Flamed Cars

(Rudy Rucker is a guestblogger. His latest novel, Hylozoic, describes a postsingular world in which everything is alive.)

I've been fascinated by cars with flames ever since I was a kid poring over my big brother's hot rod magazines.


[Photo by Don Marritz]

In 1973 I had a fairly generic white Ford that I painted flames on my myself. Here's a picture of me with the car and my daughter, Georgia, who's now a graphic designer of such books as the best-selling Twilight Movie Companion.

I did a hand-painted, amateur job on my flames--- not at all the way the pros do it---but it was fun. And, despite the dire warnings of my friends, I was still able to sell the car when I moved.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Show and Go car show in Riverside, California, which got me excited about flames all over again.


I found a quintessential flame-car photo on the web today, it's this Merc Lead Sled shot, and it appears on John Filiss's "Serious Wheels" site, among other gems in the "Mercury Custom" section...just look under "M".


Today I finished a painting on this theme, "Man in Flame Car." It's hard to pin down the guy's mood. (More info on my paintings page.)


  1. Rudy, Back in the day (1973),having such a car (with hand-painted flames),did you get pulled over an inordinate amount of times by the local authorities?

  2. sweet ride. the guy in the drawing shouldn’t be driving a car, he’s out there!

    my bike has flames on it, flames coming off of dice! i’m fast and i gamble.

  3. There’s something very fractal and stylized about great flame jobs. Turn them around and they’re like something out of an Asian woodblock print, maybe a dragon’s mane. I’d love to see an ambulance with red and blue art in the same, er, vein.

  4. People who paint flames on classic cars professionally are true artists! Having gone to every classic car show/rally in the SoCal area that you can think of, I am constantly amazed by the detail and craftsmanship.

  5. Hot rod flames are THE best and will improve anything. End of argument. I say this as I slurp coffee out of my stainless steel coffee mug that I flamed almost ten years ago. Coffee never looked or tasted better.

  6. Alas, I am not a fan of flames on a car. But that’s just me, and I hold no judgment on anyone who does.

    However, can someone explain to me what the appeal of them is? What the meaning is? Seriously, for my own information.

  7. The first lecture in my first design studio when I went to school was about customizing cars. Specifically about how the racing stripe was a custom element which rapidly turned into mass-market blandness. Wouldn’t it be nice if cars came with just a protective coating and everybody took their car to an artist to get the final paint job? We’re not a very visually interesting culture.

  8. #2: Nice! I was going to write the exact same comment, but you beat me to it.

    It’s from a truly funny movie, everyone… look it up!

  9. I vividly remember having flames on one of my old cars. Fortunately, the firemen were able to put it out.

  10. He’s probably worrying whether that lump is malignant, and wondering why he thought a car without doors was a good idea.

  11. I always thought it would be cool to take a crappy old beater and paint black smoke billowing out of the wheel wells.

    Oh, and Rudy- anyone who feels that they can’t paint a picture should be inspired by your paintings.

    Clearly the naked driver is wearing a cheap human disguise. Frickin’ Romulans.

  12. just what IS the oldest example of flames on a go-fast machine?

    Dunno, but in my attempt to try and find out, googling “history car custom paint” revealed a Google feature I never knew existed.

  13. I used to like the flamed cars, but now there’s to many company vehicles sporting flame decals…

  14. For several yeas I have fantasized about getting Ford Pinto and painting flames on it . . . coming out the back.

  15. Carl: Oh sweet nectar. This pool is freakin’ sweet. It’s like my pool is tearing ass around the backyard. But it’s staying still. Still waters run deep.

  16. Rudy, I love the flames on your old car. Totally rock the house.

    Flames and low riders are so under appreciated. I bought a lowered ’68 Ford wagon a few years ago to pimp around in for a few months and had a blast. The experience was so surreal; driving to work behind a desk all day and knowing that this creation is waiting to take me home.

    I ended up selling it in a fit of pique, to “simplify,” but don’t regret our time together.

    Glass packs, too. Glass packs are great.

  17. I’m not that keen on the True Fire. It makes me think of those glamor photos at the mall photo booth. Or lens flares.

  18. @#12 – I’m not sure, but my bet would be that cars probably didn’t have flame jobs before the Rocket Age. My guess is that seeing the re-entry of early spacecraft, which have that furnace for a nose when dropping through the atmosphere, might have been inspiration for the earliest paint jobs, the idea being to make your car look like it’s going as fast as Shepard’s Mercury Freedom 7 on his way home.

    But I could be totally off.

  19. These are all very pretty, but I want to see a car decorated with REAL flames. Not impossible, running tubes with little holes drilled in them around the wheel wells and grill, and pumping propane gas thru them. Better use a powder coat paint tho.

  20. The earliest flame jobs on cars I’m aware of were in the 30’s or 40’s on oval track cars in SoCal. They weren’t a reflection of the rocket age, but a simple illustration of a car engine being on fire.

    I’d tell more, but my magazine collection is long since gone.

    Good people to ask might be Pat Ganahl–long-time hot rod magazine writer, Dennis Ricklefs–excellent flame painter (hope he’s still alive), Pete Santini–world-class car painter…I could go on, but the cat wants out.

  21. Might also inquire at the H.A.M.B., Jalopy Journal’s Hokey Ass Message Board–someone there will either have the story or know who to ask to find the truth.

  22. I’m not a big fan of flame cars myself, but I absolutely love that painting. It explains to me, on a level that words can’t quite reach, why a person might like flame cars. It makes me want to like them, too.

  23. The flames on cars are usually related to overly-rich engines running without exhaust (open headers) and the exhaust gases igniting, creating flames out of the bottom or sides of the car.

    Sometimes they just mean speed, though, such as the paint heating up to the point of burning from the air friction.

    I have a true fire paint job on the sides of my 2008 Challenger.



  24. @38 mattsnoddy:

    Damn, that is a beautiful car.

    Never really liked flames, but this post just might win me over.

  25. That is beautiful, Mr. Snoddy!
    I hope some drunk doesn’t try to piss it out.

  26. My side gig is painting flames (and whatever else) on cars. I did my own a couple years ago…




    There’s something intangible that people just love about fire on something so loud, American and nasty looking. I don’t have ANY idea where it comes from, but I like it.

  27. That “Man in Flame Car” painting is great. Fun. Looks like my sister’s man-partner Frank.

  28. My 4 yr old is car obsessed, and can ID most makes and models. And what kind of car is his fav? Cars with flames of course!

  29. All the car needs is the sign in the back window reading “Don’t laugh, Jack. Your daughter may be in this car.”

    Of course, given my age, it might read “Don’t laugh, Jack. Your Mother may be in this car.”

  30. Your handpainted flames are some of the only ones I’ve seen that I liked.
    The cliche flames you see on everything these days are usually a strong indicator that I’m not going to like the owner of said item.
    Vice magazine once had a picture of a meathead in flame covered gear, and the caption said something like “ever notice how the people who have fire on their clothes are the ones who deserve to burst into flames?” Generally I think that’s true.

    But yeah, your 1973 car looks super badass, your daughter is lucky to have grown up with such a cool dad.

  31. Once when I was on the highway I saw this big column of smoke rising into the air. As I drew closer I saw that it was a fire. Someone’s SUV was burning. The flames were intense, but there was surprisingly little smoke and it looked like the paint hadn’t been destroyed yet. It must have gone up quick.

    But I can safely say, even after going to a bonfire, that that SUV was the most on-fire thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

  32. Oh, man, I just spent like an hour looking through Hot Rods & Custom Stuff’s build logs. I never would have imagined myself being fascinated by this but all the process involved…!

  33. Anonymous@42,
    I’ve seen a lot of flames, I’m almost ‘burned out’ on them, but the job you did on that Firebird is absolutely beautiful. Absolutely.
    You da [flame painting] man!

  34. Human facial expressions are universal. We all know what a smile or a frown means. The mood of the driver of this car, on the other, cannot be discerned because such an expression cannot be found in the compendious catalogue of human expression.

    There is only one conclusion to draw.

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