Bardahl Bad Guys, Fuel Curve

Bardahl Bad Guys Wreak Underhood Havoc

By Mike Bumbeck

It might seem unlikely that engine problems like carbon buildup and sticky valves were anthropomorphized into classic gangland style cartoon characters, but that is exactly what happened when the troublemaking Grime Gang of Bardahl Bad Guys entered into the cast of famous advertising icons along with cereal-hawking Tony the Tiger, tire toting Bibendum, and that beret-capped purveyor of hi-fi sound and good taste Charlie the Tuna.

Sludge, varnish, knocking, and other nefarious engine maladies have been around as long as internal combustion but were made world famous with Bardahl Bad Guy commercials, stickers, decals, keychains and even coffee cups in the Fifties and Sixties. Television was a three channel deal and animated series were broadcast in prime time from the Stone Age Flintstones on Friday night and into the space age Jetsons on Sunday.

Engine bad guy Sticky Valves and good guy detective Bardahl were created in the Fifties in an advertising campaign to convince motorists to use Bardahl Top Oil and other additives. It worked. According to a 1954 issue of Billboard, the characters from the Miller, Mackay, Hoeck & Hartung agency and animated television commercials produced by Ray Patin Productions in Hollywood, California boosted 1953 sales by 35%.

The world embraced animated pitchmen ranging from the aforementioned tiger to talking moose and squirrels. While Charlie the Tuna grooved out to some hi-fi Herb Alpert at the bottom of the sea under the mistaken belief that the Starkist fishermen wanted to catch tuna with good taste (sorry, Charlie) the Bardahl Bad Guys were hard at work making serious engine trouble. Shadowy figures like Sticky Valves had folks picking up a can or two of Bardahl at the filling station.

Grime Gang Video

Mechanical problems are certainly bad news but technical explanations can leave motorists disinterested. Translating technical mumbo jumbo into cartoon troublemakers like Gummy Valves helped folks visualize engine troubles. As tough as Gummy Valves was, a can or two of Bardahl sent him cowering for the exhaust pipe. Until next time. Cartoon engine troubles would be back and in greater numbers.

Sticky Valves found cohorts with Gummy Rings, Blackie Carbon, Dirty Sludge and Clatterbad Clara. The Bardahl detective himself was characterized as a tough Dragnet-style gumshoe that sent the bad guys packing and restored engine performance fouled up by the likes of Gummy Rings and the rest of the gang. Other versions of Bardahl have the hero in gas station attendant guise knocking out the bad guys with a boxer-gloved single punch.

Other spots had Sticky Valves smacking at the valves with a ball peen hammer so you could hear all that clatter and sound. Gummy Rings did his best to make your engine sputter and your car jerk and stutter and was featured in ads holding a piston that looked like it came out of leaned out top fuel dragster. Blacky Carbon made an engine ping, drank up gas, shorted plugs and fouled up everything. Dirty Sludge shot the engine full of gum – but with some Bardahl he was done.

The good (or bad) news is that a bunch of recently scored stickers are a sign that the Bardahl Grime Gang are back, even if they never really went away. Gummy Rings is gumming up the works with varnish and sticky ring lands. Sticky Valves is at it again. Blacky Carbon or perhaps one of his relatives is fouling out plugs. Sadly, known collaborator, Clatterbad Clara seems to have retired from the current gang or given up a life of crime but we have no doubt that she is as tough on valves as she ever was. Bardahl is still ready to send the gang packing.

’60s Bardahl Commercial

Bardahl is still the business of keeping your engine free of bad guys and continues their heritage of racing sponsorships that stretch from the famous Miss Bardahl unlimited hydroplane and Indy race cars to current drift and nostalgia funny car drag racing efforts.

Currently based in New England, Mike Bumbeck is a journalist and 40-plus year driver and caretaker of everything from vintage econoboxes and turbocharged coupes to classic sports utility vehicles and motorcycles. He honed his skills writing about hot cars and punk rock in a pre-tech boom Bay Area before migrating back east as gigs with publishing empires and other pit stops fueled the past decade. An outside-the-box car guy, Bumbeck launched Clunkbucket in 2009 as a “place for the unsung heroes of the automotive universe.”