Otis College instructor Dan Quarnstrom’s love affair with hot rods hits the printed page

By Michael Aushenker    

Dan Quarnstrom, creator of the Coca-Cola polar bears, let’s his imagination run on high octane  in “Joyride Flatout: Hot Rods and Dream Machines” Illustrations by Dan Quarnstrom

Dan Quarnstrom, creator of the Coca-Cola polar bears, let’s his imagination run on high octane
in “Joyride Flatout: Hot Rods and Dream Machines”
Illustrations by Dan Quarnstrom

Illustrator Dan Quarnstrom’s vehicular drawings only come in two modes: sitting still or behaving badly.

Ironically, the author of the annotated art book “Joyride Flatout: Hot Rods and Dream Machines” has never raced or tinkered with the very vintage automobiles he rhapsodizes.

“I’m not a hot-rodder,” he said. “I’m just a guy who loves them and draws them incessantly. I’ve never built one, I’ve never owned one. They’re really more characters than they are cars.”

That makes sense coming from a guy who designed characters for many years.

Now an instructor at Otis College of Art and Design, Quarnstrom worked for decades at one of Hollywood’s leading suppliers of feature film and television digital effects, Rhythm & Hues, back when it was based on Jefferson Boulevard near Playa Vista (in recent years, Rhythm & Hues moved to El Segundo).

Quarnstrom, who considers cartoonist and car designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Beach Boy Brian Wilson “two of my guardian angels,” has been into hot rods and enthralled with counterculture (rock ‘n’ roll, MAD magazine) since his pre-teens.

“That period of time from 1959 through 1967, it was the golden era of hot rod customizing,” said Quarnstrom, 64, who now lives in Westchester. “My dad took me to a show, it made it real.”

Quarnstrom cottoned to the outrageous, outlandish car customizers of the day — Roth, George Barris, Clay Smith (purveyor of the cigar-chomping, Woody Woodpecker-esque mascot Mr. Horsepower) — and fell in awe of grand auto shows, such as the 1963 Oakland Grand National Roadsters Show.

Childhood road trips to visit relatives in Santa Anta took Quarnstrom down an idyllic route to Disneyland, where in 1959 Roth debuted a tricked-out car called the Excalibur.

“You drove through Hollywood and saw that Capitol Records building and you knew the Beach Boys were in there making their records,” he said. “[Then at Disneyland], here’s this car that looked like it was made of melted cheese. His aesthetic and his shape language was so out there that he drew kids to it.”

Roth, along with fellow weirdo cartoonist Basil Wolverton and later Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and Rick Griffin, blew Quarnstrom’s mind. However, his father was a draftsman so he also “grew up around dimensional thinking. Because of a drafting class I took in high school, I knew how to draw plans,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Quarnstrom attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to study illustration. Emerging from school in the late 1960s, he began designing psychedelic posters for rock bands and landed a job offer from Hallmark Greeting Cards in Kansas City, Mo. Instead, he headed to Rolling Stone, where the art director surprised him during his portfolio review by assigning him spot illustrations on the spot: a take on the NRA logo featuring an American eagle holding two M-16s, Dick Tracy talking on his TV watch, and a snarling version of the RCA dog.

That work jumpstarted his career, and soon he was doing album covers before going into production design for DIC Entertainment on cartoons such as “ALF Tales” and “Cops.”

Everett Peck — creator of the comic book “Duckman,” which was later an animated cartoon show on USA Network — landed Quarnstrom a teaching job at Otis back when the campus was across near MacArthur Park.

Quarnstrom learned to create vector graphics while working for the advertising firm Robert Abel and Associates, working with John Hughes. After that company went out of business, Rhythm & Hues was born.

“Pixar was beginning to pick up steam at this time. [Steve] Jobs had put money into it. I was the 27th [Rhythm & Hues] employee,” Quarnstrom said, noting that hundreds were soon on the payroll there in what was then a sleepy, largely industrial neighborhood. “We were tucked back in there against Ballona. Chiatt Day shared a cyclone fence with us next door. Frank Gehry shared a wall with us.”

For Rhythm & Hues, Quarnstrom created those cuddly Coca-Cola polar bears.

“It was hugely effective because there was no dialogue,” he said of the TV advertising campaign. “It was the most wonderful job I ever had.”

In 2005, Quarnstrom left for Sony, working on such computer animated fare as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Escape from Planet Earth” and “Arthur Christmas.”

“It was wonderful, [though] it was a little bit of a rocky road,” he said of his Sony tenure, where he especially enjoyed working on “Cloudy” with Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who went on to direct the feature-film “21 Jump Street” comedies.

“Those guys are really imaginative, inventive guys. They were very fun to work with,” he said.

Back in 2002, Quarnstrom mounted the automobile-fixated exhibit “Joy Ride” at Metro Gallery in Pasadena — selling out almost all of its 100 drawings — before shifting his focus to teaching.

Today, Quarnstrom runs digital thesis classes at Otis and has worked as an instructor at his alma mater in Pasadena. This month he’ll teach architectural character at the Laguna School of Design.

But it was fellow Art Center graduate Scott Robertson who pushed Quarnstrom to publish his car drawings in book form.

“Entertainment design is now a major for all these young people who want to work on games, animation, visual effects films,” Quarnstrom said. “Scott retooled the program and has done many, many books.”

Crack open Quarnstrom’s “Joyride Flatout” book and you’ll see some out-of-control drawings of imagined contraptions with names such as “Hellacious Upsetter,” “Fast Fuelist” and “King Rat.”

“I feel extremely lucky,” Quarnstrom said. “I’ve had this oddball career. I’ve done a lot of things to satisfy my curiosity.”

To learn more about Joyride Flatout, visit designstudiopress.com.