Because snow has grounded European airmail to a fuzzy white bitchy halt the aforementioned article on Indian Larry is on a holding pattern in my brain pending integral reference materials. In the meantime we are pleased to present for your browsing enjoyment several more titillating photographs of motorcycles and young ladies in various stages of undress.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Elvis has now left the building.


An (un)Holy Trinity of Custom Culture: Von Dutch, Ed Roth and Indian Larry- Part 2

Part 2: Ed "Big Daddy" Roth (March 4, 1932 – April 4, 2001)

By the time Ed Roth finished a four year Army stint in 1955 he had 5 sons, a few cars in various states of repair and a dead end job doing window dressings at Sears. The 23 year old Roth was already into the Los Angeles hot rod / custom culture, and following the popular design school of Von Dutch -who was at the height of his painting and striping career-  he started pin striping "anything with wheels" in his driveway after work to make ends meet. 

Roth had always shown a talent for mechanics, electrical stuff and, perhaps most importantly, art. Living in Maywood CA. -literally the geographic center of the '50s burgeoning "Kustom Kulture"- he was surrounded by the top names in the business: Von Dutch, Larry Watson, Tom Kelly and Bud "The Baron" Crozier were all parked in that general area. One of his first projects was a '48 Ford Sedan which he covered with striping, lettering and other advertising (including a scraggly paper-mache head and hands) to use as a "rolling billboard". It wasn't long before The Baron, Roth and Kelly got together to start their own shop, "Crazy Painters" in South Gate, CA. around 1957 doing stripes and flame jobs.
Around this time a local car club "the Drag Wagons" approached Ed to airbrush some T shirts. Instead of the usual club logo he did a caricature of each member on their shirt. According to Ed Fuller: "...a magazine photographer snapped a picture of one of the guys with his Model A rod, wearing Roth's shirt with a caricature of the same car. The magazine got "bombarded" with mail -about the shirt, not the article- which they forwarded to Roth. And he starts thinking it's a good idea, and starts painting shirts". Legend or not, the "weirdo" era was born.

Rat Fink
Of all the creatures conjured by Roth, Rat Fink was the most popular. The term itself got a lot of use in early '60s surf culture as "Rat Fucking" and according to Ed Fuller it was used around the shop to refer to the practical jokes the guys constantly pulled on each other. The more polite form is attributed to Steve Allen from his 50's comedy show.
Several accounts exist regarding the origins of the character: one claims he drew it on a bar napkin to illustrate what Mickey Mouse's dad looked like -he apparently held the Disney rodent in some contempt- another claims he first painted it on a shop refrigerator at Roth Studios after discovering some bad fish inside (although nobody from the studio's early days remembers it). In his 1980 autobiography Confessions of a Rat Fink: The Life and Times of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, he holds to the napkin story and dates it in about 1960. It's possible that Robert Williams or Ed Newton came up with it;  but regardless it quickly became an icon of hot rod culture, first appearing in print in a July '63 issue of Car Craft Magazine.  The repulsive little character had personal significance to Roth.

“Whenever I looked at that drawing,I felt I was looking, for the first time, at reality—my reality. The world that my parents, teachers, and responsible type people all around me belonged to wasn’t my world. Why did I have to be like them, live like them?  I didn’t. And Rat Fink helped me realize that.”

"Rat Fink was the archetypal Roth monster. He was fat, hairy, homely, sweaty, and had bloodshot eyes and a twitch, yet is credited with selling the most Roth T-shirts". School kids loved them; mothers hated them. The freakish rat was a huge hit on the T shirts and decals, and is still reproduced today in enormous volumes of plastic.
Roth built a couple of animated fiberglass versions of Rat Fink mounted on miniature chassis, and a VW engine powered car called Peace Rat which supposedly resides in a New Zealand museum although there's little available documentation on it.

The Cars

"Little Jewel", 1958
Ed's first show car was Little Jewel, a 1930 Model A Tudor with an Olds V8 which he worked on from '55 to '58. Nobody seems to know who originally built it, but Roth scalloped the fenders and striped it, chromed the undercarriage and built a set of custom bulleted nerf bars that would later be a stock item in his shop.
Up to this point Roth was focusing mainly on paint, and doing little more than "tinkering" with the actual car designs and mechanics. In early 1959 he left Crazy Painters and started Roth Studios in his own garage at 4616 Slausen in Maywood. He had apparently been tossing the idea of building a hot rod from fiberglass around since his army days, and he pulled in Ed Fuller to help him build the first Outlaw. The design was inspired largely by Norm Grabowski's Kookie Kar, and the fiberglass idea wasn't exactly new (Corvettes were already in production and Fuller already had experience working with it), but the funky show car did exactly what Roth intended it to do: it attracted the right attention to his booth at the shows and took the magazine covers by storm. By some accounts he actually started the build in 1956,  but he first unveiled the machine as Excaliber (sic) in 1959 and it was still more or less a work in progress: it didn't take the Outlaw moniker until after a few upholstery and wheel changes. But in the words of Pat Ganahl: " ...the Kookie Kar (Grabowski's T-bucket) was wild, but it was still a conventional hot rod. About the only thing conventional on the Outlaw was the engine and drive line. The coil spring front suspension, four-bar radius rods, jet-age nose, quad headlights, fiberglass body and paint scheme were all extraordinary for a hot rod in 1959 or 1960".  

"The Outlaw", photo from early '60s

The Outlaw, however unconventional, was actually street legal and could be driven (although it seldom was). And by promotional standards it was pure gold: Revell picked up on the Outlaw in 1960 and went into production with a 1/25 scale plastic model kit. It was the start of a long and lucrative relationship between Roth and the toy companies, and it was Henry Blankfort -Vice President of Public Relations at Revell- who gave him the name "Big Daddy".

Beatnik Bandit, 1960

Until that point though, Roth was pretty much making his living off the catalog sales and magazine ads  for stuff like Weirdo T shirts, pin striping kits and custom parts; as mentioned previously, most people agree that the cars were basically promotional tools for that business. His next machine, the Beatnik Bandit, which came out in 1960 was almost purely that. With no pedals or steering wheel and a bizarre single joystick, the car relied on cabled remote control to start, rev, and open or close a bubble canopy that could only fit over a midget.  But drivable or not, it was another big hit.
"Mysterion", 1963

"Orbitron", 1964
In 1964 Roth released the Mysterion, his first multi engine machine.  It was followed in '64 by the Orbitron which featured a dash mounted TV, rotating primary colored lights on the nose and another bubble canopy, this one large enough to be functional. But the Orbitron had a covered engine and subsequently turned out as a disappointment to the crowds who came to gawk at big chrome coated power plants. Revell -his main supporter- took a pass on it. In his words "...When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show all the model sales stopped. Kids were buying guitars instead of model cars".

"The “Orbitron” was a failure at the shows.  I believe it was because we covered that shiny chrome Chevy engine up with a hood.  It was a great lesson in design for me.  Never cover up the engine unless ya can serve a worthy purpose... I shoulda named it the Titanic because it was like trying to hold onto this giant sinking ship.  It turned out to be a mess. I sold that to some dude in Texas about 1969 and I hope it never surfaces again."

The Orbitron outside a Juarez sex shop in 2007
Ed sold the Orbitron in '67 for $750, and unlike his other machines it faded into obscurity: it passed through a few hands and apparently spent the early '70s in El Paso, Texas with a For Sale sign stuck on the bubble. After that it basically disappeared until 2007 when Michael Lightbourn rediscovered it rotting away (sans nose cone) in front of a sex shop in Juarez, Mexico. After a year of restoration the car was again released in October 2008. 
After the Orbitron failure, Roth came out with Surfite (1964) based on an Austin Mini Cooper; Road Agent (1965), a Joe Henning design with a Corvair rear engine; Rotar (1965) -a "hovercar" which featured twin Triumph 650 engines and high pressure props that created a cushion of air that "allowed it to propel itself on land and water", and The Druid Princess (1966).

"Surfite" 1964

"Rotar" '65

"Druid Princess" '66

"Road Agent" '65

"Tweedie Pie"
During this time Ed also owned and modified Tweedie Pie, a 1920 T-bucket built by Bob Johnston. Roth bought the car ‘in a basket’ and rebuilt it in 1962, adding a Corvette V-8 with six Stromberg 97 carburetors; a rolled and pleated Naugahyde interior, his signature nerf bars and chrome undercarriage  along with his own particular brand of pin striping. He sold it around '65, possibly to raise cash for the other builds. 

In 1976 Roth came out with Yellow Fang, his first and only entry into drag racing. In reality George "Bushmaster" Schreiber was working with Roth at the time and did most of the fabrication along with Tom Hanna: the body was aluminum rather than Ed's fiberglass and it had a 392 Chrysler power plant. 
According to Schreiber: 
"By the time I paid for the chassis, bought the rear end, axles, brakes, rear & front wheels and tires, a 392 block, fire suit and helmet, the $5000.00 was gone. After a show Ed had a small tool/nut & bolt room, about 6' x 6' with a short ceiling on it and he would throw his loose change on top of it every day. That night, the ceiling came down! I told him, "Man, there must be $5,000.00 worth of change there! Why don't you sponsor the dragster; we can put your name on it, that way I'll get paid some extra money and I can pay you back." He said, "That's a great idea".
The Steve Swaja-designed, Jim Davis-chassied Fang won several Top Eliminators and ran a best ever of 7.86 at 204 mph.

Ed took almost a 20 year hiatus from his "conventional" (a term difficult to apply to his work) cars and turned his focus to trikes, but in the late '80s he started L.A. Zoom as something of a comeback attempt. It was never completed: he was trying to mold carbon fiber and using a Honda four cylinder with electronic fuel injection, and by most accounts the technology simply defeated him.  Not to be defeated he built Beatnik Bandit II, which again never ran because of electrical difficulties. Revell did a model from it but it received little magazine coverage. His last car was Stealth 2000 in 1999, a Chevy Geo powered roadster that like the Orbitron quickly vanished into oblivion: Nobody seems to know much about it or where it went.

The Bikes

Roth said he first got into bikes in 1966 when he bought 5 used Harleys from a sheriff's auction, most of which got integrated into Oink, a more or less standard '60s style outlaw chopper. About 1967 Roth came out with a custom truck based on a late '50s Chevy pickup frame with a Buick V6, built exclusively for hauling a motorcycle. It was originally built to haul his Sportster but that wouldn't fit, so he traded it in for a custom Triumph chopper. The original name bounced between Captain Pepi's Motorcycle & Zeppelin Repair and Mega Cycle, and Ganahl simply calls it " The Bike Truck". It was a typical Roth design, but it more or less signified his switch from show cars to motorcycles. 

"Mega Cycle" '68

By now he had started Choppers magazine and Mega Cycle was featured on the cover in February 1968. But the magazine soon turned into a problem: again, according to legend "...Ed was going to bike meets and taking photos of personal rides for filler and in the process he started pissing off some of the local bike clubs who felt they weren't getting proper credit out of the deal". An unnamed Hell's Angel summed it up as: "Roth's getting rich and we ain't  getting any of it". A poorly worded Time Magazine article exacerbated the situation, leading into a literal 3 day shootout between the bike clubs and Roth, who holed up in his studio. Apparently the local cops had the score and got the hell out of the way, and it ended up in some kind of public Mano a mano smackdown  between Roth and the president of one of the offended bike clubs. Roth won (he was a Karate black belt and a pretty formidable guy in his own right) and that settled the bad blood, but he dropped the magazine.

"Candy Wagon"

"Mail Box" '67

His first acclaimed show trike was Candy Wagon, with an extended springer and a stock 45 cubic inch Harley flathead. This was followed by the California Cruiser in '66, a somewhat ungainly machine with an Olds V8 and fat drag tires. He went into production with a kit and by some accounts they were ridiculously fast, clocking up to 140 mph. In '67 he came out with Mail Box powered by a Crosley four cylinder engine.

"American Beetle" '68

Around '68 he started a series of VW powered trikes, including American Beetle ('68); Secret Weapon ('73); Great Speckled Bird ('76) and Globe Hopper ('87) -a three wheeled pseudo coupe that blurred the lines between the cars and trikes.
Rubber Ducky also came out in '76 but featured a Honda 600cc engine, and in 1985 Ed went back to big blocks with the Buick V6 power plant in Asphalt Angel. Ed released a video of the construction of  Asphalt Angel and apparently rode it from Los Angeles to the Street Rod Nationals in St.Paul, Minnesota, but they turned him away because it wasn't based on a car that was originally built before 1949.

"Asphalt Angel" '85
"Great Speckled Bird" '76

"Globehopper" '87

"Rubber Ducky"

Any article on Roth can't be complete without a mention of  Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos , his 1960s novelty group which released a few bizarre surf rock albums and most notably 1963's Hot Rod Hootenanny. One Way Records released a 2CD-set (S22-18319) which contains the 3 LPs and the original artwork.

The full length 2006 documentary on Ed Roth, "Tales of the RatFink" is available free from the link below, click on the arrow next to "watch the entire film for free".

Roth died at age 69 on April 4, 2001, reportedly from a heart attack in his workshop at his Utah home.

Part I: Von Dutch
Part III: Indian Larry

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth: His Life, Times, Cars and Art: Pat Ganahl, 2003: Car Tech Books
Orbitron Apocalypto: Or, How I Became a Death-Cheating Toad in Mexico and Broke the Ancient Aztec Alien Curse Put on My Family by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Lost Show Car


An (un)Holy Trinity of Custom Culture: Von Dutch, Ed Roth and Indian Larry- Part 1

"According to Von Dutch, the flying eyeball originated with the Macedonian and Egyptian cultures about 5000 years ago. It was a symbol meaning "the eye in the sky knows all and sees all", or something like that. Dutch got a hold of this symbol and modified it into the flyin'eyeball we know of today. He always believed in reincarnation, and the eyeball, somehow, was tied to that."

Part 1: Kenneth R. Howard (September 7, 1929–September 19, 1992), aka Von Dutch.

Born in 1929 as Kenneth Howard, Von Dutch developed pin striping as an art form for motorcycles and hot rods. He took the nickname from his stubbornness (“stubborn as a Dutchman”), and he's been described as "...the quintessential cliche romantic artist; selfish inside his own vision, alienating family, friends and customers alike. Part romantic, part beatnik, part general pain in the ass, ...a racist and prima donna. He managed to irritate almost everyone who admired him—and in the best aesthetic mode, somehow made them admire him more in the process." (Bob Burns)

Howard's father had done some striping on bikes but worked mostly as a sign painter. In 1944 Von Dutch was "the gunk boy" in George Beerup's So-Cal motorcycle shop when he took a bike home, painted it and striped it with his father's brushes. When he brought the bike back Beerup refused to believe he had done the striping himself: striping was pretty much a dead art in the 40's. Dutch got the brushes and did another job, and Beerup recognized the talent. He took Dutch off mechanical work and put him on paint, and for the next decade he "built a reputation he didn't want".

The Von Dutch "Mare's Leg" Winchester .44/40

"I'm a mechanic first. If I had my way, I'd be a gunsmith, but there isn't enough of that kind of work to make a living. I like to make things out of metal, because metal is forever. When you paint something, how long does it last? A few years, and then it's gone."

For several years, Dutch worked at nothing but motorcycle painting and striping: moving from shop to shop, "saturating each area". By the mid fifties he still hadn't touched a car, but he'd painted and striped thousands of bikes.

"Striping cars started as a gag when I was working Al Titus' motorcycle shop down in Lynwood" Dutch said. The "gag" quickly turned to a full time gig. He was working with George Barris of Barris Kustoms in 1955 when he was approached by "The Crazy Arab's Competition Body Shop" in LA and for the next three years he worked at it until "it nearly drove me out of my mind."

Like a true artist, Von Dutch was renowned for his attitude: in an interview with Hot Rod Magazine March 1977 he tells about a guy visiting his shop "bugging" him to stripe his car- he put cobwebs and spiders all over it. Another customer who tried to pressure him into a quick job got one that wouldn't dry: Dutch had mixed a load of oil into the paint.

In Hot Rod Magazine April 1989 Pat Ganahl tells the story of a fire truck Von Dutch was hired to stripe for a station in Arizona: pissed at the classic design they requested, he opted to deliver a custom flame job instead. The conservative city fathers were reportedly not amused.

Yet another story tells of a car Dutch had pinstriped with different designs on each side. When the customer brought the car back, Von Dutch responded "Who can see both sides of your car at the same time? This way you get two different designs on your car for the price of one".

Nonetheless, rodders all over the country had already heard of him and cars started coming in from as far away as the East Coast to get striped. Moreover, when a car owner showed up he didn't tell Dutch what he wanted: he just told him how much time he was willing to purchase. The designs were up to Dutch, and some of them were "as wild and far out as his eccentric imagination". By the time Von Dutch quit striping around 1958 he had hundreds of imitators, and when people went to a local body shop to inquire about striping they didn't ask if the paint guys knew how to stripe, they asked if the paint guys knew how to "Von Dutch."

Well into the '60s the thin twisted lines based on Dutch's striping worked their way into all kinds of visual media from print ads to television. Cigarette ads, TV cartoons and popular sitcoms all soon had some "crazy line art" incorporated into their campaigns, and most of it was straight off a Von Dutch layout. 

Despite all of this, Dutch never made any significant money from striping. By all accounts he had little use for fame and fortune:

"I make a point of staying right at the bridge of poverty. I don't have a pair of pants without a hole in them, and the only pair of boots I own are the ones I have on. I don't have anything else to put on my feet. I don't spend money on unnecessary stuff, so i don't have to have a lot of money. I don't need it. I keep as poor as I can and just get along. I like that. I believe that's the way it's meant to be. There's a struggle you have to go through, and if you make a lot of money, it doesn't make the struggle go away. It just makes it more complicated. If you keep poor, the struggle is simple...That's why I never overcharged anybody, or made this thing commercial. You can't do good work if you're thinking about the money angle all the time. To me the work is important; that's number one."

In the early '60s a woman gave Dutch a Long Beach city bus for payment on some work he had done for her. He set up living quarters at the rear and converted the remainder of the vehicle to a machine shop. Friends claim that the floor was usually covered with cigarette butts, beer cans and metal shavings. "Back in the sleeping quarters was a TV and about 150 manuals on all sorts of machinery, motorcycles, and guns. He had a photographic mind, so all the words in these books, were in his head. He could dictate verbatim, paragraph by paragraph, any part on any subject in these manuals.....and give you the page number, too. I asked him once why he bothered to keep the books, since he had them all memorized word for word. He said "I like to look at the pictures!" (Bob Burns)
The bus is currently owned by Steve Kafka of Kafka Kool Ties and is undergoing restoration.

Von Dutch's custom machine lathe from the bus

In the end he was still drinking heavy, living between the bus and a museum called "Movie World; Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame" in Buena Park, CA. He had reportedly become paranoid -not very surprising-  but still spent considerable time engraving knives and guns and occasionally painting cars. His bad habits eventually caught up with him and he developed a stomach abscess. According to Bob Burns "He didn't like doctors, but towards the end, the pain got so bad, he finally saw a doctor. By then it was too late." Von Dutch died on September 19, 1992 leaving two daughters, very few worldly possessions and a style that fully permeates the Hot Rod / Chopper art, culture and industry.

 “I knew Von Dutch,” one hot rod buff said, shaking his head. “I saw him drunk every day.” (Bob Burns)

The art world eventually found its way to hot rod / biker culture through artists like Robert Williams, who worked with Ed Roth before turning his talents to canvas. In 1993 a show called “Kustom Kulture” at the Laguna Museum of Art helped kickstart the process of Von Dutch’s rediscovery by the wider public.

Ironically, his daughters quickly sold the rights to reproduce their father’s imagery to a company now called "Von Dutch Originals" which suddenly opened a store on Melrose selling shirts, hats, jeans and thongs and launched a marketing campaign paraded by the likes of Paris Hilton and Justin Timberlake. By 2003, the company was reportedly doing some $33 million in sales. Von Dutch had become exploitable.

But before the "...cheesy clothing and accessories line that threatens to destroy his cred forever" turned the name into a mere logo, there was the original spitting, spinning, twisted Kenny Howard– better known as the "Real" Von Dutch.
R.I.P., and rest assured that nobody who knows anything is gonna forget your work for a long, long time.

The Von Dutch "KenFord"- his everyday ride. Custom '47 Kenworth cab on a modified '56 Ford pickup frame.
Part II: Ed Roth
Part III: Indian Larry

The Ad Nauseum marketing of Von Dutch; Phil Patton: AIGA August 04 2004
Kenny Howard Pt. II | The Master Painter, Striper & Custom Fabricator also Known as Von Dutch: The Selvedge Yard, November 2009
The Life And Times Of Von Dutch by Bob Burns
The Von Dutch KenFord