By Kent Larsen
Reformed Rebel: Mormon Convert 'Big Daddy' Roth Dies
MANTI, UTAH -- Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, whose outrageous car designs and
anti-hero cartoon character "Rat Fink" helped define the California hotrod
culture of the 1950s and 1960s, died Wednesday in his studio in Manti, Utah.
More than 25 years ago Roth re-examined his life after a divorce and the
failure of his magazine and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, leading him to put LDS symbols and references in his recent car
designs. He was 69.
During the 50s and 60s Roth helped define Southern California's rebel
culture through his car designs. Those designs, and his pioneering use of
fiberglass, led him to be called a genius and visionary. In a 1964 essay,
author Tom Wolfe described him as the "most colorful, the most intellectual
and the most capricious" of car customizers. "He's the Salvador Dali of the
movement -- a surrealist in his designs, a showman by temperment, a
prankster," Wolfe wrote.
Born March 4, 1932 in Beverly Hills to German Lutheran parents, Roth was
entertained by cars and pop culture from the start. His father was a
limousine driver for film star Mary Pickford, but was also a trained
carpenter, and he gave his son free reign, teaching him to construct a wide
variety of strange things with his hands.
Roth entertained himself in elementary school by drawing airplanes, hot rods
and monsters, all items that figured prominently in his later creations. At
14 he bought his first car, a 1933 Ford coupe, which he used to "cruise and
pick up girls on the way to school." During the 40s, he became interested in
a new compound, "Fiberglass," which would enable many of the designs he
later made. He earned an engineering degree from what is now East Los
Angeles College and also served in the US Air Force for four years starting
in 1951, learning along the way everything from map making to cutting hair.
In the 1950s, Roth had started drawing his 'Rat Fink' character as a kind of
reaction to Disney's Mickey Mouse. The character, with its sinister glare,
razor-sharp teeth and bulging, bloodshot eyes, rapidly became popular on
T-shirts, posters and car decals in the hot rod culture and influenced
today's rebel characters like Bart Simpson, Ren and Stimpy and the "South
After his honorable discharge in 1955, Roth started a career designing
custom cars, working with well-known designer Von Dutch starting in 1958.
That year he introduced the first of his well-known designs, the "Beatnik
Bandit." Another famous design, "The Outlaw" followed in 1959, and sealing
Roth's reputation as a leading, if outrageous, artist.
"He really is the Big Daddy," says Ellen Fleurov, museum director at the
California Center for the Arts in Escondido, which has some of Roth's
creations on display. "He and Von Dutch and Robert Williams represent the
trio of legendary figures who really shaped the aesthetics of hot rod
culture and the art that came from it."
Roth's fame led to car kits manufactured by the kit maker Revell, who sold
millions of models based on Roth's designs, giving Roth a royalty of one
cent each. A publicity man with the company gave Roth his nickname, telling
him "We can't put 'Beatnik Bandit by Ed Roth' on the box" and suggesting the
name "Big Daddy" because of Ed Roth's 6-foot 4-inch height.
Through the 1960s, Roth became more and more fascinated with motorcycles and
the Hell's Angels, leading him to start customizing motorcycles. But that
move was seen as too radical for Revell, which cancelled his contract in
1967. But Roth had earned enough from the Revell models to fund a studio in
Maywood, California. That studio became the center of Southern California's
rebel subculture, says designer Robert Williams, who worked as Roth's art
director from 1965 to 1970. It became "sort of a subcultural Grand Central
Station for the time," says Williams. The studio was visited at all hours of
the day by actors, writers, bikers, and would-be artists.
Again moving more to the fringes of society, Roth then started a magazine,
Choppers, for the outlaw motorcycle culture. But the magazine was a complete
failure as the increasingly mainstream hotrod magazines refused to allow it
to advertise. By 1970, Roth was broke, the magazine had failed, and his
second wife had divorced him. Roth even had to sell the collection of his
customized cars that he showed at car shows. He got just $5,500 for the 15
The disaster led Roth to re-examine his life. A friend gave him a Book of
Mormon. "I started looking deeper, thinking of things I had done," he told
the Los Angeles Times in 1981. "I guess everybody does that around 39 or
40." Soon he joined the LDS Church and married a Mormon woman with two
daughters from a previous marriage. The change led him to stay away from a
lot of the car culture that he had embraced for so long. For most of the
1980s and 1990s he worked as a graphic designer for Knotts Berry Farm, the
theme park next to Disneyland, where he designed menus and painted billboards.
Recently, Roth moved to Manti, where he opened a studio and continued to
build cars and attend an occasional car show. He has also attended
occasional Rat Fink parties. He also opened his own web site recently to
market his designs.
Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth: Car Designer; Cultural Icon Created Rat Fink
Los Angeles Times 6Apr01 P2
By Randy Lewis: Times Staff Writer
Rat Fink Creator Roth Dies
Milwaukee WI Journal-Sentinel 6Apr01 P2
Car designer Ed Roth dies in Manti
Deseret News (AP) 6Apr01 P2
By Paul Chavez: Associated Press
Mormon Car Designer Reflects on His Work
LDS Convert combines Hot Rods, Gospel
Big Daddy Roth Website http://www.bigdaddyroth.com/
Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Rat Fink Sitehttp://www.ratfink.org/