Automotive History: 1969-70 Custom Paint Vernacular

04 Corvette

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


Fashion goes in and out of style. Style is always in fashion.

Or so it is said. When these photos were taken in 1969-70, a custom paint job could be a monumental undertaking, such as on this ‘61-’62 Corvette. It’s got a lot of idioms going on. You got your basic fades; your honeycomb around the Corvette emblem; your panel paint; your air brush spiders; and your thinline tracery.


05 Corvette Paint

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


We also have a lot of orange peel which would indicate that the paint system used was enamel or acrylic enamel. You can color-sand lacquer, but not enamel. Why shoot something like this in enamel? Don’t know.

But back to custom painting. One of the patristic fathers of custom painting was Larry Watson (21 Jul 1938 – 20 Jul 2010) in LA who began his work when only 16. He is credited with creating fades; panel paint; scallops; seaweed flames; lace; veils (aka fogs); and cob webbing. We will see some of the concepts that he inspired in the coming photos. For more, just Google Image it.


17 T Hot Rod

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


We’ve got three Watson elements in this Model T custom – lace; shadow; and panels. We’ll get a better look at the lace later on.

20 40 Ford

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


This 1940 Ford has a lot of shit going on. It’s channeled and sectioned, both very laborious effects, plus a very complex flame job.

Not only is the pearl underlay flamed and shadowed, but the flames are also asymmetrical, something flamers weren’t always willing to do back in the day, or even now.

25 Flames

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


And we must also mention the artful pin striping.

06 Lace

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


This is your basic stencil using lace, or your lace job. Very hot around this time. More complex lace jobs to follow.

07 Lace and Tape

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


Man, we’ve got a lot going on here: lace; panel paint; torch smoke; fine line tape; and stone work.

08 Corvette Paint

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


Here we got your basic flames, shadows, spatter, and panel paint. And a bunch of other crap.

09 Corvette Paint

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


Let’s see: fine line tape, check; panel paint, check; your basic fade, check; pearl underlay, check; and wait! Something new–spatter or cobwebbing. Man, can’t get enough of this good stuff!

34 Paint Hood

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


What do we have here? A GTO with pearl and shadow effects? Clean compared to some of the other stuff we’ve seen.

41 Corvette Paint Job

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


Zut alors! A Mid-Year Corvette with high style. Metallic pearl fade and mother of pearl (ie, mother of plastic) surround. Exotic.

33 Paint Treatment

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


Woowie zowie, we have hit the motherlode! This paint scheme has it all. Let’s tick off the effects: Scroll work; fish scales; thin line tape; air brush bursts; and who knows what else? I have no idea what Freak Drops are but they very well could be part of this paint scheme as well.

07 #55

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


After the last image, this hand lettering on a drag car looks downright conservative.

15 Gold Leaf

New York Hot Rod Show 1970


Gold leaf lettering in 1970 wasn’t going to make news. After all, it had been used on Indy cars for over 20 years. This example would be considered engine-turned gold leaf, and not all that expertly applied.

05 Gold Leaf

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


Lovely gold leaf on a Coca-Cola drag car. The pattern? I don’t know. Random striation? A lot easier to apply than engine-turned.

40 39 Chevy Paint Job

Chicago Hot Rod Show 1969


What’s the next step up from a Trifecta? Whatever it is, this 1939 Chevy has it. Lace; metalflake; fades/veils; and gold leaf lettering. Maybe more. I actually like it.

For a recap, lets see where we have come from in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. In those decades everything was hand done. Extremely labor intensive and requiring high skill levels from lettering to paint application. In the ‘70s we begin to see the transition to Gerber machines and die-cut, pre-spaced, self-adhesive lettering. By the mid ‘90s we find entire cars being wrapped in vinyl, including all graphic effects, lettering, and color. Unless you are an unsponsored Sprint cup team, all NASCAR racers are now wrapped. Skill? The kid at the computer creating the graphics and the application team with their heat guns and razor blades.

Where can you still find real craft? Go to a lowrider show. Go to Bonneville or the dry lakes. Paint lives on. I’m going to order some One-Shot and pin striping brushes from Dick Blick right now!

I would like to thank Dell, the painter at Customs & Classics in Murray, UT, for helping me name the various techniques shown in this post. Dell proves that the craft lives on.