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Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth: Cartoonist, Hotrodder Legend (1932-2001)

Culture | March 4, 2020

Left: Ed Roth with his Excaliber Roadster in 1959, which he renamed The Outlaw. Right: Rat Fink sticker, Source: Photo by Colin Creitz/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images; Amazon.com

A kind of patron saint of hot rods, rock ’n roll, and Rat Fink, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was a counter culture legend who brought snarling monsters and wacko fiberglass road oddities to the mainstream in the late 1950s and 1960s. His style of thick lined, “weird” art combined with eye-catching custom cars made the Southern California "kustom kulture" nationally influential through stickers, t-shirts, posters, and model kits. Initially seen as too weird for normal audiences, Roth’s designs changed the way people thought about car culture and art in general. Go to any car show today and you’ll definitely see Roth’s imagery and plenty of copycats trying to capture that Rat Fink look.

Roth's First Language Was Art

source: Utah Stories

Born in Beverly Hills, California, Roth started drawing when he and his family moved to Bell, California. With his family refusing to speak English at home, Roth had to pick it up in school while continuing his studies in art. It was at this young age that he started drawing hot rods and monsters while trying to keep up in school. At home he and his brothers were taught the basics of construction by his father, a German cabinetmaker who was incredibly strict. This is where Roth first started experimenting with strange contraptions and odd angles in his work.

After High School, Roth Joined The Military

source: pinterest

When Roth graduated from high school in 1945 he studied engineering in college for a but before dropping out in 1951 and joining the Air Force. After he joined up he studied map making and worked as a barber on the side. Roth was sent to Morocco before he was transferred to South Carolina for the last four years of his military career. He returned home in 1955 where he quickly married and had five children while working at the Sears department store and striping cars on the side. By 1958, Roth started working as a automobile body builder where he started forming outfits out of fiberglass. His first car was called “Little Jewel,” a 1951 Ford Sport Custom Model A Sedan.

Rat Fink Changed Roth’s Life And Art Forever

source: ed roth

While building custom cars Roth started drawing nasty little characters that represented the hot rod scene. His most well known creation was Rat Fink, a green, gear-head rat that rode motorcycles and drove hot rods with a maniacal look on his face. Rat Fink and the rest of the grotesque monsters that drove their way across his “Weirdo” shirts made their first appearance in 1958 but by their appearance in the August 1959 issue of Car Craft magazine Roth’s designs were all over the hot rod mainstream.

A Merchandising Empire Built On Rat Fink And Custom Cars

A Revell model kit of Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth's Mysterion. Source: eBay

Roth’s hot rod monsters came about at the perfect time. The Universal Monsters were regaining popularity and fans were in the mood for creatures whether they were traditional IP or not. Rat Fink wasn’t just on shirts and posters, there were hot rod monster model kits that put thousands of dollars of royalties into Roth’s pockets.

His Hot Rod Creations Were Far Out

Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth's 1961 Beatnik Bandit. Source: Wikimedia Commons, photographed by Nick Ares

Roth’s custom cars were an extension of his work with his Rat Fink cartoons and the wood working he did when he was a kid. In 1959 his custom creation “the Outlaw,” a car with a totally fiberglass body. It was covered in the January 1960 issue of Car Craft and it made the rounds at hot rod shows around Southern California. People were so wild for his Outlaw design that they embraced a whole string of crazy Roth customs that followed. 

Roth's Custom Creations Set The Standard

The Orbitron, designed by Ed Roth in 1964. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cars like the Beatnik Bandit, the twin Ford engined Mysterion, the Orbitron, and the Road Agent are still some of the coolest rides out there. The apex of his custom car popularity came in 1965 when his rad surf buggy, the Surfite, appeared in the film Beach Blanket Bingo.

Roth Somehow Found The Time To Start A Rock Band

source: capitol records

In between building custom cars and drawing hot road monsters Roth started a novelty band called Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos in the early ‘60s. Roth as Mr. Gasser fronted the band that released three very weird surf rock LPs like “Hot Rod Hootenanny.” The songs were all about how Gasser and the Weirdos like to surf and tool around town in their hot rods committing various acts of debauchery. The group was the prototype for bands like The Cramps and The Sonics. All three of the band's LPs have been collected in a box set which is definitely worth seeking out if you don't want to drop a good chunk of change on out of press LPs.

He Left The Hot Rod Life In His Final Years

source: pinterest

After the popularity of Rat Fink waned in the early ‘70s Roth ditched hot rods, surf music, and everything that made him so popular. In 1974 he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He adopted a clean cut look and threw himself into social work. It’s not a bad life, but it’s wildly different from the rest of his life. If you visited Knots Berry Farm in the ‘70s and ‘80s then you saw his graphic design work, which was unfortunately his last foray into art. On April 1, 2001, Roth passed away of a heart attack at the age of 69. Big Daddy may not be around anymore, but Rat Fink rides forever.

Tags: Ed Big Daddy Roth

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.