FROM FLAME JOBS TO CUSTOM SHOW CARS TO A SOCIALLY UNACCEPTABLE MOUSE,
ED ROTH LEFT HIS MARK ON AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE
The Beatnik Bandit is one of the world’s most widely recognized custom show cars. A joystick controls acceleration, steering, and braking.
Into the boardroom at Revell strolled a young modeler and designer named Jim Keeler, who hoped to interest the company in a series of new plastic model kits. Keeler outlined his ideas–a 1956 Ford pickup, a replica of Mickey Thompson’s Challenger I–until one middle-aged executive jumped up, overcome by impatience. “OK, OK. We’ll do that one. But I want to hear about this Roth guy.”
That story, told by Keeler and related by Pat Ganahl in his definitive biography Ed “Big Daddy” Roth: His Life, Times, Cars, and Art, gives you an idea of what a major figure Roth had become in the pop culture movement of the early 1960s, and how much excitement swirled around him. It’s not an exaggeration to call him a Renaissance man–he was a restless creator and rule-bender who also possessed a keen sense of his commercial market. Those two worlds existed side by side most clearly in his greatest creation, the character of Rat Fink, the nasty anti-Mickey Mouse that’s been making cash registers ring for decades.
It was Roth’s revolutionary four-wheeled creations, which he brought on the car-show circuit and helped fuel the sale of his T-shirts, that attracted Revell’s attention, and the manufacturer, in turn, made him into a hot property, giving him a persona that was so goofy, it was cool. As a painter and car builder, he was an integral part of Southern California’s Kustom Kulture of the late 1950s and ’60s, part of the pantheon that includes Sam and George Barris, Dean Jeffries, and Kenny Howard, better known as Von Dutch.
Roth was born in 1932 in Beverly Hills, California. His parents had emigrated from Germany, his father working as a cabinetmaker and personal driver for a well-to-do widow. He graduated from high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, which sent him to a remote tracking station in Morocco. He married his high school sweetheart, Sally, and, after his discharge from the Air Force, the couple began a family.
The Outlaw was Roth’s first fiberglass-bodied show car; it was on the cover of the January 1960 issue of Car Craft.
He landed a job at Sears, dressing mannequins and designing store displays, and augmented his income by doing pinstriping and flame jobs in his driveway, at $4 per car. A self-taught pinstriper, Roth advertised his business by lettering and striping his 1948 Ford sedan–aka The Roth–and, after teaming up in 1957 with Bud “The Baron” Crozier and Tom Kelley to open a shop called The Crazy Painters, eventually attracted enough work to leave Sears.
Crazy Painters developed a reputation for putting flames, scallops, and other custom paintwork on anything that had wheels, and soon branched out into a sideline, airbrushing shirts. A local club, the Drag Wagons, had asked for shirts bearing the club name, and Roth, who was skilled with an airbrush, added a caricature of each member. The idea caught fire, and the shop began advertising its “weird shirts” in Car Craft magazine. When Roth left Crozier and Kelley to open his own shop in 1959, he began advertising his “Weird-O” or “Weerdo” shirts, and continued with his custom paintwork.
It was here that he began working on the first of his scratch-built, fiberglass-body customs: the Outlaw. Roth had built traditional custom hot rods, but in fiberglass he found his ideal material, one that would allow his ideas to come to three-dimensional life. Breaking away from the traditional chopped-and-channeled “T-bucket” mold so many hot rodders copied, he created a shape that was entirely new, fashioning the body by building up the shape in plaster and wood and making a female mold. The Outlaw rode on a chromed, custom-built chassis, and was powered by a modified Cadillac V-8 crowned by four Stromberg 97 carburetors. It was a new kind of hot rod, if it was a hot rod at all.
The twin-engine Mysterion of 1963 has gone missing; this recreation is in The Collection at Galpin Auto Sports in California.
Automotive historian Ken Gross said that, as a “pretty conventional hot rod person,” it took him some time to appreciate what Roth was up to. “I came to the realization that Ed was very much a futurist,” he says. With the Outlaw, “the whole T idea that Norm Grabowski and Tommy Ivo had done was taken by Ed to the next generation. He really was ahead of his time in his materials, concepts and the breadth of his imagination.”
Finished in late 1959, the Outlaw was Grade A car-mag fodder, just as Roth had intended. Show organizers, knowing the car was a draw, would pay Roth to display the Outlaw, while the stir it created helped bring customers to his booth. That’s how he came to make his lucrative business deal with Revell.
Kids in the late 1950s and early 1960s were snapping up plastic model kits by the hundreds of thousands, spending their allowances and paper-route money at the neighborhood variety store or hobby shop on the latest releases. AMT, in particular, had tapped into the custom-car craze with its 3-in-1 customizing kits, and Revell must have been eager to cut itself a slice of the pie. When Jim Keeler presented his idea for a scale model of the Outlaw, they couldn’t say yes fast enough.
It was Revell’s publicist, Henry Blankfort, who thought that Roth needed a new image in order to stimulate sales. Blankfort came up with the nickname “Big Daddy,” a nod to the beatniks’ slang “daddy-o” and a reference to Roth’s six-foot-four, 240-pound physique. Blankfort is also widely credited for putting Roth into his trademark tuxedo and top hat, to try to clean up his slovenly image. It made for great model-box art, and Roth was a natural at mugging for the camera.
With the Outlaw finished, Roth began constructing his bubble-topped Beatnik Bandit, which emerged in 1961. Through the early 1960s, he turned out a car a year–the ground-effects Rotar in 1962, the twin-engined Mysterion in 1963, the Corvair-powered Road Agent in early 1964, the asymmetrical Orbitron in late 1964, the board-toting Surfite in early 1965 and the ornate Druid Princess in late 1966.
“I once asked him, ‘How do you knock out a car a year?'” explained custom hot rod and motorcycle builder Fritz Schenck, who built a faithful replica of the Outlaw and restored the original Druid Princess. “And he said, ‘You watch TV?’ I said, ‘Who doesn’t watch television.’ He said, ‘You ever watch Gilligan’s Island? I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Watch one episode, and you’ve seen them all. They never get off of the island.’ And he’s right.”
The model-car contract was lucrative, but it was the T-shirt business that really brought in the cash. Roth was the father of five boys, and he often found himself surrounded by kids as he drew his grotesque caricatures at shows, so he always had a good idea of what they wanted. What worked commercially, he discovered, were designs that the kids would like, and the parents wouldn’t–but not so offensive as to be banned by Mom and Dad.
This was the origin of characters like Mother’s Worry, Drag Nut, and Mr. Gasser, grotesque figures with bulging, bloodshot eyes, and gaping mouths filled with needle-sharp teeth. And sometime in the mid-1960s, it gave birth to Rat Fink.
There are various stories about when Rat Fink first took form, but the story Roth told was that he sketched the creature as a counterpoint to Mickey Mouse after becoming sick of seeing so many children wearing the trademark plastic ears. He claimed that the name had been made popular by television comedian Steve Allen, though the real story is that the “F” in R.F. stood for something far more vulgar–and all the kids knew it, even if their parents didn’t.
Roth’s monsters could be bought on T-shirts and decals. If that weren’t enough, the marketers at Revell realized that they could make three-dimensional plastic kits of these creations, too. Roth was hot, and everything that came from his studio turned to gold.
The second half of the 1960s was a time of shifting gears for Roth. He built an asymmetrical, Buick V-6 powered bike hauler called Captain Pepi’s Motorcycle and Zeppelin Repair, and turned his creative talents to a series of choppers and the first VW-powered trikes. When the mainstream motorcycle magazines wouldn’t feature his creations, he brought out his own magazine, called Choppers. His deal with Revell had ended; as he would later complain, the Beatles’ appearance on TV in 1965 had made kids want to trade their X-Acto knives for guitars.
Roth eventually wound down his business, and in 1970 went to work for Jim Brucker, building the sets for the new Cars of the Stars museum in Buena Park, where several of his cars were on display. He also took a job at the nearby Knott’s Berry Farm, as a sign painter and artist, working under a pseudonym.
He had a revival in the early 1980s, once again marketing shirts, comics, decals, and more, and signing a licensing agreement with Kenner Toys for a series of monster-driven toy cars. He lived long enough to see his work rediscovered by art galleries and museums, and to be toasted by the mayor of San Francisco with a day in his honor. He was still appearing at car shows across the country, and working on new designs, up until his death in 2001.
“I think Ed was a visionary,” Ken Gross sums up. “He was rebellious in a fun way, and he kind of nailed it before anybody else did. Everything Ed did had a whimsical side. He had a great imagination, and he saw the fun side of hot rodding that nobody else had.”
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by David LaChance.