Herb Grasse is one of those widely anonymous yet nearly omnipresent behind-thescenes types. He’s just another unassuming guy on the block in the north Scottsdale neighborhood where he and wife, Terrie, have lived the past 14 years.
But his imprint is on things seen and used daily by millions around the world.
Since emerging as a young industrial design phenomenon four decades ago, Grasse has put his mark on dozens of the most popular models of cars driven throughout North America, Asia and Australia.
Outside of work for major motor vehicle manufacturers, Grasse has unleashed his wild side in creating specialty vehicles, props and stage sets for movies and television shows, souped-up hot rods for race car enthusiasts and custom luxury vehicles for celebrities and collectors.
In recent years, his hand has been behind the shaping of the local landscape. Some of Arizona’s top architects have called on Grasse to fashion highly detailed working models for eye-catching custom luxury homes going up in the Valley, particularly in Scottsdale, Carefree, Cave Creek and Fountain Hills.
He views that facet of his work as one way to help bring a more diverse look to the north East Valley. Grasse jokes that Scottsdale, the selfproclaimed "West’s Most Western Town," is actually "the West’s most stuccoed town."
His good-natured gripe is that Scottsdale, a city that promotes its reputation as an arts mecca, doesn’t show enough artistic flair and daring. Everything from its buildings to police car decals should reflect more avant-garde styling rather than "designs you can get out of a kit," he said.
Bringing that sense of humor and offbeat attitude to his work is what makes Grasse a distinctive talent, said longtime colleague George Barris.
"I can sketch something out on a napkin and Herb can take it and do something creative and fun with it," he said.
Barris is one of the kings of Hollywood cars. His design teams have produced specialty vehicles for television and movies since the 1950s.
Working with him and others, Grasse helped develop the Batmobile for the original "Batman’’ TV series, the comical hearse-style family car used in the sitcom "The Munsters," and various vehicles and contraptions for the TV shows "Mission Impossible," "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea " and Mel Gibson’s "Mad Max" movies.
He’s also built small-scale, special-effects models of ships, submarines and Old West covered wagons. "The kind of stuff that gets blown up in the movies," he said.
But it’s in the glowing critiques and displays of his work in hot rod and custom auto design magazines that testify to Grasse’s living-legend status in his field.
Many designers display impressive technical skills in their automotive work, but few evoke "that whimsical feeling" of Grasse’s custom car creations, said Paradise Valley resident Bruce Wheeler, who first met Grasse when they were developing new cars in Detroit for the likes of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler in the 1960s and ’70s.
"We’re dinosaurs in the industry, but Herb’s work never has gotten dated. His ideas are fresh and competitive with all the young guys today," Wheeler said.
That has enabled Grasse to thrive on the corporate side of the business and still run with the "lunatic fringe" among hot rod and car design aficionados, Wheeler said.
As an example of that radical bent, Grasse recounted the time he and some accomplices put wings and a jet engine onto a vehicle to break a landspeed record for a truck.
Another clue: In Grasse’s home studio is a coffee machine he rigged up that sports miniature race car exhaust pipes.
It all reflects the playfulness that set him on his career path.
As a boy, he spent hours assembling model cars. In his high school years in Syracuse, N.Y., he entered a model manufacturer’s national contests and won regional first prizes four straight years.
Since then, Grasse said, he’s just never stopped playing.
More information about Herb Grasse can be found at www.herbgrassedesign.com.