The Once And Future Rod, By Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
From the February, 2009 issue of Street Rodder
By Jerry Wessner
Photography by The SRM Archives
Illustrators: Eric Geisert
When I heard the news of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's death on April 4 of this year, I was not only in shock, but denial as well. Much as lionized characters of the old west, Ed Roth has passed from living legend into the realm of legendary folk hero, with legions of Rat Fink followers, I might add. He has indeed gone on to a better place, to be with the Big Daddy of us all, where I'm sure things will never be quite the same ever again. Ed was not only extremely creative, but very curious about the universe around him as well.
Now all the things pondered in his incredible imagination will be revealed to him. Can you just imagine the conversations between the ol' Finkster hisself, and some of the most brilliant minds of the ages? Let's just hope it's being recorded. However, as eternity has no demanding time schedules, it's very possible that we'll all be allowed to listen in some day firsthand--just not too soon, I hope.
My first encounter with Ed Roth was around 1957, when I went up to "The Crazy Painters" shop, a.k.a. The Baron and Roth, in Southgate, with a couple of friends (my folks drove, as none of us had our drivers licenses yet) to purchase personalized, airbrushed sweatshirts like we'd seen at shows and in the magazine ads. I believe there was a Leave It to Beaver episode on this very subject, where the "Beav's" parents weren't as cooperative as ours. I can still see the under construction "Outlaw" roadster parked on the corner of the lot, a precursor of greater things yet to come--the results of which would never let my life be quite the same again.
After graduation from Long Beach Poly in 1960, I made it up to Maywood, to Roth's new location at 4616 Slauson Avenue, in my '48 Ford convertible, to seek gainful employment. Ed was in the shop alone that day, and said something like, "Here's my airbrush, and there's an old shirt on the easel to practice on--give it a try if you want, I'm goin' to lunch!" And with that, Ed left the building. During my time alone (somewhere near an hour), I tried to master the mysteries of the airbrush. After discovering somewhat correct settings, I was finally able to knock out a crude attempt at copying a monster in a car throwin' a mean second gear with a long shifter. Ed returned, inspected my "assignment," telling me that I could come in and work every day, but that he couldn't pay me anything. Well, even though I knew, even at that tender age, that this would be a great learning experience, a teenage boy needs money to fix up his hot rod and take his girl out on dates, so I had to politely decline his offer of apprenticeship--something I tend to remember with regret to this very day.
It wouldn't be until I started my editorial carrier in 1987 that we'd talk again. It was always a thrill that Ed knew me by name whenever we'd run into each other across the country. To be on a first-name basis with one of your childhood heroes (even though he was but a decade older than me) is no small thing indeed--something that I'll always cherish. Just how many of us are there who Ed taught (by example) everything from pinstriping to working in fiberglass isn't known, but I'll bet there are many of us. So long big guy, we'll miss you! With the passing of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, we got on the horn to get brief statements from a few dozen individuals on their personal recollections of the man. Unfortunately, we haven't the time nor space to print tributes from everyone who either knew Roth personally, or was inspired in one way or another by his contribution to, and his creative presence in, the hobby of hot rodding--it would obviously take volumes to do such a project justice. So the following are introspective thoughts (in no particular order) from some of your friends, peers, and icons of hot rodding and Kustom Kulture.
TRIBUTES FROM THE STREET RODDER STAFF:Brian Brennan: It isn't easy to remember Ed Roth without a big smile! Big Daddy was truly a large man that often times seemed larger than life itself. I thoroughly enjoyed standing back and watching how he interacted with people. He brought happiness to those whose lives he had an influence on, which was just about everyone.
Rob Fortier: I was pretty fortunate to have known Roth personally, as well as two of his sons. Since the family disputes of late, Roth and I didn't speak much, but I still respected my "Monster Hero" no matter what he said. I wish I could have said more to him in these last years, but at least I've got some good memories. At a car show some years ago, he said, "You know how to use them automatic cameras, don't ya'?" I replied, "About as good as you are with that Mac brush!" Ed said, "Okay, I've got this darn Canon thing at home, still in the box, and fer the life 'o me, I can't figure it out. . .ya' want it?" To this day I use that camera religiously for all my black and white photography. It meant a lot then and even more now.
Eric Geisert: He was a photographer's dream subject--you could always be assured of a great shot if Roth was in the picture. His approach made him a rebel and his talent made him a legend long before his untimely death. Long live the Rat Fink!
Ron Ceridono: The consummate showman, if there wasn't a crowd, Roth would create one. A number of years ago, the same night that "Oakland" opened, CNN was covering the breaking Gulf War. Tex Smith and I were selling books, Big Daddy was in an adjacent booth hawking T-shirts, and it seemed as though we were the only people in the building. Out of the blue Roth says, "We gotta shake things up a little!" and disappears. He soon returned with a broom and a paper bag full of bicycle accessories. Soon the utilitarian appliance was festooned with everything from a handgrip with streamers to a horn and bell and flashing light. With this device, Roth drew a curious and appreciative crowd. It was obvious that they loved him and he loved them, and the show went on!
TRIBUTES FROM FINKDOM'S GREAT UNWASHED:Darrell Mayabb: Ed and I were talking one day, and he told me he was going to do a limited-edition print of Rat Fink. I forget now, but he wanted something of mine, and said he'd give me numero uno print in trade. I was a little late in getting to the Hot Rod Heritage show at SEMA, where we'd agreed the trade would go down. He looked at me very sheepishly and said he'd given print No. 1 away and really felt bad. I told him it was okay and forgot about it. The next day he came running across the room looking like the cat that swallowed the canary, saying, "I've got somethin' for you! I figured out how to make your print the most special one of the 100." He'd signed it 1-1/2 of 100! I love it. Ed was my senior by some years, but when I was around him, I always felt like a teenager. He was very creative and always up for fun, and I will miss him, his humor, and his art.
Thom Taylor: Some years ago, Anna Ganahl invited Ed to a program GM was putting on about the Sunny Racer at the Art Center College of Design, where she was then Head of Publicity. After the GM engineers showed us the car, we were invited to lunch. Ed and I got to sit across from the main engineer and he started asking questions about the car. Now, Ed was into solar-powered vehicles, having built the "Pink Bazooka," and seemed real interested in everything the engineer had to say. But, as the explanations came forth, Ed's questions took on a much more technical slant. The more of these questions asked, the more flustered the engineer became. I think that Ed could see that he knew more than GM's solar guy, and changed the subject before it got too embarrassing. When we were leaving, the engineer ran up to Ed and asked him for his business card. I never remembered to ask Ed whether GM ever called him with a job offer!
Dick Wells: We all mourn Ed's passing, but it seems awkward to pay homage in a serious way to an individual who so enjoyed life and his work, that our fondest memories of him will always be his capacity as a showman and quipster. Ed wasn't old, just turning 69 years of age, and was creative and productive until the end. He left us peacefully, and in his wake there's a whole lot of Ed to remember, above all his rascal antics!
Darrell Zipp: By today's definition, Ed Roth would be regarded as a publicity hound. However, he was actually a very quiet guy, even a bit shy. . .until he faced a camera, that is. That's when he performed his capers. As a result, most people who have only seen him in photos will regard him as somewhat of a clown. Indeed he did clown around and wear those crazy hats, but privately Ed was a very unpretentious person. I remember when we were caravanning to the Street Rod Nationals in 1985 (where they wouldn't let him bring his three-wheeler in), and got separated. My wife and I pulled into a rest stop to get a few hours sleep. In the morning there was Ed sitting on his "Asphalt Angel" trike, fast asleep, with a blanket draped over him. I asked, "Didn't you get cold?" He replied, "Yes, a couple of times, but I'd just start up the motor!"
Darryl Starbird: Ed's presence in the custom car and street rod world will be long remembered and talked about; his influence and creative mind was a gift to our industry. In 1995 Ed was inducted into the National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame as a charter member. His presence there was memorable, and his support has been a great asset to the Hall of Fame ever since. It's hard to believe I won't be running into Ed again during the show season, as he always toured the country and entertained us all year after year. I will certainly miss our frequent meetings and conversations.
George Barris: It would be impossible to express in just a few words, that which would give honor and respect to a longtime friend and colleague, Ed Roth. It has been more meaningful to me professionally, because of Ed's unique association, relationship, and energy, which he so genuinely gave year after year to the automotive industry. Ed has been dedicated to, and was a pioneer of, the press and media coverage, with articles, photo layouts, and illustrations to expand the delight of custom car and rod enthusiasts since the '50s.
Dan Woods: I was at the long Beach car show with my just-finished "Milk Truck," and Ed walks up offering me a job. I was just an 18-year-old kid going to Compton Jr. College at the time and didn't even know who he was. I accepted and we got to work on the "Druid Princess." Ed didn't have many tools and I made a lot of the parts in the College machine shop--even talked him into hiring my friend Jake (of course, he said I'd have to pay him). Ed was a great guy who never got mad, and when I was in Vietnam, he'd write me every two weeks--even fixed my wife's car once when I was overseas.
Eddie Martinez: Ed pinstriped my '56 Chevy and liked the interior I'd stitched. He helped me a lot when I was first starting out in business. When I was upholstering the "Outlaw," Ed went across the street to the grocery store and came back with a watermelon, which he then proceeded to smash on the cement and eat the whole thing. Ed sent a lot of work my way for pleated package trays--just about every car he pinstriped got one!
Larry Watson: The first time I came across Ed Roth was in '56, when I saw a car he had striped. On Sunday I drove by his place and gave him a thumbs up, as he was busy. The next day he drove to my shop in his flamed truck and chewed me out for not stopping. I went on to paint several of his cars (after Dirty Doug had prepped them), in trade for T-shirts, flyers for my business, etc. Ed used to come by and visit me after I moved my shop to Hollywood--we'd have a great time!
Dave Bell: In conversations with Ed, he didn't play up the artist end of things, saying he was an idea and concept guy. He'd collaborate with other artists to bring his ideas to life, and loved chrome to accent paint. I think he influenced just about everything on wheels!
Tony Thacker: When I was working on the book, Hot Rods by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, I went up to Utah to see him. On my return, his son Dennis asked if Ed had cooked a spaghetti dinner? I replied no, we had gone out to eat. Dennis related that his dad would always cook spaghetti in the dog's dish, giving the remainder to the dog. Ed's theory was that if you always ate spaghetti from a dirty dog dish, you'd never get sick. Dennis related that he had eaten his dad's spaghetti and had not been sick since.
Ed Newton: Ed Roth was a unique branch on that early developmental tree for hot rods and cool customs. He zigged when others zagged. Ed looked at things a bit differently than most during that crazy era spawned in mid-'50s California. Although his flamboyant habits and mannerisms may have alienated him to hard-core, serious builders, it's quite befitting that Ed be credited with being the surrogate father of advanced thinking in the rodding world, for he was the catalyst and focal point for thousands who continually reference those wild pioneering days. I still think of Ed as being the Walt Disney of hot rodding, but he was also my friend, and he'll be missed!
Dirty Doug: I first met Ed in the early '50s when he worked for Sears as a window dresser. Transportation for him was an orange '48 Ford sedan with lettering and designs just about anywhere they'd fit--I think he forgot the tires. I started work on the "Beatnik Bandit" mold in the summer of 1960, and worked for Ed full-time through 1970. The last car of Ed's I worked on was the "Beatnik Bandit II," which I did up in Manti, Utah, for two months during the summer of 1995. Big Daddy made a lasting impression on me for his determination to keep on with it, no matter what happened.
Jake Jacobs: In 1966, Dan Woods talked Ed into giving me a tryout. My first assignment was to smooth up and radius corners on four torch-cut brackets for the Druid Princess' hairpins, Ed's exact orders being, "Make 'em lovely!" Upon seeing the results of my efforts, he simply said, "You're on!" I went on to do everything for Ed, from T-shirt and decal displays to art and production work on Ed's pioneering biker magazine, Choppers. Ed always allowed everyone's personalities to come out, and working for him opened doors for me. I'm grateful to have had the experience and to have known him--we had a lot of fun!
Robert Williams: Every day with Roth was a universe into itself. I sat next to Ed for five years, as his assistant and quasi-advisor, and smelled his every fart (of which there were many, as Ed could neither taste nor smell, and would eat anything)! Everyone from actors and authors, to noted criminals, interesting women, and homeless people would walk through that door. One night Ed was in the shop pinstriping as usual, and this old guy strolls in and watches him for about an hour. Finally he asks, "How do you get those lines so straight?" "By having frequent oral sex!" Ed replies. It turns out that this guy was the Mayor of Maywood and Ed's business license was up for renewal--renewal denied!
Joe Henning: Ed was an atypical person who will never be matched. I did design work with him on the "Beatnik Bandit," "Orbitron," and "Rotar," but he kinda got agitated when he'd see my humor-laden articles about his antics and adventures in car building that appeared in R&C. It was all meant in good fun, and he came to realize that it was publicity like this that was putting him on the map. In later years, I'd always get a big bear hug from Ed when we'd run into each other at places like the SEMA Show.
Pat Ganahl: It was 1976, I was Editor of SRM, and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth had gone into self-willed exile back in 1968. There were young rodders who didn't even know who he was. I heard he was working at Knott's Berry Farm, found him there, and made an appointment to interview him at his home. Ed lead my wife and I to his garage, cluttered with parts, tools, and a three-wheeled vehicle he was building. As he talked he effortlessly worked--cutting, welding, grinding, and smoothing. What I remember is those big hands of his working--that's what they did and were meant to do. Bye Big Daddy!
BEATNIK BANDIT:"Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Beatnik Bandit, 1960 (Fiberglass, Plexiglas, steel, lacquer, and enamel paint, 43 x 135 x 70 1/2 in.; collection of the National Automotive Museum, Reno, Nevada)." So read the catalog for the traveling exhibit, Kustom Kulture, Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and others, held at the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, July 17-November 7, 1993. This event was much more than a mere art exhibition, it was, at long last, a nod and a wink of recognition from the mainstream fine arts community toward what had hitherto been considered only "underground" art, thanks in no small part to the following: Craig Stecyk, LAM Guest Curator; Bolton Colburn, LAM Curator of Collections; Greg Escalante, LAM Trustee; and Susan Anderson, LAM Curator of Exhibitions. It was the personal involvement of these and other dedicated enthusiasts that brought the Kustom Kulture movement and "Big Daddy" Roth's sculpted automotive creations to be "officially" recognized as a valuable contribution to that great patchwork quilt which comprises the uniquely American art scene. Kudos to all involved!
The "Beatnik Bandit" was first revealed to the public via text and llustrations by artist Joe Henning in the Jun. '60 issue of R&C, in an article titled, "The Grape of Roth." Roth's concept embodied in Henning's sketches was to evolve from a T-coupe-topped 'glass hot rod into the bubbletopped creation we all know and love. Originally dubbed the "Beatnik Band-it," the title was quickly to change to "Bandit."
Having toured the Outlaw on the show circuit with Darryl Starbird and his bubbletopped "Predicta," Ed decided to scrap the angular T-roof and conventional doors for a similar transparent, cutting-edge, flip-up lid instead. Aside from that, replacing the sectioned T radiator shell, and detail enhancements, like aerial pods above the headlights, Joe Henning's concept that had started with a hastily sketched idea on a scrap of cardboard (based, in part, on Joe's previous roadster design) while in conversation with Ed at his car show T-shirt booth, remained pretty much intact.
The Bandit's one-piece body and integrated fender form not only harkens back to earlier autos in a thoroughly modern interpretation (even by today's standards), but predates the Meyers Manx dunebuggy (with similar design attributes) by several years as well. The first being deliberate, the latter a coincidence--one has to wonder?
Anyway, when finished, the Beatnik Bandit was captured on film by Bud Lang (who became a pioneer in 'glass T-bucket replicas) to be the cover car for the May '61 issue of Car Craft. (Note: it must be pointed out that Roth would usually have artist friends commit his concepts to paper, and was always open to design suggestions from those whose work he admired--most of whom were also his employees at one time or another during the turbulent '60s.)
Joe Henning was never an employee, but had input into a couple more of Roth's creations, including the "Road Agent," as well as Ed's ill-fated air car, "Rotar." Ed Newton is another designer who had incredible influence on Roth's concepts, and must be given the credit he so richly deserves in "refining" many of Ed's designs, including: "Orbitron," "Surfite," "Wishbone," "Capt. Pepi," "Druid Princess" (Tom Daniel also collaborated on that one), and others, which included three-wheelers during Roth's "Trike Period."
Roth's opus operandi on the Beatnik Bandit was a bit different from his first fiberglass creation, the Outlaw, inasmuch as there was no production mold created-- what would have normally been used as a mold (the first 'glass lay-up) became the body proper instead. The previous Outlaw body shape had been created from plaster and wadded-up newspaper, i.e., "Spitwads," (a Roth term) to flesh it out. Then a finish coat was smoothed on, the surface perfected with grinder, files, and sandpaper, then primed, and finally a three-piece 'glass mold pulled from this "plug" to make duplicate bodies from. At least one extra body was made from this mold (and sold), but Ed's been quoted as saying that there was only ever one nosepiece ever made. It's said that artist Robert Williams (another ex-Roth employee) has the body mold sections for the Outlaw in his personal collection--what an artifact to own.
Apparently Roth found from his first endeavor that creating molds to duplicate radical, unorthodox hot rod bodies was not only time consuming (like sanding fiberglass smooth is?), but not very cost effective, either. Unlike today, rodders at that time weren't into building alternative variations of traditional Ford hot rod shapes, like the SpeedStar and Zipper roadster bodies (to name but a couple) offered by the contemporary street rod aftermarket (thus the popularity of 'glass T-bucket replicas when they appeared on the market). It wouldn't be until some years later, when Roth got into trikes (both V-8 and VW), that he found mold making for series production to be lucrative. So, for most of Ed's show rods, there would be no female molds, only tedious amounts of grunt work in grinding huge volumes of hardened plaster into pleasing shapes (it's been said he had a rather large discard pile of rejected body details), then covering the results with layers of resin-soaked 'glass mat and/or cloth. When the 'glass had sufficiently cured, the body would be rolled over and the plug laboriously knocked out. Much of this work was handled by Ed's longtime employee, Dirty Doug Kinney.
One must remember that even though Ed was a hot rodder, the main reason for building all of those fantastic automotive creations, whose images flowed freely from his futurist mind, was to draw attention to his, now thriving, T-shirt business. For selling T-shirts (at first airbrushed one-at-a-time, as mentioned, then silk-screened for an ever-expanding market) was the business at hand, and the cars were mostly for publicity, to pull eager buyers into his booth (and, of course, order T-shirts and other goodies from the magazine ads as well).
During the creative process, Ed would always lay the foundations for his cars first, which in the case of the Beatnik Bandit was a '50 Olds chassis scavenged from Firestone Auto Wrecking, then shortened to an 85-inch wheelbase (note that all future vehicles would have purpose-built frames), then sculpt the body on top of it.
This meant a heck of a lot of cleanup later, but as most of the chassis components were to go into the brightwork tanks at Model Plating anyway, who cared? It must also be pointed out that when building a female 'glass body like the Bandit's (unlike when a body is laid-up in a mold), maintaining a uniform thickness of the finished product goes out the window. In grinding and sanding the 'glass into a smooth, paintable surface, thickness may vary from paper-thin to nearly a half-inch. At any rate, when Ed and Dirty Doug were finished and it was time for paint, Larry Watson was called on to do the honors (as he would be for future Roth creations as well). The Bandit was painted with a white pearl base, then panel-painted (a visual link to the Outlaw) by Larry, who had invented the style on his '58 T-Bird (see Custom Rodder, Mar. '01 for a feature) in blended golden hues. Then Roth applied his own pinstriping magic to give it that personal touch, even though Larry was an equally accomplished striper as well. Afterwards it was off to Eddie Martinez for one of his incredible pearl Naugahyde stitch jobs on the (I feel Starbird-inspired) unistick-controlled cockpit. The Bandit followed the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) formula throughout, where but a single push on a sunken aerial was sufficient to open the hydraulic-activated bubble. (Note: For a complete thesis on how to build a bubbletop, see the Jul. '01 issue of Custom Rodder magazine).
The Beatnik Bandit went on to fame, and some fortune, by being replicated in styrene by Revell as a 1/25-scale plastic model (as had the Outlaw before it) and as a Hot Wheels car by Mattel as well. It now resides on permanent display at the National Auto Museum in Reno, Nevada, where these photos were taken. And we wish to express our gratitude to these good folks for allowing Eric's photo session.
Although Roth's vehicles were...
Although Roth's vehicles were always on the smallish side, in recent years he went to the downright miniature, including the (left to right) "Yankee Blitz" wheelbarrow, five-wheeled "FinkMobile," and "Conestoga Star," motorized Radio Flyer wagon.
The "Beatnik Bandit II" was...
The "Beatnik Bandit II" was built by Ed in the mid '90s in Manti, UT, as a modern version of the original car. It was also the last Roth vehicle worked on by his longtime henchman, Dirty Doug.
Big Daddy, shown with fellow...
Big Daddy, shown with fellow bubbletop legend Darryl Starbird, was inducted in the National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame in Afton, OK, as one of its Charter Members in 1995. His Hall of Fame plaque includes an engraving of one of his more famous creations, "Outlaw."
MARCH 4, 1932-APRIL 4, 20...
MARCH 4, 1932-APRIL 4, 2001
It's hard not to notice the...
It's hard not to notice the engine, which is a heavily chromed, Fritz Voight-tweaked Olds, mounting a Bell Auto Parts GMC 6-71 supercharger kit. Those are Scott tops atop the chromed and polished (by Model Plating) Stromberg 97 carbs.
The "Beatnik Bandit" is also...
The "Beatnik Bandit" is also a case where carefully planned and executed graphics (blended metallics over a white pearl base, originally applied in a panel design by Larry Watson, then duplicated to perfection during restoration) enhance, rather than distract from, the overall effect. In other words, the paint was designed with the car, not simply applied as an afterthought.
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth not only...
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth not only created objects from his incredibly fertile imagination, but could see the beauty in "found" objects as well. Note the junkyard hood ornament with Roth logo in his personal style font, and the '59 Ford aluminum grille material filling the void that was originally slated to enclose a radically sectioned T radiator shell.
Those aerial pods adorning...
Those aerial pods adorning the headlight shades are not only a Roth styling flourish, but when pushed, activate the hydraulically motivated bubble top as well...
...The collaboration of Ed...
...The collaboration of Ed Roth and Joe Henning resulted in a striking piece of automotive design.
With the Starbird-inspired...
With the Starbird-inspired bubbletop either up or down, the Eddie Matrinez-stitched pearl Naugahyde interior is a study in functional simplicity. Note the instrument pod and single, centrally located control stick that does it all This is yet another item inspired by Starbird when he and Ed toured the show circuit in 1960--Ed with his groundbreaking Outlaw roadster, and Darryl with his unistick controlled Predicta T-Bird.
The original T-coupe-style...
The original T-coupe-style turtledeck rear end concept came through the "refinement" process virtually unscathed. Where Joe Henning had called for as quartet of '59 Bonneville taillight lenses to fill the void, Ed chose instead the narrower units from a Catalina, adorned with five chrome bullets each...
...This made room for a license...
...This made room for a license plate frame that originally contained the car's name, hand lettered by Roth, of course. Roth carried the big, bad, blown drag race theme to the rear as well with whitewall racing slicks. Note the beauty and flow of the rear fender. That Ed was a conceptual genius when it came to auto design, there can be no doubt!
Since the mid-'90s, LA-based...
Since the mid-'90s, LA-based Copro-Nason produced a series of 1964-era Big Daddy airbrushed designs, like the "Hunter." Other well-known designs were produced, including variations of the timeless Rat Fink character, with our good friend Von Franco being commissioned for the ink and color. It should be noted that Roth utilized the talents of numerous artists from the '60s on, namely Robert Williams, Ed Newton, and R. K. Sloane, to help produce the cartoons that today are valuable collector's items.
That there will ever be the likes of another Ed "Big Daddy" Roth within the ranks of hot rodding is doubtful (even though there are those, including two of his sons, who have chosen to follow in his footsteps), as this soft-spoken, gentle giant of a man was indeed a unique benchmark in our hobby, never to be duplicated. So long, Big Daddy. You've left an irreplaceable void, both in our hobby and our hearts, and we'll all miss ya'!