on their cars. It seems that flame jobs became common during the late 1940s and 1950s, which makes the WWII connection seem even more possible, though no one can say for sure whether the trend originated with the war.


The artist Von Dutch – yes, the same name as those trucker hats that were wildly popular a few years back – is credited with being one of the grandfathers of pin-striping and flaming. Pin-striping was a unique process of creating precise designs on vehicles. The ‘pin’ thin lines sometimes created patterns that appeared to resemble faces or flames. Many of the designs were done ‘free hand’ directly onto the car or motorcycle in question. Along with Van Dutch (also known as Kenny Howard), Dean Jeffries and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth are considered to be the originators of Kustom Kulture – which includes the idea of customizing a vehicle with flames. This culture rapidly expanded during the early 1950s.

Although many flames and ‘pin striping’ paint jobs today are actually vinyl stickers stuck to the surface of the car’s paint, and not actually custom paint jobs, the custom jobs do still exist. Custom cars, classic cars and a variety of streetcars are still decorated with flames right in the paint. Following on the heels of pin striping, flame-jobs tend to follow the curves of an individual vehicle as a way to accent the shape of the motorcycle, car, truck or van in question while giving it an aura of speed.

The most obvious reason for flame-jobs is that the driver is making a claim that his or her car is fast. The flames are often one last touch to an already modified car – much as some of today’s drivers add tinted windows, neon lights or spoilers to their vehicle as a way to enhance the aesthetics of their car. Painted flames add a finishing touch that creates a classic and totally cool look on the vehicle.

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