Hot rodder and letter-painter Dan Shaw works amidst a goldmine of automobilia
Even if you’ve never met Dan Shaw, you’re probably familiar with his work. The Cincinnati native has painted and hand-lettered thousands of commercial vehicles, race cars, and company signs. Look close at the door of any semi, fire truck, or tow rig—especially around the Ohio-Kentucky border—and chances are you’ll see his signature.
Shaw does a lot more than just paint, though. Often with the support of his son Josh, Shaw builds rad hot rods and has amassed a treasure trove of vintage speed equipment. Last weekend, per a fellow hot rodder’s recommendation, I made the four-hour trek south from Michigan to visit Shaw at his shop just outside Cincy.
The first thing you notice rolling up to the compound are the sheer volume of vintage signs and gas pumps festooning the outside of his shop. Decades before American Pickers was on TV, the Shaws traveled door-to-door, asking oil companies about old gas pumps and signs, with hopes to find old relics and restore them for their burgeoning collection. I meet Dan outside of his garage on a Saturday morning. His well-worn Hoosier cap and paint-flecked Shaw Signs sweatshirt tell me he’s already working today. The jolly, bearded man is like a skinny Santa, always smiling with a certain pop in his quick stride. The guard dog roaming the property looks a lot meaner.
A big-rig driver in his teens, Shaw built up his rolodex, lettering vehicles as a side hustle. In his early 30s he left trucking to become a full-time painter. The side of his pick-up work truck reads “Slinging paint for 50 years.”
He ushers me inside his workshop. I survey the signs, vessels, pumps, and other artifacts meticulously displayed in his shop, covering most of the interior wall. He patiently answers my questions in extreme detail, off the top of his head. He rattles off the entirety of Firestone’s advertising trademarks like he’s recounting what he had for yesterday’s breakfast. Point to any artifact and he’ll tell you how much he paid, down to the penny. The man is a walking encyclopedia of all things antique.
I ask him to give me an estimate of how many projects he has painted. He shrugs and instead shares that he can letter three living-room-sized long-nose Peterbilt trucks in less than a day. With that we tour the shop as he points out some of the notable parts, projects, and hot rods.
Built by his son Josh as a Christmas gift, this vintage sprint car is actually a street-legal cruiser. Dan pulls out a packet lodged between the chassis and the body and shows me the proof of registration for Ohio. The road-going racer is replete with headlights, a hopped up Flathead, and a three-speed transmission.
Not many collectors can stack vintage Halibrand racing wheels and Hilborn-injected 327-cubic-inch V-8s like they’re groceries on a shelf. “My son and I set weird goals. One day I thought, a man ought to have a dozen 327 engine blocks. We both have over a dozen now,” says Shaw.
Dan Shaw’s latest personal project is a 1963 Chevrolet Biscayne with a 409 W-engine.
This Potvin crank-mounted blower was discovered by accident, Shaw says, “We were hunting for sprint car parts in a guy’s back shed and found it in a wooden box. The guy wasn’t sure he wanted to sell it, but needed his car lettered, so I offered to paint the car in return for the set-up. He said, ‘Hell yeah!’”
In 2006, Dan Shaw and his son restored this 1932 Ford pickup. In addition to the 327-cubic-inch small-block under the hood, the duo mounted a 1960s racing engine in the bed to smooth out the ride. He let me take the truck out for a spin. I thought I was special for being offered the chance to drive a father-son project oozing sentimentalism until I heard the truck is driven weekly by the entire Shaw family. It’s racked up close to 75,000 miles since the rebuild.
Narrow Halibrand wheels today are like four-leaf clovers. The 15” x 4.5” kidney bean-slotted magnesium wheels were used largely in drag racing back in the 1960s.
Even though Firestone was the conventional choice for dirt track racers back in the ‘60s, drivers sponsored by Goodyear needed to use Goodyear dirt tires on their cars. When hunting for tires for your race car restoration Josh says, “You’ll find ten sets of early Firestone dirt tires to every one Goodyear set.” NOS Goodyear dirt tires like these? Unobtanium.
Antique visible gas pumps, signs, and other old relics adorn the shop. This is just a sliver of Dan’s collection, as he explains the nice ones get to stay inside. Just as we’re finishing up the tour, Shaw’s phone rings. One of his clients is on the other end of the line. He hangs up the phone and we say goodbye. I can only assume he’s got a long-nose Peterbilt to paint.