5 Minutes With Jimmy Smith
Artist Jimmy Smith has been drawing cars since he was a kid and has been a well-regarded and recognized hot rod illustrator for more than two decades. His art can be found on everything from car show promos and T-shirts, to shop logos and posters. He’s penned plenty of cool and influential hot rods, including the Federale Coupe ’33 Ford – Goodguys Tanks, Inc. Hot Rod of the Year in 2015 – and the “Pretty Penny” ’33 Ford roadster that won the Goodguys BASF America’s Most Beautiful Street Rod honor in 2013.
Smith grew up in Phoenix and got a lot of initial automotive influence from his uncles, who were both gearheads and into drag racing. As he hit high school in the early-’80s, that hot rod foundation was augmented with the emerging trends of Smith’s generation. “Between Volkswagens, and punk rock, and living in the hot, hot desert, that kind of formed my style,” Smith says.
Smith still calls the Phoenix area home and it’s common to find him cruising around in his hot rod ’37 Ford pickup when he’s not illustrating new ideas. We caught up with Smith for a few minutes to talk art, inspiration, and music.
Goodguys Gazette: What was your first car?
Jimmy Smith: A ’67 Dodge Dart I got in high school. I abused the [snot] out of that car. I sold that and bought my first Volkswagen; it was a ’69, and I did a ton of stuff to it.
GG: What car scenes had a strong influence on you growing up?
Smith: I moved to Colorado in high school. After my junior year, I came back to Phoenix to visit and Cal Bugs were really taking off. It bit hard. The VW scene was kind of it for me until the mini truck scene came.
GG: When did you start drawing cars, and when did become a viable career path?
Smith: I was not unlike a lot of kids in that I drew cars from the beginning to the end of my schooling. I don’t think I really thought about illustration as a career until high school. That’s when I started wondering if I could combine art with cars. I thought maybe I could be involved with a hot rod shop.
GG: What was your first breakthrough doing automotive art?
Smith: At the end of the ’90s, I was working at Industrial Chassis part time. Steve [Szymanski] was working on product stories for magazines. Because of my connections with those guys, I started doing sketchpads for some magazines. By the end of the century, I was getting a lot of magazine gigs. It just kinda took off. From that time on I was able to take things full time.
GG: Do you remember the first car you drew that actually got built?
Smith: One of the first magazine sketchpads was a concept for Truckin’ billed as the “world’s fastest street truck.” It was a ’67 or ’68 C10. We started to build it at Industrial Chassis, and I did a lot of design work for it. A few years later, there was a green ’32 sedan that Pinkee’s Rod Shop built for Don Smith. That was the first all-inclusive design job – from the initial concept down to nearly every custom-made part. It was so neat to be involved with that.
GG: When a client comes to you to design a project, how much of that is their input versus your vision?
Smith: Some folks have a pretty solid plan and want to see what’s in their mind put onto paper. Maybe a third of the clients I have will turn me loose to do what I want.
GG: Do you have a daily routine, or do you wait for inspiration to strike before you start drawing?
Smith: I go at it like a daily routine. I try to keep it a little bit structured. I will sit and do “art stuff” unless I go out to check the mail. But the garage is between me and the mailbox, which can be distracting.
GG: What music do you listen to when you draw?
Smith: A wide variety. Some old stuff like Burt Bacharach songs or Dave Brubeck jazz. I like garage-style ’60s rock like the Troggs and the Standells. I’m a huge Doors fan. I love The Who. From being a teenager in the late-’70s in Phoenix, skating and punk rock were just burgeoning, so I like a lot of that. Just depends on my mood.
GG: You’ve had your ’37 Ford pickup on the road for a number of years now. What’s your favorite thing about that truck?
Smith: Of all the cars I’ve owned, it’s the first pre-’49. I’ve always drooled over early hot rods. I’m infatuated with the Early Times car club. I really tried to go after that look. Shy of a really nice paint job, it hits that early hot rod mark. I had a lot of friends help me, but everything from front to rear I’ve had my hands on. I built it from the ground up.
GG: What trends do you see coming down the road in hot rodding?
Smith: It almost seems like we’re in a holding pattern. Maybe the standard has been raised so high that it’s harder to make a splash. The thing that has always interested me is cars with a heavy nostalgic look but done in a different way; they use common parts but arrange things differently. They look like a car that’s been around, even though it hasn’t.