In this interview, Dave Rasmussen talks about show rod model car designers Tom Daniel and Ed Roth and such classic creations as the Tijuana Taxi and Rommel’s Rod. He also touches on the genre’s fascination with skeletons and laments how young show rod enthusiasts of the ’60s and ’70s deprived themselves of valuable future collections by blowing their cars up for kicks in their backyards. Rasmussen can be reached via his website, Dave’s Show Rod Rally, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I got interested in show rods as a boy in the late 1960s. We all built models back then. There was no Nintendo and only three or four TV channels. So kids did a lot of active stuff—playing outside—as well as doing things with their hands. Building models was primarily a male activity. I don’t think too many girls did it. It had a heavy post-World War II influence, with models of planes, ships, tanks, armor, and things like that. From the ’50s on there were also a lot of neat cars because the post-World War II boom included automobiles, too.
Most of us built all kinds of models. We didn’t center on one thing. We built World War II planes and ships, but we also built a lot of cars. The muscle car craze started growing in the 1960s, so model cars followed. It was pretty exciting for a preteen boy to be able to build a scale model of a muscle car.
In the late ’60s, when psychedelic pop culture was big, auto artists started creating fantasy designs for cars that exaggerated the engines and chrome. They built them into wild and crazy themes. This lasted from roughly 1965 to 1975 and pretty much mirrored the whole muscle car thing happening at the same time.
My favorite model cars to build were the show rods. They had the overblown amped-up engines, big pipes, superchargers, and all those fun things. They also had a lot of cool little details. Tom Daniel was probably the most prolific designer of the era for crazy themes. He created more than 80 designs in that 10-year period.
In addition to models, I love classic cars and muscle cars. I own a 1973 Pontiac GTO, and I’m the president of the Original GTO Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So I like the full-size stuff, too. At that size, though, you can’t own them all, but you can have a lot of fun assembling the scale models. With the demands of my job and other things in my life, I’m not able to build as many as I want. But I still build, and plan on doing so until, well, I can’t see anymore.
Collectors Weekly: How big is your collection?
Rasmussen: At one time I had 275 show rods. I think it was pretty much every show rod—the concept-type of show rod car—ever created. Today that number is probably down to about 60 or 70 because I sold off a lot of my collection. I was never going to build them all.
I started selling them to people who really wanted them. A number of people who come to my Show Rod Rally website have built the ones I sold them. They’re up on the Guest Gallery, which is a section of the site that highlights models people build and explains why the build was important to them, or if they did anything special with it beyond the straight box build.
Collectors Weekly: Are show rod model cars the most popular activity for model makers?
Rasmussen: Not really. It’s a very niche part of the model-making world. Some people in the modeling community tend to look down on it a little bit because the cars are so cartoonish. They see it as childish, which I find that ironic since all models are toys anyway, right?
The guys who do World War II armor or World War II airplanes take themselves pretty seriously because there’s a lot of history behind their models. There are entire books that describe a particular set of planes, the pilots who flew them, the markings on the planes, and all that kind of stuff. It’s almost like they’re junior historians. So they look at our cars and laugh because they are so over-the-top cartoony.
Collectors Weekly: How did your website get started?
Rasmussen: I didn’t set out to make Dave’s Show Rod Rally a show rods site for the world. I travel so much because of my job that I was rarely home to enjoy my collection. So I started taking pictures of it, and I built the site just so I could look at my collection at night whenever I was feeling down and needed a pick-me-up. Pretty soon people started finding my site and writing me. The next thing you know, it’s the official show rod site of the free world.
The “rally” part of the site’s name is just a metaphor. It’s a rallying place, if you will, online. Some of our members from England —I call them members—have come to the States. People have gotten together and formed face-to-face friendships as a result of meeting online. It’s always fun to meet people who share your passion.
Most of our members are in the States, but we have members is Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Norway, and other places. American car influence was particularly heavy in Europe as far back as the ’60s. They didn’t make that kind of stuff over there. Either the models were distributed through the modeling companies in Europe or collectors waited until relatives went to the States. Then they’d have them buy the models and ship them back.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect assembled models?
Rasmussen: Rarely. Some collectors like to collect models to assemble, and some like to collect the model in its sealed box. I have some of those kits unopened in the original cellophane. They’re quite valuable. Other collectors, like me, collect the sealed kits, but also a kit to make and display in front of an unopened one.
“Tom Daniel was probably the most prolific show rod designer of the era.”
We have a lot of auctions because Revell/Monogram and other companies started reissuing show rods in the mid-’90s with some of Tom Daniel’s kits. Probably 30 to 40 show rods have been reissued since then. That’s been a boon to our membership because they don’t have to pay exorbitant prices on eBay to rebuild a model they built as a kid.
A significant amount of model building is going on today, primarily by us old guys. A lot of people are also into diecast. Diecast replicas of show rods have been made in 1/64th scale, which is Hot Wheels size, all the way up to 1/18th scale, which is pretty big. A few companies did that for a while and are still doing it. There are examples of that on eBay from companies that are out of business, like Toy Zone.
It’s neat to be able to buy a diecast and plop it on your shelf. Not all of us have the skills to do the painting or the intricate work. So diecast is a significant collector’s deal today at all scales.
Collectors Weekly: What comes in a typical show rod model kit?
Rasmussen: There are primarily three things in the box: the model parts themselves, which are layered in the box on plastic injection molded trees or sprues, as they call it; a set of instructions; and a little decal sheet. They’re called waterslide decals. You dress up your model with them.
Nearly all of these models were molded in a particular color. If you didn’t have the painting skills as a kid, you could just paint some of the details by hand with those little Testors jars of paint from the hobby store. You wouldn’t have to spray paint it because it was molded in color. Slap some decals on, and you had a pretty good-looking model for a 10-year-old kid.
A lot of people use airbrushes today. There are all sorts of airbrush techniques and paints. Painting the models can get quite arcane and scientific. But a lot of us still just take an old rattle can of aerosol paint designed for that purpose—you warm it up a little to make sure it flows—and put some layers on there. As you might expect, there are books on how to paint models.
Collectors Weekly: So heyday for show rods was 1965 to 1975?
Rasmussen: I would say so. Probably 90 percent of them were made in that 10-year period. There was a burst of creativity drawn from two major influences: the rise in horsepower in muscle cars on the American scene, and the psychedelia of the late ’60s and early ’70 that I mentioned earlier.
Quite a few of the full-size show rods were built and went on the tour back then. I used to go to the big show rod show at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis, Wisconsin, with my brother every year. You’d see these big one-to-one scale models. Some of them didn’t even run. They were just props, but they looked like they could run. As a kid it was fantastic to see these crazy, over-the-top cars with these bizarre themes.
Some of the earliest show rods were Ed Roth creations from around 1963. The genre reached its peak, though, with Tom Daniel from 1967 to 1971. He’s a friend of mine today. During those years dozens of model show rods and real show rods hit the scene. They were highly anticipated. Kids couldn’t wait to get the Monogram catalog, go to the hobby store, and find out when the latest Tom Daniel, Ed Roth, or Carl Casper models were coming in. They were about two bucks each back then.
Tom Daniel and Ed Roth, who passed away a couple years ago, were the biggest designers. Carl Casper was a great one, too. I have the big five or so main designers listed on my website at the bottom of the home page with links to their websites. There were others who worked behind the scenes at companies like AMT, but their names aren’t as well known.
Collectors Weekly: Who were the top show rod model manufacturers?
Rasmussen: The top manufacturer was probably Monogram. There have been dramatic changes in the plastic modeling world—it never will be what it used to be. It’s probably 1/10th the size it was in its heyday. There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions and companies that have failed completely.
Back then the biggest model companies were Monogram, Revell, MPC (Model Products Corporation), and AMT. There was also Aurora, which made model kits of all types. They were primarily known for their monster models like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, and things like that. Enterprising young men would paint these figurine models.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the major themes found in the model kits?
Rasmussen: There were a lot law enforcement and paddy wagon models. They made food themes—pie wagons and beer wagons. And there were lots of military themes. I guess the creators looked around at what they say on the road: “I see a milk truck. Well, let’s make a fantasy milk truck.” If they saw a beer delivery truck, they’d make a fantasy beer delivery truck. They did buses, public transportation, you name it. Anything they could think of they twisted into some kind of fantasy transportation. There’s a bathtub show rod. There’s an outhouse one.
After a while, things got crazier and crazier. If you look on my site, you can see two bathtub rods by two different designers. You put a big, fake engine on it, a bunch of fixtures, and a whole bunch of chrome. The chrome was always over the top.
Show rods weren’t really modeled after actual racing cars because you’d have to pay for a license. You couldn’t just copy or use a real car’s likeness, theme, name, or anything. You’d have to buy a license from GM, Ford, or Chrysler to do that. Basing a model show rod on a real muscle car was not cheap. Maybe that’s why the show rods proliferated. The modeling companies could have these guys on staff inventing this wild stuff and not have to pay any royalties or licensing fees.
Collectors Weekly: Did the model designers also design the box art?
Rasmussen: Sometimes. Tom Daniel designed all of the box art for his cars except the photographs. There was a transition period around 1971 or ’72, when the companies moved away from box art in favor of simple photos of the completed model. That was kind of disheartening because the box art was so exciting. That’s what got you really pumped up. The box art was even more fantastic than the model itself. The artist could put it in a surreal setting and really kindle your imagination.
Other people in the modeling company worked on the molding details to make sure the model actually worked, that it could actually be put together. At the end of the day, it’s got to fit together or some kid’s really going to be pissed off. So a lot of different people had roles to play.
It wasn’t as exciting after the box art was dumped for photos. I don’t know if it was the cost or what. It was rumored that there was a lawsuit once because the box art didn’t match the model, so maybe that was the reason, but I don’t even know if that was true.
Aurora was probably the most famous company for box design, not just for show rods but for all its models. They had some of the coolest box art ever, particularly in their military and airplane lines. They had high-end artists on staff that created amazing artworks of aerial dogfights and things like that.
My favorite boxes are primarily by Tom Daniel. Some of my favorites are the Tijuana Taxi and Rommel’s Rod. Tom sells T-shirts, memorabilia, and reissued kits with his signature on them at his website, www.tomdaniel.com.
Collectors Weekly: How did the cars get their names?
Rasmussen: I think the designer probably started with a concept and then brainstormed a name later. Some of them are pretty simple like the Bathtub Buggy, or just the Bathtub, or the pie wagon, the beer wagon, the paddy wagon. But some got more creative. On Tom’s website, there’s a listing of all of his designs, and a column on the right of each page explaining the inspiration for the models and how he named or designed them. For example, Tom grew up in Los Angeles, so the trips he made to Tijuana as a young man were the inspiration for the Tijuana Taxi.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite models?
Rasmussen: I’ve mentioned some already, but my sealed Tom Daniel kits are my all-time favorites. They include the Tijuana Taxi, Rommel’s Rod, the Beer Wagon, the Pie Wagon, the Ice ‘T’, which is a fantasy ice wagon. These are some of my favorites, not just for the cool designs but also for the big slicks, chrome mag wheels, and huge engines. They all have that.
I like the details. The Ice ‘T,’ for example, was a fantasy ice hauler in a hot rod. It came with a little ice block with chrome ice tongs stuck in it. The Pie Wagon had little pies in the back. Rommel’s Rod had a little machine gun and skeletons. In fact, there were probably 15 or 20 show rods that had skeletons. For some reason, we not only loved chrome and big engines, but there was a lot of skeleton-themed stuff. I guess we had a fascination.
Collectors Weekly: Why is that?
Rasmussen: I don’t know. We’ve talked about it in our discussion groups on the site. When you’re a preteen kid, somehow skeletons are cool. I guess a skeleton driving a fantasy rod just fit. The car’s not real, so why not have a phantom driving it? For example, the Laramie Stage Ghost has six skeletons on top of an old, revved-up coach. There was a very famous, exaggerated coffin-like ’32 Ford by Darryl Starbird, which was displayed in full scale at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It had a real 6-foot skeleton leaning on it.
My website’s discussion group is called the Coffin Corner, which is a reference to Starbird’s little coffin car. The Boothill Express had a skeleton leaning on it. I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the skeletons associated with show rods back then.
Collectors Weekly: Were popular characters from the culture at large used?
Rasmussen: Not really. If you wanted to use characters like Mickey Mouse, you’d have to pay royalties. So Ed Roth created Rat Fink. I guess you’d say the only real characters we had were a whole lot of skeletons.
There were a number of movie-themed cars, too, that I’ve included in my model show rod collection because they were one-offs like other show rods. In fact, everything on my site is what we call a one-off—that’s part of the reason it qualifies as a show rod. A model of a regular production car wouldn’t really be a show rod, which is, by definition, something created once for a particular theme, purpose, or celebration. Things like the Mission Impossible car, the Monkee Mobile, and other concept cars or movie cars are one-of-a-kinds. George Barris designed the Batmobile, which is probably the most popular show rod because of the old Batman TV series with Adam West that we watched as kids.
Movie cars or series cars like the Monkee Mobile toured the show circuit. When you went to a car show and saw all the show rods, the most popular cars were the ones that were movie- or TV-themed.
Collectors Weekly: How many different scales did show rods come in?
Rasmussen: The common scale is 1/24th. But AMT or MPC also did a 1/25th scale. I don’t know why they made it that way. But it’s essentially the same size. The 1/24th, 1/25th scale is what everybody built. There’s a big T bucket called the Big T. That was much larger; let’s say 1/8th scale. That was a very expensive kit back then, but all of our show rod stuff was either 1/24th or 1/25th.
Collectors Weekly: What did you do with your models after you built them?
Rasmussen: As adults we make our models much nicer than we did as kids. We display them at home on shelves and sometimes put lights on them. But as kids—and everyone laments this today—we destroyed them. I don’t mean we destroyed them in casual ways; we destroyed them in spectacular ways. We would take big rubber bands and line them up and shoot clothespins at them. We would shoot them with BB guns. We’d put firecrackers in them and blow them up in our backyards. We would shoot marbles at them from a distance with a slingshot.
We came up with all sorts of creative ways to destroy them, never realizing, of course, how much money they’d be worth someday. Then we’d go buy more. There was always a new model coming out. In our house, we had two big shelves in the basement. When they would fill up, we’d select certain ones and blow them up.
All the models I had as a kid are long gone. They’re all slowly wasting away in a landfill somewhere in suburban Milwaukee, I imagine.
Collectors Weekly: When did you start collecting them as an adult?
Rasmussen: In about 1998 I was talking with a friend about how much fun I had as a kid building models. At the time, he was making airplane models. A couple days later, he showed up with a reissue of the little coffin car. He said, “Here. Maybe this will get you back into modeling.” I took it home, broke it open, and started making it. It is impossible to describe, but I got such a rush of nostalgia. It just lit me up. That started me collecting show rods on eBay. I’ve spent a lot of money and time putting together this collection.
In fact, I’ve bought most of my collection on eBay. There are other sites, but eBay’s the main spot where people find show rods. A lot of them have been reissued in the last 15 years. Some of the reissues have lessened the value of the originals. I found an original 1969 Tijuana Taxi just last night. The guy was selling it “buy it now” for $230, or something. That kit would have easily gone for as much as $300 before it was reissued last year. It’s still worth more than a reissue because it’s 1969 plastic, and it’s authentic. But the prices for originals drop anywhere from 25 to 50 percent when a reissue comes out.
It’s just a matter of supply and demand. Before the reissue, the only way to get a vintage show rod design was to buy the original. Now you can get 98 percent of the original kit because it’s got the original box art, uses the original molds, has better decals, and costs 25 percent of what an original would cost.
Collectors Weekly: How can you tell if a model is original?
Rasmussen: The original boxes were much sturdier. They were made of thicker cardboard and were generally better constructed. Some of the reissue boxes are really flimsy. Plus, the logos are slightly different on the front. There’s usually a date on the side panel. It’ll say “Copyright Monogram 1970.” So it’s not hard to distinguish between old and new.
Collectors Weekly: What are the steps to building a model?
Rasmussen: It depends on your skill level. They used to have models that were called snap-tights that didn’t even require glue. But generally speaking, you’d open a model kit and first study the instructions. Then you’d follow them step by step. First you’d use a razor knife to cut the pieces from the sprues. Then you might paint them, let them dry, and then slowly assemble them in stages until you had a completed model.
It depends on how much you want to detail it, how nice you’re going to make the gloss on it, and things like that. But I’d say it takes from 8 to 24 hours of real time to build a model well, which is a wide range. Some of them have a lot more details, painting, and other things.
Everybody remembers Testors glue. The glue worked very well for models because it literally melted the pieces together. It would form a very strong bond. It also had a particular, toxic scent to it. And in the late ’60s, a lot of kids were sniffing glue. So they came out with a non-toxic lemon scent, but it didn’t bond as well as the old Testors glue. Today, since kids have moved on to much more advanced recreational drugs, they don’t worry about that, and the old Testors glue is back.
Collectors Weekly: Are certain models more sought after by collectors than others?
Rasmussen: Yes. That would have to do with a combination of popularity and scarcity. There was a heyday for show rod models, but there was also a heyday for eBay as a place to buy them. Model show rods really happened in the late ’90s until about 2003 or ’04. There were some crazy bids for models, going up to $300, that hadn’t been reissued yet. Plus, the main people buying them were guys in their ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. We probably bought 75 percent of the models during that time.
Even the kids who bought models were probably doing it because their dads were taking them to the hobby stores and saying, “Come on. We’re going to build a model together.” But it’s hard to get a kid interested in them these days. You have to sit still and concentrate. Kids would rather play the Wii or shoot zombies.
So, in answer to your question, some of the most scarce and sought-after models have just been reissued. There’s a neat AMT model called the Depth Charger. Rommel’s Rod and Tijuana Taxi have just been reissued, too.
People who want something rare look for models like the Laramie Stage Ghost, which won’t be reissued. A small, defunct company called Pyro made it, so who knows where the molds are and all that other stuff. There were a number of smaller modeling companies that cranked out a few show rods and then just disappeared.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone just getting into show rods?
Rasmussen: Buy some books. “The Modeler’s Guide To Scale Automotive Finishes” is a good one. You can get help or advice from members of our Coffin Corner discussion group by searching the archives under a particular topic. If you have a question, somebody’s probably already asked it, and it’s been answered by a group of passionate experts. Or just ask the question again if you can’t find it in the archives. It’s a hobby and people are passionate about it, so they’ll dive in and say: “Here’s what you should do. Go here. Go there. Buy this. Buy that. Use this technique.”
I think plastic model building will always be there, but not like it used to be. We had a great run in the’60s and ’70s. A lot of us feel fortunate that we were around at that time. Unlike a video game, building a plastic models trains you to actually do something. You have to read and follow instructions. You have to have some manual dexterity and use tools. You need patience. The model has to work both mechanically and aesthetically. It’s something you can take pride in and get better at.
In small ways, I think those things transfer over to real life. A lot of young men interested in that kind of thing moved toward manufacturing or engineering disciplines. I’m in a manufacturing technical field today. The combination of fantasy mechanics and psychedelic, over-the-top creativity in the show rod era was a great thing back then. It’s never coming back. But that’s okay because we’ve got our reissues.
(All images in this article courtesy Dave’s Show Rod Rally)