Rat Fink creator Roth dies
By PAUL CHAVEZ
The Associated Press
4/6/01 5:54 AM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, whose fantastic car creations and
anti-hero Rat Fink character helped define the California hotrod culture of
the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 69.
Roth died Wednesday at his studio in Manti, Utah, said Joe Bennett, a
dispatcher with the Sanpete County Sheriff's Department. The cause of death
wasn't immediately given.
A generation of teen-age rebels across the country found a hero in Roth,
whose chrome and fiberglass creations stirred awe at car shows. Many adopted
his airbrushed anti-hero, the bug-eyed, menacing Rat Fink, who became a
cultural counterpoint to Mickey Mouse.
While Roth worked on custom cars in his garage-studio near Los Angeles,
youngsters across the country broke out the airplane glue to work on
intricate scale plastic models of his "Outlaw! ! ! ! " roadster, bubble-topped
"Beatnik Bandit," or futuristic "Mysterion."
As a designer, Roth was considered a genius and visionary, not only for his
radical designs, but also for his pioneering use of fiberglass in car
He was described by author Tom Wolfe in his 1964 essay "The Kandy-Kolored
Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" as the "most colorful, the most
intellectual and the most capricious" of the car customizers.
"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement -- a surrealist in his designs, a
showman by temperament, a prankster," Wolfe wrote.
Roth created Rat Fink and a host of wild characters to help finance his car
In 1974, he converted to the Mormon church and abandoned his rebel
lifestyle, however he continued to work on car designs.
"My fanaticism with cars has just destroyed my personal life," he told The
Associated Press in a 1997 interview. "It's an obsession, an addiction.
Every day! ! ! ! I pray to God, `Release me from my calling!"'
David Chodosh, a friend and business associate, said Roth was still working
at the time of his death and was hoping to tour a new car in 2002.
"The guy over the years has epitomized cool," Chodosh said. "Even now, in so
many ways, he is still the Boss Fink."
On the Net:
Ed Roth began driving cars when he was 12 years old. It was in Southern California, right after World War II, and cars were what every young man was dreaming about. At first Ed did the same thing his buddies were doing: He'd buy an old car, like a '32 three-window coupe, and customize it for racing or cruising. Then, in the late '50s, he did something no one else had tried. He started building cars from scratch.
Using simple tools, junkyard parts, and a new, inexpensive material called fiberglass, Roth created automobiles in his garage. The first one was named, appropriately enough, the "Outlaw." It was proof that anyone can indeed do-it-yourself, without a team of engineers and a Detroit assembly line. All that was really needed was hard work and imagination.
Ed had plenty of imagination. He became "Big Daddy," a hot-rod Dr. Frankenstein who was more of a struggling artist than a mechanic. His garage became his studio. His cars were never meant to be driven: They were sculptures on wheels.
The Outlaw was followed by the "Beatnik Bandit" and then "Rotar." Big Daddy Roth had to finance his creations by selling T-shirts. On weekends, he would set up a booth at a drag strip or car show or county fair and personally airbrush shirts. He would draw cartoons of monsters and pictures of cars, but when he airbrushed T-shirts with monsters driving cars, people began to line up at his booth.
His most popular monster was a repulsive rodent named Rat Fink. Roth was a genius at designing cars, but it was "Finkie" who brought him fame and fortune. By 1963, pimply teenagers across America were buying Rat Fink model kits and mass-produced Rat Fink T-shirts.
His garage/studio evolved into the blue-collar equivalent of Andy Warhol's Factory. His new shop was located in Lakewood, California. Dozens of employees helped Big Daddy create more Kustom Kars, T-shirts, records, and Revell produced model car kits patterned after his creations. Rat Fink was soon joined by other gross, disgusting creatures driving the coolest hot rods.
Alienated adolescents who knew they'd never fit in now had their own heroes: Drag Nut, Mother's Worry, Mr. Gasser, and other members of the Rat Fink family. The message was clear (even if it wasn't the one Roth had intended): Ugly is beautiful, and being a weirdo is cool. It was a lesson some would never forget.
By the end of the '60s, the damage had been done. Those kids freaked out and found new things to believe in. Psychedelia killed the Rat. Big Daddy Roth started chopping motorcycles and hanging out with bikers. His business fell apart and he had problems with the law. He bottomed out, found religion, and disappeared.
Rat Fink and his buddies, however, were not dead for long. While Roth was living a quiet life as a Mormon sign painter, his creatures found a new life of their own: in tattoo parlors, underground comics, and art galleries. On concert posters by Frank Kozik and Coop. And on lots of record covers.
Rat Finks and other monsters driving hot rods have become rock-art, icons. Initially they were embraced by surf musicians, but now they're everywhere. Countless punk and alternative bands have used the images on 45s, LPs, and CDs. Check out the cover of the new release by the Voodoo Glow Skulls for a recent use (or abuse). Bands as diverse as the Cramps and White Zombie consider Roth their own personal Big Daddy.
The Chinese calender declares this to be the Year of the Rat. Perfect timing. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is finally getting the recognition he deserves. "Kustom Kulture," once looked down on as being low-class and disposable, is now being seen as a unique American art form, and Big Daddy is celebrated as one of the pioneers of the movement.
This fall, his work, including the original Beatnik Bandit, will be on display at the Oakland Museum of California. It'll be part of an exhibition called "Hot Rods and Customs: The Men and Machines of California's Car Culture." The show will be open to the public from September 21, 1996 to January 5, 1997.
Big Daddy is back. His status as a national treasure hasn't changed Roth's life much. It just gives him more freedom to do what he does best. He's in his garage. Building another car.