Thursday, June 18, 2009

Eric Gurney's "Smart Bird": The Ethyl Owl

One of the most colourful series of ads of the 1950's was Ethyl Corporation's "Road Birds", by cartoonist Eric Gurney.

These ads highlighted the dopey and dangerous behaviour of dumb birds like "The Bent-Wing Thrasher", "The Darting Road Runner" or "The Low-Flying Loon".

Ever present near the bottom of each ad was our hero: "The Smart Bird" - the Ethyl Owl - Eric Gurney's cartoon mascot creation.

As related in an earlier post on the artist, Eric Gurney began his career in Toronto, Canada. I guess that almost qualifies him as a "Forgotten Canadian Cartoonist" -- not that Gurney is forgotten, but rather that we Canadians forgot he was one of us!

Gurney left Toronto for California in 1938. He spent the next ten years at Walt Disney Studios working on a variety of animated features. In 1948 he went back east and committed his talents to the advertising field. Not long after that, the Road Birds made their debut. Gurney won two National Cartoonist Society awards for advertising art - first in 1961, then again in 1971. During the later years of his career, he illustrated many children's books.

When I look at Gurney's Road Birds grouped together like this, I can't help but wonder if they might have been an early influence on Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, back when he was just a little hotrodder in short pants and a peddle car...

Their outsized bodies in bright colours and detailed inking, and the slightly crazed facial expressions they often sport remind me very much of the hotrod drivin' cartoon monsters Roth popularized in the 1960's "Kustom Kulture" scene.

Eric Gurney passed away in 1992. There is a website... but it seems to be kind of glitchy.

* Many thanks to Pau Medrano Bigas for providing most of today's scans!

* My Eric Gurney Flickr set.


  1. you blog has many picture and i think its easy to understand .

  2. Where did you find all of these? Eric is my great uncle- I would love to be able to get some copies of these!

  3. erin;

    contact me at and I'll hook you up. ;^)

  4. Erin, the rest of the clan might be interested in copies as well - Gardner