There are few living members of Hot Rod Royalty as exalted as Robert Williams. If you’ve never heard of him, just Google the guy. Shit, he’d probably hate that we just said that, but he’s done SO much and has been SO prolific as a working artist for the past thousand years that it’s hard to know where to even start with the guy. As far as his influence in hot rod and custom car culture, anyway.
Robert’s work is as controversial as it is inspiring and it’s hard to find a garage wall without a poster of one of his paintings — usually “The Hot Rod Race” –– hanging on it. From his work for Maywood’s Roth Studios in the Sixties to Zap Comix in the Seventies to Guns ‘N Roses’ big album in the Eighties to his near-manic devoted minions in the Nineties, he’s still working, still ruling and still hotrodding…
Now, Williams had been glorifying the idea of the Rat Rod long before it ever existed as such: his work had featured primered Model A roadsters and weathered-paint Deuce highboys and greasers and knife-wielding chicks years before they were ever cool or Kool or kewl or whatever. And by the time he built his perfect Deuce full-fendered hot roadster, he had already been a ’34 Ford hot rod-owning 12 year-old, had many years under his belt as Big Daddy’s Art Director and enjoyed a fairly wide-spread following.
But after the Eighties had come and gone, Robert’s oxide red-primered ’32 Ford roadster with the infamous Dead Man’s Hand –– the Eights and Aces –– painted on the lower cowl made another appearance. Folks started to discover the car for the first time in the early Nineties. When a new generation of kids, geeked-out over the Low Brow art scene, discovered Robert and his peers and the “Eights & Aces,” they pointed and screamed, “RAT ROD!!!!” Robert looked back at them and said, “Well, yeah –– I’ve been doing this for years. You just getting hep now, kids?”
“Eights & Aces” was built the way the neighborhood cars Williams remembered as a kid were built: strong welds, a proper stance, clean body lines with a few wrinkles here and there, warmed-over motor and a little road rash. Interior wasn’t completely finished and no time for a final paint job, but it would run like stink and terrorize the neighbors. To him, the full-fendered car was exactly what a hot rod was supposed to be. But to the kids, it was a refreshing, amazing, accessible car that allowed them to believe in cars and art and heroes all at the same time. For the first time.
By the early 2000s, television was just starting to catch wind of the Rat Rod movement. The seminal car club, Choppers of Burbank, was being featured on a television show focusing on the roots of the new movement and Robert was there on-screen –– quoted as saying he no less than invented the term “rat rod” to the shock and awe of the anointed.
Did Williams invent the term? Could he take credit for owning the first primered car of this new, rapidly-growing movement that combined art and music and cars and fashion in ways never before seen? How dare he? Maybe the better question is, “Who else could?”
What the fevered masses didn’t realize in those early, heady days of the Rat Rod scene was that Robert Williams had to pause and take a few steps backward to appease them. As they just discovered his body of work, he had moved on to the next levels of his career…had put those canvases away and sold off those comic books. Now, he looked back on the stuff and smiled as the kids lapped up the posters and prints –– as wild-eyed as his upside-down roadster driver in “Hot Rod Race.”
Ultimately, Robert painted the “Eights & Aces,” turning it into the acid yellow and purple “Prickly Heat” –– offending those who never really understood him and the movement he helped create. To this day, “Prickly Heat” will show up at a few choice shows and those who really always understood the essence of the Rat Rod movement flock to it. Geeked-out over a car and its owner that would change the game once more. And wait for everyone else to catch on. Again.