Ed Roth was born the son of a German cabinet maker, whose shop and tools were a limitless source of inspiration for the car-loving California kid. He bought his first car, a 1933 Ford, at the age of 14 and, after graduation from high school, studied engineering in college. After serving four years in the Air Force, Roth went to work for Sears to support his wife and five sons, during which time he began pinstriping cars in a shop called Crazy Painters.
Because Roth was dialed into the 1950s counter-culture scene, the hep-talking beatnik developed a distinctive style that appealed to the period’s rebellious youth. He advertised and sold hand-painted T-shirts and car club jackets with grosser-than-life characters whose non-conformist attitudes told America’s self-described “weirdos” that being different was not a bad thing. His most popular artwork depicted grotesque creatures with enormous heads performing flaming burnouts in ridiculously overpowered street rods.
In 1959, Roth started his own company, Roth Studios, for the purpose of marketing anything and everything that could wear one of his designs. The frustrated artist was eager to create more than just cartoonish creatures; he also had a million ideas in his head for cars that looked like nothing else on the road. The only obstacles were that sheet metal was time-consuming to shape, and it would require tools and techniques not available on Roth’s budget.
Just a few years earlier, in 1953, Kaiser Motors had introduced its Darrin sports car with a body made entirely of fiber-reinforced polymer – a strong, lightweight, material invented by Owens-Corning in the ‘30s that was perfected by the war effort in the ‘40s. Chevrolet introduced its Corvette one month later with a body made from the same “fiberglass,” proving its viability as a manufacturing medium. By the time Roth was ready to make his four-wheeled dreams into reality, fiberglass was in widespread use in the nautical and aviation industries, and he had easy access to the required materials.
Molding plaster to create the desired body shapes and scrounging local junkyards for mechanical parts, Roth finished his first true custom rod in 1959. Called Outlaw, the roadster was a simple ’29 Ford frame fitted with a chromed ’49 Cadillac V-8 engine. Outlaw wore a one-piece fiberglass “T-bucket” body, wing-like front fenders supporting quad headlamps, and an airbrushed paint scheme.
From that homerun of a beginning, Roth let his creativity run wild. A year later, he introduced Beatnik Bandit, a glass dome-topped two-seater built on a shortened ’55 Oldsmobile chassis. The engine – the highly visible centerpiece of many a Roth custom – was a chromed Oldsmobile V-8 wearing two carburetors on top of a massive supercharger. Beatnik Bandit had no steering wheel; the driver controlled direction and speed through a joystick. His second car was much more complex than the first; Roth used 2,000 pounds of plaster to form the body’s mold, and the panels required 42 yards of fiberglass cloth and 50 gallons of resin.
Roth would produce another 22 unique show cars during his lifetime – with names such as Tweedy Pie, Druid Princess, and Yellow Fang – but it was the products emblazoned with his “monsters” that brought the savvy marketer fame and fortune. In 1960, he created a leering, drooling, sweating character named Rat Fink whose appeal among youth as an “anti-Mickey Mouse” sold millions of shirts, trading cards, and models. Before Roth, the plain white T-shirt was just a garment worn under every respectable male’s dress shirt, or every rebel’s leather jacket. His artwork popularized the idea that T-shirts could temporarily announce the wearer’s mood or attitude, like a tattoo that can be taken off at the end of the day.
Model kit maker Revell took notice of Roth right away and began selling scale-models of his creations. When the company suggested his name was not very catchy, Roth re-invented himself as “Big Daddy.” At one point during the 1960s, Revell was selling three million Big Daddy models per year!
By the end of the 1960s, Roth’s audience of young people had grown up and gone to fight in Vietnam or turned hippie. They no longer found solace in custom cars and cartoon monsters. Rat Fink’s creator closed Roth Studios in 1970, but continued his career as a pinstriper, sign painter, cartoonist, and author of books about custom car building techniques. He built several more cars until his death in 2001, focusing primarily on motorcycle-based three-wheelers with powerful but fuel-efficient smaller engines.
Roth was fortunate to witness in his lifetime a resurgence of interest in his creations. The cars have all been accounted for (the remains of Orbitron were recently located at an adult video store in Juarez, Mexico, where it was being used to hold trash), and Rat Fink reunions take place around the country every year. The iconic Outlaw remains so popular that components have been produced from original molds to create replicas.
To honor the man who introduced a generation to the joy of fantasy cars, three Ed “Big Daddy” Roth designs will be featured as part of the Breakthrough Designs display during the April 2-5 Food Lion AutoFair – Beatnik Bandit, Beatnik Bandit II (built by Roth in 1995), and a faithful replica of Outlaw. The spring Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a huge array of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 2,000 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Parking for the event is $5.
For more information, contact the Lowe’s Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.