faced with the challenge of fashioning another enhancement of
’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.
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.
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.
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
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.
’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.
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
Brian was happiest bent over the grinning ivories
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
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
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
The first quantum flick forward in the delicate
science of pin-striping was the doing of a
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
, and Wall’s Custom Cars was among the local lots
that offered it as a regular option.
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
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.
, 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
1399, a two-lane blacktop leading from
. 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
were enchanted, and its mischievous adolescents made
Rat Fink an icon and a treasured antidote of Mickey Mouse.
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
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.
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
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.
March 4, 1932
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
, 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.
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
scavenged engine turned over for the first time, the teenage tinkerers and
“toolies” ran their raspy jalopies out to
after dusk to drag for pink slips, seizing ownership of losing rods driven
by opponents from rival Huntington Park High.
pocket book-size hamlet of
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.
pursued, however, one could swerve into the orange groves on the south
side of the straightaway beyond the
or lurch into the
on the north side of the street, hiding out until it was safe to regroup
at Stan’s Drive-in at
. 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
, 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.
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
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.
, 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
group still learning to fill its own mufti.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.