An Interveiw with Tom Daniel – the Creative Designer Behind the Most Popular Model Kits of the 1960s and ’70s
Tom Daniel. The name might not be familiar but if you ever saw a custom model car from the ’60s, our guess is you saw some of Daniel’s work. Between 1967-1975, Tom designed 75 cars for Monogram Models. These were iconic models that are still top sellers today like the Beer Wagon and the Red Baron. His designs were so influential that custom car builders sometimes crafted full-size versions of his kit designs, often commissioned by show promoters.
Tom Daniel has always been artistically inclined. In high school in Southern California, he naturally gravitated to the cool rides that were abundant on every street corner. He drew what he saw, adding his personal touches. A high school field trip to the Art Center School of Los Angeles solidified his career ambitions and later the school accepted him straight from high school, without any college credits, so blown away were they by his talent.
Daniel’s goal was to work for the GM Design Center and during school he was already penning custom hot rod sketches for Rod & Custom magazine. Sure enough, he was hired by GM and went to work in Detroit. He worked on several components for GM, including the hood for the 1961 Chevy C10, which was also used on their heavy duty trucks. Family troubles forced him back to California to his own design studio.
Just after returning to Southern California, he was called up for Naval Air Reserve during the Cuban missile crisis and then worked for North American Aviation, where he had his hand in the Apollo space mission. But he had kept his side gig doing monthly sketches for Rod & Custom. His work drew the attention of the folks at the Monogram model car company and his first design for the car model maker was the Beer Wagon. That was quickly followed by the Red Baron, based on a T-bucket with a World War I-era German-style helmet. Both were huge sellers for Monogram and Daniel noted that the company “turned me loose with a free hand” to submit future sketches of his designs. Many of his designs were totally his own and not based on any existing car make.
“Basically, I am an industrial designer,” Daniel explained in a recent interview. Each design could take up to 30 days to complete. He drew designs that were to scale but twice as large. His designs would include a side, top, front, and rear view. The master modelers at Monogram then would work out the full details. Daniel said he “used memories from my boyhood to help shape the models and the names.”
Production was usually a year out from the time Daniel first submitted his design. He generally cranked out a design each month for over five years from his studio. For a while, Mattel, the producer of Hot Wheels die-cast cars, also owned Monogram, so many of his designs ended up as Hot Wheels, too, with the Red Baron becoming the second-highest seller of all time.
But his work wasn’t limited to just model car kits. George Barris called him on a Friday night wanting a design for a TV show involving a family of monsters. Overnight Daniel dreamed up the Munster Koach for Barris, although the credit for the design by Daniel often gets mis-stated. He also designed the Bat Cycle for the 1960s Batman television series. It consisted of a Yamaha 250 and was linked to Robin’s sidecar, which was a detachable go-cart.
Daniel says he is flattered that many builders have taken on the challenge of building full-scale versions of his designs. But he is afraid that many of these unauthorized replicas “look great but at some point they change the overall look and design.” Daniel nostalgically admits that “it blows me away what my models meant for all the kids building them.” That might be one reason he authored his book, “How to Draw and Design Cars – The ‘Old School’ Way.” It is a chance to show others how to put pencil to paper, and draw customs sharing what he has learned over the years.
Daniel says he frequently gets notes from fans through his website, www.tomdaniel.com. That’s also where he posts updates on his models, other artwork, and limited edition prints. Besides working on new designs and concepts, he stays busy in Utah working on restoring his custom 1970 Corvette – “The California Street Vette,” which of course a model kit was based on.
Daniel says he enjoyed being part of the model car scene in the ’60s and ’70s and hopes that his models helped inspire builders to later work on their own cars and trucks and create their own unique masterpieces.
Artwork and photos courtesy of Tom Daniel