by David Patik

What was your job as a teenager? Imagine the year was 1972, and you were 16 years old. You had a part-time job working in a factory that made RoadRunner bird decals, "440+6" hood lettering, Firebird hood giant bird decals, and Torino side laser stripes. Now that would be a cool job!

Let's meet a man who did just that, those many years ago. His name is Keith Jagger. He comes to this interview with the Winged Warriors/NBOA club because he has been good friends since high school with long-time member Galen Aasland.

Keith was a car enthusiast since his early childhood. As a St. Paul, Minnesota high school kid in 1972, he owned a 1969 SuperBee. He soon put a Hemi engine under the hood to replace the original 383. Future engineer Keith did all the work on his car.

The part-time job at the decal-making factory was car-related, and that was important to Keith. It paid $1.65 per hour. Chrysler Corporation in those days used 3M Company as its vendor for decorative lettering and stripes. 3M Automotive Graphics Division was located in Minnesota. Also located there, since the mid-1940's, was family-owned Torseth Brothers. It was in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, on Highway 36 and English Road. By 1972, Torseth had 300 employees, in an almost new, one-story, flat-roofed building. It was half the size of a current Wal-Mart.

(The business later became Berg-Torseth. It is all gone now. As a related note, Chrysler decorative stripes were cut out in yet another St. Paul-area business, Vomela Specialty Company.)

Only about 3 to 5% of Torseth business was top-quality car decal printing. The rest was signs for grocery stores, mall signs, and cheap-material election sign printing.

Let's take an imaginary tour of the plant that made many, if not all, of the RoadRunner bird decals. How were they made? If you look closely at a bird decal, you will see that black outlines cover the edges where one color meets another. The surface of the bird print is not perfectly flat--it has slight "steps". Those are one color of ink on top of another in some areas. This is called silk screen printing. Here's how Torseth did it in 1972.

Let's say we were going to print just the RoadRunner's gray feathers and neck. Exactly drawn artwork is the beginning of every decal. Each color's actually printed area must be drawn first on paper. Then a film-like material called Mylar is needed. It is cellophane, with an extremely thin layer of amber-colored or ruby-colored film on top of it. This is called amberlith or rubylith. This colored layer, and only the colored area, must be perfectly cut into with a tiny knife, in exactly the area of the actual gray print. We then very carefully weed (pull up and remove) the surrounding amberlith or rubylith. that is outboard of the gray we want to print.

Now we need an extremely finely-woven silk screen material. It is so fine and so thin that light passes through it, as will the gray ink to print the bird feathers. This screen will be stretched very tightly to a wooden frame, made of 2" x 4" boards. Torseth used 6' x 10' screens for decals for cars. This allowed many birds to be printed at a time, one color pass at a time.

But how to get the special gray ink to be printed just right on the 3M reflective Scotchlite material? We need a chemical called an emulsion. It starts as a liquid and is put onto the surface of the blank, stretched screen. When we shoot a bright light through the Mylar onto the emulsion-laden screen, the Mylar will stop light where the feather-pattern area has been cut into the amberlith or rubylith. The area of the screen hit with the bright light will harden very hard, very quickly. Now the Mylar is removed, and the screen is washed. What is rinsed away will show only the exact pattern of the feathers and neck of the RoadRunner bird.

Once the emulsion is hardened, the screen can't be used for another product. But a screen only has to be made once, for each color, to make whatever amount of birds we want to make for that printing run. The Mylar with its amberlith or rubylith is saved for the next print run, if the screen itself isn't saved.

Now the screen can be used to print the gray areas of the bird. But we want to make thousands of birds for our print run for Chrysler, not just one at a time. So, we quite easily duplicate the pattern in what is called "multiple ups". The Mylar and screen emulsion steps aren't hard to duplicate. If fact, Torseth made 10 RoadRunners on each of 100 sheets, in each stack, all of which could total thousands of birds in a run. Over-runs were kept on hand for later Chrysler orders.

Color mixing of our gray ink had to be exactly faithful to Chrysler specifications, for each bird of each printing run. Special inks are required for the print on the reflective white material. The inks allow the precisely aligned aluminum particles in the material to reflect light, under certain angles and amounts of light.

To actually print high volumes of birds, a semi-automated system was used in 1972. Gray ink is placed on the silk screen. To spread it all out over the silk screen, and through the screen to print the gray areas, a squeegee is used. It is thick rubber, 3" tall, 1/2" to 3/4" thick, and is as wide as the screen (6' or 10').

The reflective white 3M Scotchlite "Engineer Grade" vinyl sheet on which the gray printing will be done is 10' long. It is precisely located by an "x" and "y" alignment system, using tabs. This is done on a vacuum table, which holds the paper, like an air hockey table. The "pressman" runs this system.

The screen inking is done by an overhead mechanism, on the first pass over the table. Its return pass runs the squeegee over the screen. The screen now lifts off from the sheet, which is then put on a belt that goes into an ink dryer. This dryer is inside of an 80' to 100' long tunnel. The ink is dried by either heat or infrared, or just air. It was all vented to the ceiling and exhausted. The guy at this far end of the tunnel was young Keith. He was a "racker". The huge printed sheets are put by Keith on multiple-level, flip-down racks on a wheeled cart. It then becomes the feed rack for the next color to be printed on those sheets.

It was also Keith's job to watch the just-printed sheets carefully to see if they had any "bugs". They were seldom flying, trapped bugs; they were usually very tiny bits of vinyl or paper that got under or on the silk screen. Keith had to yell "BUG" back at the pressman if he found a bug. The unhappy pressman then had to stop the machine, find the bug, and wipe it off the screen, using cheesecloth.

Some decals and stripes being made at Torseth were expensive to produce. If a 1972 Torino side laser stripe was found to have a bug, lacquer thinner was used to wipe off all the first color just printed. Thirty seconds were allowed to check each laser stripe, reject it, and clean the press. Labor was cheap, but reflective stripe material was expensive.

After all the bird colors are printed, the 3M Scotchlite is then clear-coated for better sunlight fading protection. This is also done with a screen print, which has a huge opening on all of a 10' sheet. (Nowadays, colored inks have build-in UV protection, so clears are not needed.)

The rolls of material on which the printing was done were huge. Firebird hood birds used 5' by 5' squares. The rolls were 1,000 feet long, and were moved by a forklift.

How to cut out the fully-printed RoadRunner birds? This was done by another of the many departments at Torseth. The cutting was made by a simply device called a "steel rule die". (They are still used today in the industry.) To cut out the complicated, precise shape of a bird, a piece of minimum 1" thick plywood was used. Into it was precisely  milled the exact cutout lines. Into these grooves was pressed metal stock called steel rule. The steel was 1" wide. The cutting edge was as sharp as a razor. It was very thin and flexible. Its back edge was not sharpened, and was much thicker than the razor edge. (Keith says these steel rules dies may not have been made in-house.)

Torseth cut out car decals and stripes one sheet at a time. More-crude prints on material like cardboard may be cut 100 at a time. To cut out the printed birds, the vinyl sheet is slid into a press, and the steel rule die is stamped down with pressure, but not with speed. Older guys worked in the more dangerous cutting department. (Heated "thermal dies" were not used by Torseth, according to Keith's memory.)

When the steel rule die cut into the birds, it did not cut into the backing paper (covering the adhesive). The large sheets were not weeded by Torseth. (The carrier paper that covered the birds weeded later would have been applied by the subsequent business, which also did the labeling and packaging.) Superbird wing decals and headlight decals were made by die-cutting blan k sheets of reflective material, and then "importing" by hand the printed bird decal.

So how much did Chrysler pay for a RoadRunner bird decal from this final vendor, ready to be sold to you by the dealer? Try $1.12 each! But wait, that's what Chrysler paid their vendor in 2005! Imagine what it must have been in 1972, for all of that work!

So what does Keith Jagger do today? He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. Car companies were not hiring many engineers when Keith graduated from college in the late 1970's. But Honeywell Company was hiring, and Keith has worked for them for over 25 years. His mechanical engineering work is in Inertial Reference. It has to do with directional devices, like gyros for flight, and three-dimensional space for airplane navigation.

Shown here are original screen prints of birds from Torseth, courtesy of Galen Aasland. Note the name, even on the 1969-77 running bird prints (to the left, under the bird's head) is "R-R Duster". The crosshatches around the birds are guides for locating each of the several ink colors, one pass for each color.

Shown below is a sheet of reflective decal paper, screen printed with birds at Torseth. The decals have been removed. Note the extra-wide black outlines here and on the bird decals shown above. They were always printed that wide, because the cut-out die didn't always cut exactly accurate, or perfectly centered. That allowed all of the outline to always be black, though  not always perfectly located. All of these are decal culls, meaning they are defective prints that Keith saved from the trash bin in his three years of Torseth work.