How Art Cars Work

Harrod Blank's Camera Van is completely covered with cameras of all shapes and sizes -- it weighs 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms).
Photo by Hunter Mann/Courtesy of Harrod Blank

Like any art, be it painting, sculpture, or something else altogether, trying to define what is or isn't an art car can be tricky. There must be a car involved, right? But what about trucks and motorcycles? Does it have to be drivable? Does it have to be pretty? Asking the question, "What is an art car?" will get you as many answers as asking, "What is art?" Yet, like any other form of art, it usually represents the individual and expresses something about them.

However, there are a few criteria that most people in the art car world can agree on. There is a degree of craft and dedication to the project involved; most art car artists would say that a car with a few painted handprints slapped on the hood is not a proper art car. Even then, there's a lot of leeway in the craft. As Harrod Blank, author of "Art Cars," once said of a Volkswagen Beetle covered in stained glass, "That takes a lot more artistic skill and decision making than a giant duck."


Being able to drive the vehicle is also important. If it doesn't run and drive, then it's just sculpture, not an art car. Often, the people who create the art car use it as a daily driver, taking it to work and on errands. They can also be second or third cars, but they're almost never tucked away in a garage, hidden from view or taken out only on special occasions.

It seems that there are a few types of art cars, though many blur the lines and the categories are mere guidelines and can include motorcycles and even bicycles:

  • Paint Cars: are painted with words or patterns right on the surface of the vehicle
  • Glue Cars: have items attached to the vehicle, usually from fender to fender
  • Message Cars: have something to say, be it self-promotion or world peace
  • Sculpted Cars: go far beyond glue cars and add towering sculptures and shapes to the body of the vehicle
  • Interactive Cars: encourage people to play with the car, write on it, push buttons and more

People started creating art cars in the late 1970s and early 1980s, often without knowing that other people were starting on the same strange artistic journey. The first Houston Art Car Parade was held in 1988, and it is now the largest gathering of art cars in the world. In the mid-1990s, art cars began participating in the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. In the past decade, art car festivals have sprung up around the country, with various degrees of success.

But who would turn a perfectly good car into a shark? Or completely cover it with cameras? Or build a Gothic cathedral on top of a hearse? All of these cars already exist, and many more. Up next, let's take a look at what inspires art car artists.


Who makes art cars?

Almost every walk of life has a representative in the art car world: men, women, young, old, rich, and poor. Kelly Lyles, for instance, has made a car called "Excessories ODD-yssey" that is covered in shoes, purses, and jewelry. Hyler Bracey has spent more than half a million dollars to build one of the most expensive art cars ever, "Big Horn," which counts among its many horns and whistles the largest horn in the world. Even famed mentalist Uri Geller has created an art car covered in spoons and forks he's bent with his mind.

Some artists can even be commissioned to create an art car for someone else. Lyles has painted a Toyota Prius with peacocks, parrots, and herons for a client. But most do it for themselves, and the creative process is as personal as the finished product.


One thing is certain, no matter what kind of art car we're talking about: it's going to get a lot of attention, and so will its driver. While a lot of art car creators are in it for the attention, some are surprised by the number of people who smile, wave and ask questions. "People are real characters," said Blank. "They're eccentric, they're okay with who they are, and they wear it on their sleeve. But some are shy and not comfortable being in their car."

A lot of art car creators love the attention and make costumes to match their art cars. Lyles wore head-to-toe leopard print when driving her car "Leopard Bernstein." Blank wears a suit covered in flash bulbs when he appears with his "Camera Van." Practicality is not necessarily as important as the total look -- Blank, for instance, can't sit down in his "Flash Suit."

The number-one question people ask art car drivers is, "How do you wash it?" The answer: Carefully, with a garden hose and never at the car wash. Lyles says she only washes her art cars once a year, while Blank notes that "washing them is not fun, and some of the parts can't get wet."

Let's take a look at the nuts-and-bolts of creating one of these attention-grabbing beasts -- sometimes with literal nuts and bolts. And a lot of glue, paint and care.


How to Make an Art Car

There are a few practicalities to deal with when building an art car -- things you need to consider before ever laying a bead of glue. First, those practiced in the art recommend not starting with a clunker. After you've put in hours and hours of work and as much money as your bank account can stand, you're not going to want to ditch the car when you find you need an engine rebuild. Just ask Cheri Brugman, who had to crush her car "Pestilencia," flame throwers and all, when it became too expensive to fix its mechanical failures. A good, driving foundation makes all the difference.

Whatever reliable car, truck, or motorcycle is used, the surface has to be properly prepped. Years of wax and buildup have to be removed in order for the adhesives to work properly. Older cars have an advantage here, as their surfaces are usually scuffed up a bit or even dull, in some cases. Newer cars have to have their shiny topcoats taken down a notch in order to get a good stick from the glue. Lyles said the Prius commission was harder to work on because of its high-sparkle finish.


After the initial prep work is complete, the car is ready to become an artistic monument. But don't just slap any old paint on the sheet metal. "Newbies don't research enough when they start," said Lyles. "They use superglue, house paint, materials that won't last a season." Paint intended for use on road signs works great and lasts through the weather, especially if a clear coat is applied on top of a paint car. Silicone glue holds the best for most of the things people want to attach to their cars, though pop rivets can attach heavier items. Some materials are tougher, if not impossible, to use, like enamel paint, which fades in the sun, and paper, which will turn to tatters in the rain.

Cars like these can take as little as a few weeks to complete; and as "organic" cars change and grow continuously, they may never actually be finished. But the average art car takes about a year to fabricate to the creator's satisfaction. With some cars, like glue cars, it can be a challenge to know when the car is complete. But with something more sculptural, like a dolphin on wheels, it's pretty obvious when you've reached the finish line.

These cars are often daily drivers, remember, so attention must be paid to practical matters. Sight lines must be maintained forward and rear (at least with the help of rearview mirrors), and the engine still has to be accessible for oil changes and occasional check-ups. And if it's going to be driven on public roads, it has to meet all vehicle safety codes, too.

Art car owners have to deal with issues owners of "mundane cars," as they call them, would never think of. People touch, steal and break glue-on items, or bits and pieces might fly off on the road if they're not attached with the right glue. Of course, gas mileage goes down, thanks to the additional weight and the changed aerodynamics of the vehicle, but this is less of an issue for paint cars. If fuel costs continue to rise, said Blank, "There will be a time when we can't drive these cars, at least not miles and miles. Camera Van weighs 7,000 pounds."

Put all of these things together -- the car, the artist, the costume, the craft -- and you've got yourself a parade. Or maybe even a festival. Or a museum exhibit. Read on to find out where art cars gather for a good time.


Where to Find Art Cars

Because of his extreme attention to detail, Ron Dolce's "Glass Quilt" art car took more than 18 years to complete.
Photo by Harrod Blank

For years, there was no official festival for art car enthusiasts. Think of it: it was the 1980s, and no one even had the Internet, let alone Facebook pages or Twitter accounts where like-minded souls could keep tabs on each other. Then, in 1988, the Houston Art Car Parade held its inaugural event in Texas, with 10 or 15 cars in attendance. Now, more than 20 years later, it's the largest art car event in the country, with 250 to 300 vehicles representing all the variations in the art car world.

The ArtCar Fest in San Francisco, Calif., the second-largest art car show in the country, got its start in 1997. In the mid-1990s, art cars also became part of the Burning Man Project, a temporary arts festival that sets up camp each summer in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The organizers even created a Department of Mutant Vehicles to approve cars of sufficient artiness for the festival.


There are a few museums devoted to art cars, like the ArtCar Museum in Houston, which has an exterior covered in scrap metal and chrome courtesy of car artist David Best. The American Visionary Art Museum is committed to self-taught artists, and to that end, offers tips and guidelines as part of its "You Can Build an Art Car" exhibit. And Harrod Blank himself is building Art Car World, a museum which already has 42 art cars in its collection, including "Mondrian Mobile," which is based on the artist Piet Mondrian's colorblock works, and "Carthedral," a towering black Gaudi-style cathedral built on top of a hearse.

Art cars can be found the mainstream, too. The Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles, Calif., held an art car exhibition in 2003 featuring "Glass Quilt" by Ron Dolce and "Make My Movie!" Dennis Woodruff's drivable billboard -- for himself. Given the Petersen Museum's L.A. location, it seems only right that Woodruff's car is in the permanent collection.

Art car shows are springing up around the country, which is good for local car artists but not so great for the big national shows. Remember, fuel economy goes down when there's a giant shark body attached to your car -- which probably didn't get great gas mileage to begin with. Some art car festivals even reimburse artists for their fuel cost in driving to the show, but those funds are dwindling.

Why did art car spring up when they did, and why do they continue to be popular? Blank's take on it is that these creative cars came at a time when auto companies simply weren't thinking wildly enough. Now, the whole auto industry is changing. "People are modifying what's there and looking for new solutions." And they're having a blast as they go.

For more information on art cars and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • American Visionary Art Museum. "You Can Make an Art Car." (July 17, 2009)
  • Art Car Central. (July 17, 2009)
  • Art Car World. (July 17, 2009)
  • Blank, Harrod. "Art Cars." Second Edition. Blank Books. 2007.
  • Blank, Harrod. Personal interview. Conducted July 24, 2009.
  • Lyles, Kelly. Personal interview. Conducted July 21, 2009.
  • Petersen Auto Museum. "Wild Wheels: Art for the Road." (July 29, 2009)
  • Seattle Art Cars. (July 17, 2009)