It was 7:10 in the morning and we were about a quarter of a mile ahead of Bobby Kimbrough on I-485, the highway that partially connects all of Charlotte's satellite suburbs like an unfinished charm bracelet. A traffic light had held Bobby back while we slipped down the on-ramp and got the camera car up to highway speed, but I knew he would catch up in no time flat.
Only a few other cars shared that new stretch of interstate with us because it was Saturday morning, so I had an unobstructed view through the back of the photo wagon as he approached. His Cobra's crazy paint scheme made it look like a meteor headed right for us, a firestorm on four wheels - something that might attack the X-Men in a movie battle. I could have sworn the licks of flame were alive, spreading toward the back of the car, getting sucked into the side scoops as he pulled up next to us.
Hoping to record this near-cosmic experience for Modified Mustangs readers, I rolled down the window and pointed my Canon EOS toward the black-and-orange Mustang. The 65 mph blast of 28-degree air caused my eyes to tear up and darn near froze off my ears, but I think the results were worth the pain.
What my camera's CompactFlash card captured that chilly morning - flames on the hood, fenders and doors of a car - is a visual effect as American in its spirit as nose art on a P-51 Mustang fighter. In fact, some sources claim the flame fad originated with fighter planes of the 1940s that bore the images of ferocious animals or beautiful women. In spite of the similarities, though, painted flames on cars predate fighter planes by a few decades.
Modified cars have sported flame paint jobs as far back as the early teens, but it wasn't until after World War II that such eye-catching treatments became a recognizable trend. No one can legitimately claim to be the originator of flame paint schemes because several people probably came up with the idea at the same time - they saw early high-performance racing engines, circa 1910, spitting fire from short, straight pipes that opened only a few inches away from the exhaust ports. As primitive as engine technology was at the time, it was not unusual for motors to catch fire while racing, so flames and speed go together in most people's minds.
Southern California, that part of the country credited with nearly all automotive fashion trends, seems to be the point of origin for flamed cars as there are numerous black-and-white photographs of modifieds with flamed hoods cruising the streets of Los Angeles and racing on the area's dry lake beds.
Cars were not produced in America from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. When the factory lines cranked up again, our love affair with the automobile was rekindled like gasoline on a grease fire with manufacturers promising new "jet age" models. As factories pumped out millions of similar new cars to a hungry public, there began a boom in customization because owners wanted to personalize their rides. Flaming became widespread among car customizers because manufacturing and production technology advances happened during the war that made multi-layered schemes more practical. Prior to the war, the difficulty of applying various layers of red, yellow, orange and whatever other tints kept all but the bravest customizers from attempting it.
As early as 1950, West Coast-based car magazines were featuring flamed customs on their covers, which gave the rest of the country exposure to the treatment. Soon, every town in America had at least one flamed '50 Mercury or '34 Ford cruising its streets. As new cars became squarer and more slab-sided during the early '60s, customizers moved on to other paint designs, realizing that flames work best on rounded surfaces.