Few cultural icons mesh together art and engineering prowess quite like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
Noted as an icon of the Kustom Kulture movement that started in the 1950s, Big Daddy was equal parts gifted artist and gearhead. His “grotesque” caricatures like the legendary Rat Fink are instantly recognizable by anyone who loves hot rods, and the cultural movement he helped create is still going strong today. In fact, subcultures like the greasers, punk rock, rockabilly, rock and roll, and psychobilly can all call the Kustom movement their “Big Daddy” and at the very beginning of it all was Ed Roth, some art supplies, and some wrenches.
Ready to explore the wild and wonderful world of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Rat Fink? Let’s get into it!
Ed Roth was born in 1932 and raised within the car-crazy culture of Los Angeles. Raised in a German-speaking household by his immigrant parents, Ed learned to speak English in school and spent his time drawing everything from cars to airplanes and freakish, Halloween-worthy monsters. His father was a craftsman who built custom wood cabinets, and Ed and his 2 brothers would spend countless hours learning and toiling under the strict direction of his father. This is where Ed learned to use his hands and build creations from nothing more than wood, stain, and paint.
At the end of high school, Ed entered engineering school to follow his love of automobile culture and set his sights on designing cars. Disinterested by the extensive math and physics courses required of engineers, Ed left college in 1951 to join the Air Force. After a 4 year stint in the military, Ed was honorably discharged in 1955. Married and with 5 boys to raise, Ed took a job at Sears during the week but would pinstripe and do custom automobile work on the side to help pay the bills.
Big Daddy was a regular at drag events and car shows all over Southern California and his creations instantly drew the eye of Hot Rod lovers and custom car aficionados from every walk of life who would line up to buy his merchandise. Roth sold his “Weerdo” shirts in the pages of Car Craft magazine, and everything from t-shirts to posters at shows all over the United States. Roth quickly outgrew his home studio and needed to turn his sites towards a larger operation that could support both custom vehicle work and his art studio that was now turning out everything from T-Shirts to posters. In 1959, he moved his shop to Maywood, CA (now part of the City of Los Angeles).
The Screaming 60’s
Originally just a sketch in Rod & Custom Magazine, one of Roth’s most famous creations was the Beatnik Bandit. Created from fiberglass, the Bandit showed off a futuristic design that centered on a plexiglass canopy and a centrally located “Joystick” control that was utilized to both steer and drive the car. It was the ultimate expression of creativity and it showed that anyone could create custom vehicles with a bit of know-how and some serious grit. The Bandit was featured in both Rod & Custom Magazine, as well as Car Craft magazine during the summer of 1961. Other Roth creations included the twin Ford engined Mysterion (1963), the Orbitron (1964), and the Road Agent (1965).
In 1962, the Revell Model Company would strike up a lucrative partnership with Roth and begin producing scale plastic models of some of his most iconic designs. Although Roth only received a single cent in royalties for each model sold, by 1963, he received $32,000 in royalties. That’s 3.2 MILLION models sold!
In 1968, Mattel introduced the iconic Hot Wheels line and Roth’s Beatnik Bandit was one of the first 16 toy cars produced by the company. How much more iconic can you get than that?
Created as an anti-hero to Mickey Mouse, Rat Fink would debut in 1963 in an issue of Car Craft Magazine. Within a year, model car manufacturer Revell Model Company started producing a plastic scale model of Rat Fink and Roth Studio’s set about mass-producing t-shirts with all matter of Rat-Fink and all his nasty friends like Drag Nut, Mother’s Worry, and Mr. Gasser.
Throughout the 1960s Rat Fink and his band of nasty friends would dominate the Southern California surf scene, as well as the emerging skateboarding scene. The popularity of Rat Fink was not relegated to California either. Kids all over the country saw Fink as an icon of rebellion, a symbol of a disparaged youth that was at once blurry-eyed and hopeful. An antithesis of saccharin sweet world that was portrayed on T.V. and in popular culture. He was dirty, arrogant, and neurotic; a true symbol of the counter culture movement that was gaining steam in the early 1960s.
Rat Fink would show up on everything from lunch boxes to yo-yo’s, and today, this merchandise is extremely collectible.
The Later Years & Legacy
Roth and his studio would go on to do an incredibly wide variety of projects throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s. On top of producing several more cars, Roth had a stint in dueling with motorcycle clubs that began to hang out at this shop, allegedly culminating in a fight between the head of the gang and Roth over a money dispute. He also worked for Knott’s Berry Farm as an artist from 1970 to 1980 and did time working for Brucker's Movie World and their "Cars of the Stars" display. He also continued to produce underground comics throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Roth was married 4 times and eventually took up residence in Manti, Utah where he would pass away in 2001.
It’s difficult to really put your head around the impact of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth on both the art community and the automotive community as well. Roth essentially created the “graphic art” style that is so popular today, as well as fostered a movement that encompassed everyone from misfit punk rock kids, to greasers and everyone in between. His vehicles were inspired creations that wrapped hot rods with futuristic designs that defined the space age and he did it all without a formal education.
From Hot Wheels to surf culture, Big Daddy has touched countless hearts and will undoubtedly go on to inspire many more miscreant souls for years to come.