Along time ago, in a distant land called California, there was a crossroads for all things cool. Cars and comics. Trikes and bikes. Show cars and model cars. T-Shirts, monsters and one grubby rodent named Rat Fink…At the epicenter of this mash up was the multi-talented, mad scientist gear head, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. If you don’t know him, check out this article from The Selvedge Yard.
Born in Beverly Hills, CA in 1932 and raised in a German speaking household, Ed was mentored by his father who kept him and his brothers busy (and out of trouble,) by creating woodworking projects in the family work shop. His father was a cabinet builder and it was under his watchful eye that Roth began honing his carving skills eventually leading him to master metalworking, plaster, fiberglass and other mediums as well.
After graduating from high school in 1949, Ed enrolled in college with his sights set on an engineering degree, but quickly grew tired of his studies. He joined the Air Force in 1951 and after stints in Africa and South Carolina, he was honorably discharged in 1955. By this time he had five children (all boys,) and was working as a window dresser for Sears and Roebuck’s.
But Roth had bigger ideas in mind and from there, everything he touched turned to gold. He opened a paint and body shop with Bud “The Baron” Crozier and his grandson Kelly and became the known as “The Crazy Painters.” The duo had a knack for kustom paint, pin striping and fiberglass work. Word spread quickly and the business took off.
With a growing family to feed, Roth was very crafty in creating several streams of revenue. He began airbrushing and selling “Weirdo” t-shirts at county fairs, drag races and auto shows. Usually featuring zombies or ghouls, “monster shirts” had become a full blown national craze with Roth at the forefront of the movement. One character that sprang up from this period eventually turned out to be a gold mine and would become synonymous with Big Daddy Roth.
Ed had an idea for an “anti” Mickey Mouse. His name was “Rat Fink” and he was hairy and smelly with bloodshot eyes and flies hovering around him. With national exposure from from Revell models, stickers, decals, t-shirts and other mail order merchandise, Rat Fink became an off the chart hit. It’s been said that Roth got one penny for every Revell model sold and one year got a royalty check for $32,000. That’s moving a lot of models!
With the cash rolling in, Roth started to create his own hand made hot rods in his garage at home. His first scratch built car was called “The Outlaw” and it was this fiberglass kustom hot rod that got the attention of the important car mags of the day, generating a big buzz for Roth’s work. The hits kept coming with rods like The Beatnk Bandit(1961), The Mysterion (1963), The Orbitron (1964), and The Road Agent (1965) just to name a few. Hollywood came knocking too and Roth’s surf buggy, The Surfite was featured in the 1965 film “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Roth’s Beatnik Bandit was also one of the original Hot Wheels cars issued in 1968 and continued his uncanny ability to mass merchandise his art across emerging mediums.
Roth was keen on motorcycles too. In 1966 he began customizing motorcycles and from 1967 to 1970 he even had his own magazine called “Choppers.” Roth also built the first known VW powered trike with many variations including the Candy Wagon, California Cruiser, Secret Weapon, Ducky and The Great Speckled Bird.
After all this, it would seem that Roth was stretched thin, but somehow he even managed to start a novelty rock band called “Mr. Gasser and the Weirdos.” They made a couple of albums and disappeared but you have to hand it to this guy, he got a lot done in a day.
Roth passed in 2001 on and is survived by his sons and fourth wife Ilene. Since then, she holds a yearly “open house” at the family homestead to honor her late husband and share his art with the world. Also, check out “Tales of the Rat Fink,” a documentary narrated by John Goodman released in 2006. It’s a great way to get up to speed on Ed Roth and his legacy.