5 Minutes with Jay Ward
Even if you don’t recognize Jay Ward’s name, you’re undoubtedly familiar with his work. Ward has been with animation company Pixar since it was a scrappy Bay Area startup in 1998. He caught the attention of director John Lasseter while working as a production assistant on the animated movie “Cars” and soon became a critical “car-sultant” for that film. He’s gone on to become the “Cars” Creative Director and Legacy Guardian, in addition to Creative Director of Franchise at Pixar.
An alumnus of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Ward is an all-around car and motorcycle guy and entrenched hot rodder who helped launch the Billetproof series of car shows with Kirk Jones back in the late-’90s. His work has provided him the opportunity to rub elbows with enthusiasts and industry influencers around the globe, even leading to a recurring role as a Pebble Beach Concours judge.
We caught Jay for a few minutes to talk about cars, art, movies, and the future of hot rodding.
Goodguys Gazette: What was your first hot rod or custom car?
Jay Ward: I rode motorcycles a lot when I was young. That’s really what I cut my teeth on. My first really old car was a ’49 Lincoln Cosmopolitan coupe. It had a 337c.i. Lincoln Flathead. I bought it for cheap, lowered it, primered it. We [eventually] chopped and hard-topped it, and it started getting kind of nicer from there.
GG: What’s your current daily driver?
Ward: I’m still very much a motorcycle person. I have a 2016 Triumph Thruxton R I usually ride. I have a ’76 911S Porsche that’s almost like a daily driver for me.
GG: Who were your biggest influences as an artist?
Ward: I loved the General Motors stuff of the ’50s, so probably that’d have to be Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. Those guys were both mind-blowingly great automotive designers.
The biggest influence is E.T. Gregorie, who worked with Edsel Ford. Gregorie basically did the best designs for Ford and Mercury. My ’39 Mercury was designed by him; my ’49 Lincoln was designed by him.
Brooks Stevens, too. He did all those cool Art Deco beer trucks. A lot of cool Art Deco stuff.
GG: As an artist, do you think the appeal of vintage cars is strictly a function of nostalgia, or is there something inherently more intriguing about their design?
Ward: This is something I’m pondering, where the classic car line cuts off. I don’t think anybody can pull up a ’90s-era American car and really call it a classic. Maybe in terms of its age, but it’s not in terms of design.
I think it started in the ’70s. You had design dictated by either environmental or safety needs. It changed the automobile from being about selling a dream, this beautiful aesthetic thing you lusted after owning, and it became “buy this car because it’s the safest thing on the road.”
GG: How did you get pulled into be the “car-sultant” on the first “Cars” movie?
Ward: I started as a production assistant on “Monsters, Inc.” I started on “Cars” and was one of the first production people. Director John Lasseter loved cars, but I probably had a little more nerdy car knowledge. The more I started talking, the more he would ask me, ‘what we should do for this?’ He began to lean on me to make sure things felt right. Authenticity is important in our movies. When you watch it, you can tell we did our homework.
GG: What’s the most rewarding thing about being involved in the “Cars” franchise?
Ward: You realize this movie caused people to reconnect with Route 66. Businesses on Route 66 that were dying all of a sudden had customers because kids wanted to go find Lightning McQueen.
There is a whole fan base of kids who kept watching it over and over. I did a talk about the art of “Cars” and this guy came up and said, “I just want to say thank you. I have a Hudson Hornet. My grandkids never wanted to spend time with me. Because of you, my grandkids want to go riding in that car every weekend.”
GG: Your car collection includes a Model A hot rod, a ’57 Pontiac Safari, and a chopped ’39 Mercury convertible. Which are you most likely to cruise in on a date night with your wife?
Ward: Probably the Safari. It’s the first car I bought with the whole family in mind. It has been everywhere.
GG: You’ve served as a judge at Pebble Beach. What’s the hardest part about evaluating cars at that level?
Ward: I’m lucky because I’ve been an honorary judge. You’re judging with other car designers and artists, so it gets to be more subjective. I feel very blessed to be able to say that I’ve gotten to judge at Pebble Beach.
GG: You’ve had the opportunity to meet many celebrities – actors, racers, musicians. Who were you most star-struck to meet?
Ward: Probably the most star struck was when I met Wally Parks. I met him the same night I met Bruce Meyer. And I met Chip Foose probably within a couple months.
GG: How do you see car culture evolving in the next 10 years?
Ward: I wish any of us could really answer that. Is the next generation of kids going to care about owning a car more than they care about owning a laptop? I think it depends on how we influence that generation and make things accessible.
GG: What’s next for Jay Ward?
Ward: We have a new “Cars” series coming to Disney Plus next fall. And I wrote a live-action film about motorcycle board-track racing that is starting to make progress. Hopefully we’ll be able to start making it within the next year. That’s been a 10-year-long dream of mine.