For years I resisted the temptation to meet heroes, as I'd always heard they'd seldom live up to my expectations. And for the most part the theory holds true; people with a public persona often leave a lot to be desired. But a dozen or so years ago I violated my code and introduced myself to illustrator Steve Stanford. I figured it was a reasonable gamble; I'd admired his work in various V-8 and VW magazines for some time. At the very least he seemed like a nice enough guy.

The occasion was one of the countless Friday night cruises at the legendary Bob's Big Boy in Burbank. I wouldn't say we hit it off like old pals but that night we rambled among the cars praising this, panning that, and basically rethinking peoples' ideas as we saw fit. That I wasn't an industry insider or didn't fit the part of a big-ticket client didn't seem to matter; Steve was more than generous with his time and expertise. I thought that was pretty cool.

It wasn't until I spent a few years in the industry that I came to appreciate what Steve does: he treats people-clients, strangers at cruise-ins-equally kind and respectfully. If he objected to one of my ideas that night it certainly wasn't obvious; for the most part he'd agree enthusiastically with what I said and even more enthusiastically offered a succession of options, each seemingly cooler than the last. Based on what others tell me my experience wasn't entirely exclusive, either. That sort of interplay among consultants and clients should be common but as I came to find out it's in fact quite rare in our industry. Egos often prevail.

As I got to know him I learned he's quite full of surprises. For one, he grew up more than half a country and figuratively a world away from the Southern California epicenter car culture: St. Louis, Missouri. Though he knows the roots of his craft, "... art runs in my family," he observes, he can't exactly pinpoint the origins of his muse. "I don't know," he admits. "I'm the only one in my family who's a serious gearhead."

But he has his suspicions about what fostered it. "I grew up in an apartment building. Up on I think the eighth floor there was a guy doing these pen-and-ink drawings of custom cars. One of the neighbors every now and then would bring down a couple of this guy's drawings. I'm just a rug rat and this guy was good.

"He let me actually keep one," he says. "It was a '59 Ford with a continental kit and striping. It just burned into my consciousness. Not only did I want to draw like that, but I liked the car itself. It just spoke to me. That's why I always link custom cars to art; those two main interests came together in that one illustration. That planted the seed in me for customs. I started to try drawing like that.

"A lot of my (inspiration) was the public library," he says. "I tell you what, man, my library card was about the best thing I ever had when I was a kid. It opened up a whole new world that was way beyond what I was used to seeing on a daily basis.

"I've always been a bookworm anyway and the library just fed into it. Not having the money to go out and actually buy the books, the library card was the best-I could get the new Motor Trend or the new Hot Rod, and of course the time when I wasn't reading I was drawing.

"By the time my twin brother, Sheldon, and I graduated, my mom'd had enough," he says. She basically told us, 'When you guys graduate, you gotta figure out what you want to do because I'm done.' As much as I didn't want to do it I didn't see any other way out other than joining the military. So I joined the Air Force that October.

"I knew I wasn't going to make the military a career, especially after signing up for a mechanical field and getting stuck in munitions," he says, laughing. "The gods played a cruel joke on me; not only did I not like firearms or weaponry or any of that jazz, it was knowledge that was going to be useless for me when I got out."

So he did the thing that got him through childhood: he drew. "That's when I learned to pinstripe," he continues. "Then it occurred to me: I could use the Air Force as a safety net so I can learn another career to fall back on when I got discharged.

"After I left my TAC station in Colorado I ended up coming to California for my first duty station. That was at the old George Air Force Base." Though in the high desert, George was ideally located for a budding striper: close enough to get a taste of the action on Van Nuys Boulevard yet far enough to not have any real competition. "Because let's face it, when you first start out your work is going to be crude anyway.