Allen Varney, writer and game designer

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A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

It startles me that, early in this century, other Americans seldom thought Californians weird. Sure, Hollywood had already become America's Babylon, but outside the film industry? If East Coast residents thought of non-cinematic California at all, they probably imagined gold rushes -- Yosemite -- bucolic roadside diners out of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Weird? Hardly.

But World War II brought heavy industry and young workers to the Golden State. Due to wartime shortages, they had no new cars to buy, so they revved and restyled old cars. During the 1940s and '50s, a hot-rod subculture rose. In Los Angeles, the first city designed for cars -- Modified-Auto Mecca! -- a dozen specialty shops made custom chassis for everyone from Hollywood stars to ex-GIs. Any hot-rodder can name these artists: "Von Dutch" (Kenneth Howard), Barris Kustom Industries, Harley Earl, Howard Darrin, and many more.

The Beethoven of this self-styled "Kustom Kulture," Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, sculpted amazing, uninhibited dragsters with names like Outlaw, Beatnik Bandit, Orbitron, and Mysterion. A true independent and a Kustom legend, Roth would airbrush "Weirdo" T-shirts at car shows. Writer Tom Wolfe described the typical Weirdo in a 1963 Esquire article: "a guy who looks like Frankenstein, the big square steam-shovel jaw and all, only he has a wacky leer on his face, at the wheel of a hot-rod roadster."

After that Wolfe essay, "There Goes [Varoom! Varoom!] the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," Kustom Kulture varoomed onto the national scene. The model car maker Revell licensed Roth's designs for a popular kit series, and his Weirdo characters careened into the pages of magazines and coloring books. Custom cars from many California designers appeared in Topps' 1964 "Hot Rods" trading card set. As a symbol of youthful rebellion, maverick industry, and kookiness, Kustom Kulture revved and restyled America's sedate image of California.

Seeing the power of that zeitgeist, a New Jersey card company copied it.

Fleer's 66-card 1966 "Weird-Ohs" set licenses, not Roth's Weirdos, but a knock-off set of 22 kits by Hawk Model Company. Though clearly Rothian in inspiration (crossed bug-eyes, fanged leer, hairy arms), the Hawk monsters pursue broader vocations than Roth's single-minded racers. True, a dozen Weird-Ohs pilot dragsters and jet planes and one hopped-up baby carriage; but as for the rest -- timekeeper Wade A. Minut, basketball player Francis the Foul, hunter Terry Tent, Tex Tumbleweed, Sling Rave Curvette (good heavens, a female!), and various athletes -- they all have to walk.

"Pedestrian" figures in two senses, the crudely sketched and flatly colored Weird-Ohs cards lag far behind Roth's work and a later imitator, Donruss's popular "Odd Rods" series (1969-73). The Weird-Ohs really lose the race with their back copy, tedious stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that taunt and demean their subjects. Take drag-racer Digger: "Sometimes this idiotic jack rabbit ends up tailing his own dragster. Trouble is, he needs a tune up between the ears. It's probably much safer for us pedestrians this way" (card #54). "Us pedestrians"? Try saying that at a custom car show!

Completing a full Weird-Ohs set makes a pleasant challenge for the collector, but the cards themselves hold interest mainly for their East Coast attitude. They exploited Kustom Kulture without understanding it; they put monsters in cars, but didn't see that buyers wanted to be the monsters -- hard-driving rebels, willing to panic the Establishment, but basically just out for a good time. It was nearly the first time East Coasters mistook this quintessentially California attitude, but certainly not the last.

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, September 1997.

Copyright (C) 1997 Tuff Stuff Publications, Inc. Thanks to Warren Spector for the loan of the Weird-Ohs cards.]

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