Leopard Bernstein by Kelly Lyles

From the Art Cars series — one man's obsession with America's mobile masterpieces

Photographs by Harrod Blank

WASHINGTON — I started with a 1979 Ford Pinto that was frequently the butt of jokes because of an unfortunate exploding gas tank issue. I had to do something to negate the embarrassment of driving one, so I had it commercially painted like a spotted pony (it never occurred to me to paint it myself, even though I was in art school). The dealership assumed I was kidding, wanting a $1,200 paint job on a $500 car, but they gave me a half-price discount. When I picked it up they had marked WHOA on the brake, GIDDY-UP on the gas pedal, and the gears were labelled STABLE for park, TROT for first and GALLOP for second. I drove it for ten years. In the interim someone gifted me Harrod Blank’s art-car book and the rest is history. I attended my first art car show in Portland in the early Nineties and found my tribe.

Next came the “Zoobaru”, a Subaru station wagon that my former boyfriend and I painted like a snow leopard and named Leopard Bernstein. I began adding 3D critters inside and out — plastic lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards — until there were about 700 of them. Ears were welded on and a friend gave me a fabric tail — cartists (art car artists) bring each other care packages of whatever it is we collect.

You can’t be in a bad mood — or rather, stay in a bad mood — driving an art car. When a housemate borrowed my car, she mused: “I always forget about allowing that extra 20 minutes to answer questions.”