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The “Kustom” Cars of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth

A guide to the wild rides of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, as seen on display at the National Corvette Museum.

Few names are as synonymous with hot rodding culture as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. For decades he built some of the most innovative and unique custom cars the hot rodding world had seen. However, he is probably best known for his creation of Ratfink, a cartoon rat. With Ratfink’s trademark bulging eyes, the cartoon rat adorned countless t-shirts, posters, and comic books, often sticking out of a cartoon hotrod, with his hand on the shifter. Recently, I had the chance to visit an Ed Roth exhibit (now closed) at the National Corvette Museum entitled “Car-toon Creatures, Kustom Kars and Corvettes: The Art and Influence of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.” Many of his legendary cars were on display, as well as plenty of memorabilia and some of his Equipment.

A display at the Ed Roth Exhibit at the National Corvette Museum.
The entrance of the Ed Roth Exhibit at the National Corvette Museum. His famous creation Ratfink is on the right.

“Kustom” Cars, Ratfink and More.

Ed Roth went far beyond just making wild cars. Besides his famous Rat Fink character, Roth created countless t-shirts with his iconic monster characters. To the general public, one of his best-known endeavors creating “monster t-shirts”, although he was also a pinstriping pioneer. The art of pinstriping developed rapidly in the 50s and 60s, and Roth was one of the artists at the forefront. He even went on to create two books on the subject. He helped shape the look of hot rod culture and even the sound. In the 1960s, Roth put out three surf rock albums under the name Mr. Gasser and the Weirdos.

Ratfink comic books at the Ed Roth exhibit at the Corvette Museum.
Ratfink comic books on display at the Corvette Museum.

Wild Show Cars.

In a span of about 40 years, Roth created some of the most innovative and imaginative custom cars in the show car scene. These creations ranged from the more traditional Tweedie Pie to the bubble top, hand-controlled Beatnik Bandit, both of which were on display at the Museum. Roth also went beyond the conventional power plant of the hot rodder: the V-8. He used everything from V-8s, air-cooled VW motors, Corvair motors, and Triumph motorcycle motors. He was a big fan of putting the engine behind the driver, saying in an interview that that was the best spot for it. Many of his cars had Sci-Fi influences. He made more than traditional hotrods, with wild creations like his MINI based Surfite surfboard hauler and the twin-Triumph motorcycle motor-powered hovercraft dubbed the Rotar. I had the opportunity to see the following Roth cars at the National Corvette Museum.

The Beatnik Bandit

Arguably Roth’s most famous car: The Beatnik Bandit, carries his trademark space-age bubble-top roof. Interestingly, it is controlled entirely by a central joystick type lever located in the middle of the interior. The joystick even controls braking and acceleration. There was even a “sequel” to the car Roth made in the form of the 1995 Beatnik Bandit II.

Ed Roth's custom car called "Orbitron."

The Orbitron

Another one of Roth’s cars with space-age influence the Orbitron, like the Beatnik Bandit sports a bubble top. It even comes equipped with a color TV. The driver sits far back, over the rear axle. One of its most unique features is its asymmetrical front end. The Orbitron has a story as wild as it. Lost for many years, it was discovered in rough shape outside of a store just over the Mexican border. It received a full restoration (and a new TV!)

A replica of Ed Roth's custom car "Mysterion."

The Mysterion

One of his wildest cars, unfortunately, the original was scrapped after the customized frame broke. The wild twin-engine/transmission car was recreated in painstaking detail. Like the Orbitron it also features an asymmetrical front end. It comes with a single seat.

Ed Roth's custom car Tweedie Pie.

Tweedie Pie

A more traditional custom car (at least by Roth standards!) Tweedie Pie is done in the t-bucket style. According to Ed Roth’s website, Tweedie Pie was purchased by Roth already customized and modified from there.

Ed Roth's newly restored WV-powered "Wishbone" show car.

The Wishbone

One of Roth’s many VW-powered machines, the low-slung diminutive Wishbone features skinny front tires, not unlike those found on early dragsters. Roth had intended for the Wishbone to be used as a design for the Revell car model company, but it was rejected due to its shape. Its restoration by Galpin Motors was documented on an episode of the Discovery TV show “Driven,” the post-restoration car debuted at the Exhibit.

The Outlaw

The outlaw is a unique combination of a traditional t-bucket, which was very popular in the 60s, and Roth’s boundless imagination. The result is a car that is more reserved than many of his creations and yet uniquely Roth. Amazingly, according to Roth’s website, it once utilized an actual Revolutionary war sword for its gear shifter.

A statue of Ed Roth next to his Ford shop truck.
Ed Roth’s shop truck alongside a fiberglass Ed Roth statue.

The National Corvette Museum Exhibit

The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, has an ongoing Ed Roth Exhibit entitled “The National Corvette Museum Exhibit: The Art and Influence of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth,” until April 2021. The wild bubble tops and blowers of the cars at the Ed Roth exhibit might seem out of place at first glance in a museum filled with sleek production Corvettes, however there is a unique connection Ed Roth. He was a tremendous influence on former Corvette designer Tom Peters. I recently had a chance to visit the Museum and see the Ed Roth Exhibit. Not only did the Museum feature many of his icon hot rods, but his trademark tuxedo, his t-shirt press machine, and countless Roth merchandise. The display shelves are packed with diecast cars, models, and Ratfink figures. There is even a roughly life-size Ed Roth statue, naturally made of fiberglass, his preferred material to create cars with. The Museum also hosted an Ed Roth Ratfink Reunion. Besides Ed Roth’s custom cars, several show cars were inspired in part by Roth. The Museum also played host to an Ed Roth Reunion event. The exhibit will run through April 2021.

The Ed Roth Legacy.

Some twenty years after Roth’s death, people still wear “Monster” T-shirts and have Ratfink posters in their garages. His cars still make appearances at events across the country. Every year fans embark on a hotrod pilgrimage to Manti, Utah, where the annual Ed Roth Ratfink Reunion is held. Actor John Goodman even portrayed him by voice in the 2006 documentary “Tales of the Ratfink.” If you missed my blog about the National Corvette Museum, you can read it here. You can also check out the official Ed Roth website at Ratfink.com. For information on the exhibit you can check out the page on the Corvette Museums website here.

5 replies on “The “Kustom” Cars of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth”

Thank you Sir for this. It’s written very nicely and easy to read. I met with Ed a few times at local car shows. He was such a character to talk with. Always dreaming of a new project.

Liked by 1 person

Met him once as an adult. Was fascinated with his T-shirt artwork. I tried duplicating it daydreaming in class and sketching it. He said he fought Marx over trademark infringement on their big wheel trike as he previously created one and patented it. He said he won and was very comfortable with the continuing monetary return.

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