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

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