Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a counterculture legend who brought snarling monsters and wacky fiberglass road oddities to the mainstream in the late 1950s and 1960s, was a kind of patron saint of hot rods, rock ‘n roll, and Rat Fink. Through stickers, t-shirts, posters, and model kits, his style of thick-lined, “weird” art combined with eye-catching custom cars made the Southern California “Kustom Kulture” nationally influential. Roth’s designs, which were initially thought to be too strange for mainstream audiences, changed the way people thought about car culture and art in general. Go to any car show today and you’ll see Roth’s imagery and plenty of imitators attempting to recreate the Rat Fink look.
Roth began drawing when he and his family moved to Bell, California, from Beverly Hills. Because his family refused to speak English at home, Roth had to learn it in school while continuing his art studies. While trying to keep up in school, he began drawing hot rods and monsters at a young age. His father, a strict German cabinetmaker, taught him and his brothers the fundamentals of construction at home. Roth began experimenting with strange contraptions and odd angles in his work here. Roth graduated from high school in 1945 and attended college for a short time before dropping out and joining the Air Force in 1951. He studied map making after joining the army and worked as a barber on the side. Roth was stationed in Morocco before being transferred to South Carolina for the final four years of his military career. He returned home in 1955, married quickly, and had five children while working at Sears and striping cars on the side. Roth began working as an automobile bodybuilder in 1958, where he began forming outfits out of fiberglass. His first car, a 1951 Ford Sport Custom Model A Sedan, was dubbed “Little Jewel.”
Roth began drawing nasty little characters representing the hot rod scene while building custom cars. Rat Fink, a green, gear-head rat who rode motorcycles and drove hot rods with a maniacal expression on his face, was his most well-known creation. Rat Fink and the other grotesque monsters that drove their way across Roth’s “Weirdo” shirts first appeared in 1958, but by the August 1959 issue of Car Craft magazine, Roth’s designs had taken over the hot rod mainstream.
Roth’s hot rod monsters arrived just in time. The Universal Monsters were regaining popularity, and fans were looking for creatures regardless of whether they were traditional IPs or not. Rat Fink wasn’t just on t-shirts and posters; there were hot rod monster model kits that netted Roth thousands of dollars in royalties. Roth’s custom cars were an extension of his work with his Rat Fink cartoons and his childhood woodworking. In 1959, he created “the Outlaw,” a car with a complete fiberglass body. It was featured in the January 1960 issue of Car Craft and was seen at hot rod shows throughout Southern California. People were so taken with his Outlaw design that they embraced a slew of wild Roth customs that followed.
Cars like the Beatnik Bandit, the Mysterion with twin Ford engines, the Orbitron, and the Road Agent are still among the coolest rides available. The Sulfite, his rad surf buggy, appeared in the film Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965, bringing his custom car popularity to an all-time high. In the early 1960s, in between building custom cars and drawing hot road monsters, Roth formed Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos, a novelty band. Roth fronted the band as Mr. Gasser, and they released three very strange surf rock LPs like “Hot Rod Hootenanny.” The songs were all about how Gasser and the Weirdos like to surf and drive around town in their hot rods, engaging in various debaucheries. The group served as a model for bands such as The Cramps and The Sonics. All three of the band’s LPs have been collected in a box set that is well worth seeking out if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on out-of-print LPs.
After Rat Fink’s popularity faded in the early 1970s, Roth abandoned hot rods, surf music, and everything else that had made him famous. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1974. He shaved his head and devoted himself to social work. It’s not a bad life, but it’s a far cry from the rest of his. If you went to Knots Berry Farm in the 1970s and 1980s, you would have seen his graphic design work, which was unfortunately his final foray into art. Roth died of a heart attack on April 1, 2001, at the age of 69. Big Daddy may have passed away, but Rat Fink lives on.