Ed "Big Daddy" Roth 

by John Robertson

John Detrich 2003

 

     In January, 1997, I met Ed Roth in Chantilly, Va. during setup for the Washington, D. C. World of Wheels.  Although I had met him before, this would prove to be my most interesting experience with him.  We spoke briefly as he set up his booth sometime Thursday afternoon.  He was kind enough to elaborately autograph a copy of one of his books for me while he was putting up his lights.  Later he explained to me, in detail, the importance of good lighting for selling t‑shirts and since I was familiar with the local area, I think I even ended up buying some extra bulbs for him at a nearby store.  Friday he stopped by to look at my car which happened to be displayed at the end of the same row that he was in.  From there we sort of had a running conversation for the weekend with him kinda ribbing me whenever he had the chance.  I took every opportunity to ask him about buying a vehicle of his and he was receptive, eventually selling me the "Wagen Meister".  However, during the course of our discussions, he spoke at length about donating his vehicles to museums.  He was really interested in donating the "Beatnik Bandit II" to the Smithsonian Institution (our nation's attic) and had been having fruitless discussions with them for sometime.  Since I had some familiarity with the Smithsonian, and some contacts there, I asked him if I could put together a package and see if we could prod them into doing something.  He said "sure" and that's how the following package was developed.  While ultimately the "Beatnik Bandit" ended up elsewhere, I think the message we conveyed clearly documents his creativity and outlines his influences on generations of kids of all ages and I hope that readers will get a better understanding of that from reading it.

“The most unusual of the high priests is Roth, the Crazy Painter, the Famed Kahoona of Weirdsville, who originated the Weirdo shirt.”                     Sports Illustrated April 24, 1961

"... L.A car artists like George Barris and Ed Roth were turning out exquisitely streamlined custom cars, rolling sculptures.”                                                 Smithsonian July 1993

     From the covers of Sports Illustrated, April 24, 1961 and Rod and Custom, June 1962 , and feature articles in numerous Car Craft issues to present- day coverage in Smithsonian, Hot Rod, Street Rodder, American Rodder, and virtually every other magazine devoted to the automotive hobbyist (and many that are not), media attention devoted to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s creativity, artistry, and innovativeness has been extensive and unending.  Books by, about, or including references to Mr. Roth such as: Hot Rods by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (Figure 3), Hot Rod Memorabilia & Collectibles, Custom Cars of the 1950's, The Nearest Faraway Place, Confessions of a Rat Fink-The Life and Times of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Heroes of Hot Rodding Legends and Folklore of the Men and Machines That Sparked the Flame of Hot Rods and Custom Cars, and Kustom Kulture abound.   Whether using the earliest techniques of hot rodding, pin-striping, airbrushing, and silk-screening; influencing 1960's music, scale model automobile kits, and motorcycle magazines; or applying modern-day devices such as tuned port injection or an internet web page (Figure 4) to his business ventures, Ed Roth has been exerting his own special brand of influence on America’s culture for more than 4 decades.

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The following excerpts are taken from The Nearest Faraway Place : Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience by Timothy White.  1995 by Timothy White.  Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt & Co., Inc.

 

 

When faced with the challenge of fashioning another enhancement of Southern California ’s hot rod fantasies, the artist always began with a clean, dry surface, made a few easily erasable sketches, and conversed freely with associates as he imagined the flowing diagram of his heartfelt ideas.  The entire procedure consisted solely of a seamless series of lyrical lines, so choices of color and curvature were crucial to suggest a sense of substance, as were the contours utilized to manifest speed, grace, and the confidence of forward movement.

 

Since the effort was really an exercise in controlled daydreaming, physical comfort during the undertaking was essential.  Therefore he never worked within the path of direct sunlight, wind, rain, or other unsettling elements.  The influence of Mother Nature was integral but passive and reflective--because relaxed concentration was the key to the casual purity of the finished work.

 

He loved to experiment and try wacky new notions of composition and balance, dropping in some touches for effect, yanking others without apology, frequently wiping smudges and smears of impetuosity into oblivion and starting over again.

 

Having people watch used to bug him, make him extremely paranoid, but he learned to behave as if they weren’t there.  Taking a deep breath at regular intervals to steady his thoughts and his hands, he would literally walk the line in the service of his art, exhaling slowly in a Zen-like attunement of his attention span.  Whenever possible, he tried to follow existing impressions and markings to find his bearings before devising apt or playful points of departure.  And when his handiwork was done, he waited with childlike expectancy for a reaction, needing to know if bystanders approved of every little stroke and spiral.

 

 That’s how Ed “Big Daddy” Roth assessed his highly temperamental technique as one of the country’s top custom automobile       pinstripers toiling in the South Bay towns of South Gate and Maywood during the mid 1960's.  But it could just as easily have been Brian Wilson’s recounting of the methods he used to create the finest car-culture hymns ever written, particularly “Don’t Worry Baby.”

 

The word pictures for “Don’t Worry Baby” never quite jelled beyond the force of their prayerfulness, but Brian sang them with celestial zeal.  Although fated to be one of his last cooperative bursts with Roger Christian, it was also among the most uplifting.  Wilson ’s reverence for Spector’s rakish gifts putting him in a frame of mind where he could thrill Christian and himself with his knack for upgrading the pop impulse.

 

As Ed Roth well understood, such natural talents were easy prey for cynics.  His generation’s “motor mania” made auto shop a standard course in most Southland high schools, and now Brian’s car music ennobled its blue-collar devotionalism.  Snobbish skeptics missed the sense of joy such practical skills conveyed, as well as their catchy capacity for valuing the artistry of small movements.

 

Brian was happiest bent over the grinning ivories of his Hawthorne upright, bringing the car culture scene unfolding around him into tuneful concord.  Roth was most content poised over a ‘39 Chevy with a split manifold, tracing impeccable curlicues around door handles and wheel wells with a Stabilo pencil before applying 1/64-inch striations of primrose yellow paint along its body lines with the tapered squirrel hairs of a West German MACK or Dagger brush.

 

In either case the automatic comments of “Cooooool, man” that such keen displays drew from Roger Christian or Ed Roth’s adolescent clients were the very soul of the reward that the car culture bestowed on all comers in the shining moment that was 1964, when the promise and ingenuity of the prewar tinkerers bore fruit that turned the world’s heads.

 

Roth called himself and his jumbled colleagues “teen carneys”--unashamed carnival barkers, shills, and touts for an insurgent society on wheels, once so marginal, now so magnificent in its open celebration.  Appearing at the Pomona Fair or in the Los Angeles Civic Arena in elaborate weekend congregations, Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys would sing their current releases while loopy draftsman George Barris would exhibit outlandish lead sled dream cars such as the “world of tomorrow” Golden Sahara and the flying saucer-shaped XPAC 400 Hovercraft, each swathed in whorls of angel hair.

 

At the nucleus of it all stooped Ed Roth, indicating the chrome undercarriages of the prizewinning custom rods he had built for himself, such as the Outlaw (featuring a fiberglass body and a 1955 Cadillac V-8) and the bubble-topped Beatnik Bandit and Road Agent.  Unlike those of most show car designers, Roth’s autos were not commissioned works or prop prototypes; each was a fully functional vehicle, made from stock parts, that sprang from his private enthusiasms.  He sold off his fleet gewgaws only after he had genuinely tired of cavorting in them.

 

Hurrying around signing autographs and letting infants tug at his goatee, Roth sold trademark Rat Fink T-shirts and pin-striped anything mobile, whether a child’s red Radio Flyer wagon, a wheezing Volkswagen bug, or a tractor trailer.  All fees were modest, all souvenirs homemade and vended with a loving grace.

 

The first quantum flick forward in the delicate science of pin-striping was the doing of a Compton sign painter and motorcycle/car refinisher known as Von Dutch.  In 1955, Von Dutch began using his half-moon and scalloped caricatures over the “grinder marks” (leaded seams in metal bodywork) exposed after the bodies of rods and street machines had been stripped of their old door handles and similar hardware.  When the highly polished surfaces of the resultant customized rigs revealed further body blemishes and flaws, Von Dutch’s stylized “chicken-scratch” camouflage assumed its own design urgency as symmetrical patterns were invented to conceal the irregular paths of the imperfections.  Von Dutch’s fondest solutions included a set of flying eyeballs that attained logo status.  Pin-striping itself became an attraction in every used-car dealership on Firestone Boulevard , and Wall’s Custom Cars was among the local lots that offered it as a regular option.

 

Roth, a close associate of Von Dutch, found his own pictorial signature circa 1959 when he was arguing over the origins of Disney’s Mickey Mouse at a lunch counter in Maywood called the Apollo.  He drew Mickey in his earliest “Steamboat Willie” incarnation as a stick figure and then limned a derisive picture of one of Mickey’s primordial forebears: a potbellied rat in overalls.  For good symbolic measure, Roth added the initials R.F. to the rat’s droopy chest--shorthand for “Rat Fink.”  (In Racing terms, a fink was a confirmed cheater who flagrantly ignored the rules.)  The next day Roth’s assistant asked Ed to airbrush his rat fink on a T-shirt.  Within months Roth was silk-screening them by the thousands and selling a generous portion of each batch via mail order in Hot Rod and Car Craft.

 

In 1960 in Linden , Texas , avid teenage fan Don Henley pushed the gas pedal of his mail-order Go-Kart to the metal and scattered tumblebrush as he ripped down Farm Road 1399, a two-lane blacktop leading from Linden to Marietta , Texas .  Henley, the son of a National Auto Parts Association (NAPA) dealer, was a trophy-winning cart racer in the 2 ˝ horsepower class, and he wore the Rat Fink T-shirt he had just obtained by answering an ad in Car Craft magazine.

 

In 1961 the Venice, California, branch of Revell Toys phoned Roth in the midst of his morning shave and asked Roth if he would allow Revell to add scale models of his show cars, Rat Fink spinoffs, and hot rod ghouls (Tweedy Pie, Angel Fink, Fink Eliminator, Mr. Gasser, Mother’s Worry) to their line of model kits for kids and hobbyists.  Roth consented, earning a two-cent royalty on every kit sold.  The children of America were enchanted, and its mischievous adolescents made Rat Fink an icon and a treasured antidote of Mickey Mouse.

 

But Revell publicist Henry Blankfort found Roth’s name too bland for the company promotional campaign.  Informed that Roth’s high school nickname had been “Big Ed” and aware of a revival of beatnik-hipster argot where young Hollywood intersected with car and beach boho types, Blankfort suggested Roth become “Big Daddy.”  “Cool!” Roth replied, and the alias and likeness of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was added to box illustrations for the Mysterion and other roadster kits, as well as the Drag Nut and Surfink figurines that Revell billed as Ed’s Custom Monster Parade.

 

In 1962, Revell titillated the industry’s annual toy fair when, amid new H-O train sets and kits for the S.S. Hope, it introduced retailers to its 1/25-scale model of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Outlaw, offering it at a suggested retail price of $1.98.  By 1963, Roth was on the art staff of Cartoons, Petersen Publications’ answer to Mad.

 

The capstone of Roth’s 1963-64 automotive vaudeville was the Surfite, a squat, one-passenger fiberglass beach buggy sporting a duckbill hood and a wide-paned driver’s booth, with a Gorden & Smith surfboard held in an easel-type rack on its right side.  The droll coach was fabricated upon the frame of a junkyard-salvaged Mini-Cooper, enlisting several South Bay board shapers to help smooth the Surfite’s rails and hull.  The contraption seemed to spoof the goofiest woodie wagons in Rick Griffin’s comic drawings in Surfer magazine, yet its sidewinder four-cylinder engine ran faultlessly on safaris.  Like Roth himself, his wildest passions were always road tested and proven to be practical.

 

Born March 4, 1932 , in Beverly Hills to cabinetmaker Henry Roth and wife Marie, Ed was descended from a long line of German-Polish tradesmen (tinsmiths, tailors, joiners, broom masters) of Christian and Jewish heritage.  Ed and his younger brother Gordon were reared in a reserved German-American home with models of zepplins on the mantel and books on military history in the parlor.  As a lad he felt discomfited by what he called the “mechanical language” and “precise thought” of his stiff relatives who were inclined to make statements like “This is how it should be done, Edward.”  He found the Madison Avenue version of English more persuasive, adoring the hectic pitches and euphonious jargon that streamed from radio and television broadcasts.  Entering Bell High School , Ed divided his time between drawing war scenes in class and making after-school forays to local junkyards, where he and his friends bartered car parts that they carried back to their garages.

 

New cars hadn’t been available since the outbreak of the war. Between the gas rationing and the scarcity of even secondhand ‘42 autos, there was nothing running you could get cheap.  Since California law allowed one a driver’s license on one’s fourteenth birthday, the principal pastime of Ed Roth’s eager generation was to build a heap from the ground up, simultaneously turning every garage in the Southland into clubhouse sanctuaries that were off-limits to adults.

 

When a scavenged engine turned over for the first time, the teenage tinkerers and “toolies” ran their raspy jalopies out to Slauson Avenue after dusk to drag for pink slips, seizing ownership of losing rods driven by opponents from rival Huntington Park High.

 

The pocket book-size hamlet of Maywood was a great site on which to drag since long and bare Slauson bisected it like the center crease in an open pulp novel.  You could tear unimpeded down the mammoth ford of the thoroughfare, your car’s tailwind wafting the sandy rises on either side, and since Maywood had only two patrolmen (who seldom made a show for the chief), civil apprehension was unlikely.

 

If pursued, however, one could swerve into the orange groves on the south side of the straightaway beyond the Los Angeles River or lurch into the Molokan Orthodox Russian Cemetery on the north side of the street, hiding out until it was safe to regroup at Stan’s Drive-in at Firestone Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue in Bell .  The fuel economy of the quartermile sprints was a help in petroleum-pinched 1945, but gas was more plentiful when Roth got his driver’s permit a year later, so he never learned restraint.

Attending East Los Angeles Junior College , Roth obtained an associate degree in mechanical engineering.  He joined the Air Force in 1951, got married in 1952, read his first copy of Petersen Publishing’s Honk! customizing magazine in May 1953, and was hooked by the time in changed its name to Car Craft that December.  Discharged in 1955, Roth held down a day job in the display department of Sears while moonlighting as a journeyman pinstriper and pathfinding fiberglass shaper.  Roth helped pioneer the use of the meltable/moldable silica cloth and resin, which had formerly been a plumbing and insulation material, as a versatile body-and-fender alternative to costly metal.

 

Roth made his first diagrams of the Outlaw (initially dubbed the Excalibur) while in the service, but it wasn’t until 1959 that he built the car and took it to Disneyland for one of its earliest public showings.  Comprised of a Cadillac V-8, a ‘48 Ford rear end, ‘58 Chevy taillights, a ‘27 Dodge windshield, ’59 Rambler headlights, molded interior, and custom motorcycle wheels in front, the Outlaw combined the look of a hot rod and the attitude of a custom street racer--and it was an immediate national sensation, the archetypal mean machine.

 

At Capitol, Dot, Liberty , Decca, Columbia , Tower, RCA, Warner Bros., Mercury, and dozens of smaller labels there was a feeding frenzy afoot for anything that smelled of sea air, surf wax, and West Coast fuel exhaust, all hands riding the emblematic shirttails of a certain Hawthorne group still learning to fill its own mufti.

 “Surfer Girl” climbed to number 7 in Billboard’s Hot 100 as Labor Day 1963 sunburns and celebrations faded and back-to-school consumer campaigns ensued around the country.  The single’s “Little Duce Coupe” flip side jumped to number 15 on its own propulsive merits as hot cars took seasonal precedence over the nine-foot-six-inch Phil Edwards-model guns (big wave boards) that Hobie Surfboards had recently introduced.

 

But there was more cross-merchandising to come.  Capitol Records executive Fred Rice contacted Car Craft late in 1963, wondering, on the pop culture end, “Who else is into this car thing?”  He was referred to Roth, who warned, “I’m into the car thing in a monster way.”  Rice took Roth at his word and signed him to help formulate a series of “rod and roll” novelty albums, with Capitol A&R man Jim Economides as producer.

 

Gary Usher was hired to form a studio group for the Roth albums under the stage name Mr. Gasser and the weirdos (a gasser being a high-performance racer powered by standard gasoline).  Usher won the assignment after having proven invaluable several months earlier by assisting Nick Venet in organizing a Shut Down car sampler, an assortment of cuts such as the Beach Boys’ “Shut Down,” “409,” a 1958 Robert Mitchum narrative called “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” and “Black Denim Trousers” by the Cheers, a short-lived 1955 L.A. vocal trio led by actor Bert Convy, which Usher augmented with material from the Super Stocks studio band he formed for the project.

 

The Super Stocks consisted of Phil Spector’s familiar infantry (known as the Wrecking Crew): Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Billy Strange, Jimmy Bond, Tommy Tedesco, Carole Kaye, Steve Douglas, David Gates, Ray Pohlman, Barney Kessel, Jerry Cole, and others.  The group had few qualms about going once more into the breach as hired hitters, this time on behalf of Big Daddy’s fictional drag strip gargoyles.  Mr. Gasser and the Weirdos’ first album was titled Hot Rod Hootennany; its tracks included “The Fastest Shift Alive,” “Mad ‘Vette,” “Eefen’ It Don’t Go--Chrome It,” “Weirdo Wiggle” and “Termites in My Woody.”

 

Roth and Car Craft editor Dick Day were united with a piano player and wrote poems keyed to chords from which orchestrations were arranged.  At the end of the first day, Economides turned to Roth and said, “When you said you couldn’t sing, you were right!”.  Vocals and spoken characterizations were handled by Usher, Darlene Love of the Crystals, Robin Ward (who notched a number 14 hit on Dot in the autumn of 1963 with “Wonderful Summer”), Bob Klimes, Richard Burns, and Dennis McCarthy.  Roth himself provided the chewing sounds on “Termites in My Woody.”

 

Hot Rod Hootennany was released in November 1963, followed by a Surfink! EP with contributions from the Super Stocks and the Weirdos, and a full-length sequel in April 1964, Rods N’ Ratfinks.  All the albums made money.

 

The main beneficiary of the asphalt-eating rush to capitalize on the car-rock craze was Gary Usher, for whom the phenomenon represented a second-chance career after Murry Wilson spurned him.  From late 1963 to the close of 1965, the volume of car recordings he produced, composed, and sang on (often with Brian Wilson’s loyal participation) accelerated at a clutch-dropping pace.  Besides five post-Shut Down Capitol albums for the Super Stocks (Hot Rod Tally, Big Hot Rod Hits, Thunder Road, Surf route 101, School is a Drag), Usher cowrote four car songs with Roger Christian (“Custom City,” “Dragin’ U.S.A.,” “Rebel Rider,” “Shut Down Again”) for Annette Funicello’s March 1963 Muscle Beach Party film soundtrack, with the Honeys performing backing vocals.

 

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Ed Roth's name attracts an audience.  Ed Roth, the entrepreneur, sells T‑shirts, posters, and novelties.  The mention of Ed Roth, the person, sells magazines, tickets, toys, books and more.  This was all true in the 1950's and remains true today.   His "Beatnik Bandit" was featured in a four month long tribute to hot rodding at the Oakland Museum of California .  Ed Roth's Fink Family Reunion in Santa Fe Springs has become an annual tradition and his creations are always the subject of media attention .  His latest creation is usually a handcrafted, one of a kind automobile which blends the use of plywood, fiberglass, plexiglass, a variety of other substances and metals, and the latest in electronic gadgetry into a mobile work of art.  It usually headlines the International Specialty Car Association's show car circuit. He work represents the evolution of the personalized automobile from "lo tech" hot rod to "high tech" publicity medium.

We all have a handful of experiences that stay with us for a lifetime.  While putting together this package is one of mine, I think the most enjoyable and unforgettable part of this project came from the voice mail message I got from Ed after I sent him a copy.  He called me within a couple of days and in part he said that it was "really well written".  He paused and then in closing he said: "You didn't look that smart"!

I saved that message for a long time.  Only Ed Roth could make me laugh that hard. Thanks Ed.  I'm glad I met you.  I'm working hard on looking smarter every single day.

 

John Robertson

 

 

 

 

Rat Fink™ name and device and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
are trademarks of Ed Roth © 1999/2000/2001/2002/2003 Rat Fink device © Ed Roth 1984/89

(Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Rat Fink, Beatnik Bandit, Road Agent, Outlaw, Mysterion, Tweedy Pie, Stealth 2000, Surfite, Wild Child,
Race ?, Angel Fink, Robin Hood Fink, Mothers Worry, & Dragnut are all trademarks of Ed Roth (C) '99)

 

 

 

 

 

This Page Last Up Date 10/15/03

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