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Object Lesson: The 'Big Daddy' Roth car that was lost, then found

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A fur-lined example of California's flamboyant custom car culture can now be found in an L.A. art gallery
Everyone thought 'Big Daddy' Roth's Orbitron car had disappeared. It was in Juarez. Now its on view in L.A.
Asymmetrical body? Check. Furry interiors? Check. Color TV? Check. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's wild ride is on view

Every car has a story. But few are as good as the one surrounding "The Orbitron," the space-age ride created in 1964 by California's most renowned custom car builder, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.

The car had an electric-blue asymmetrical body that sported a bubble-shaped roof. The interiors consisted of sky-blue shag (known colloquially as "monkey fur"). Just under the dash, it featured a full-blown color television — presumably so that the driver could stay up on all the telenovelas while sitting in rush-hour traffic.

The Orbitron is now on view at Kayne Griffin Corcoran as part of an exhibition devoted to exploring work by L.A. artists of the 1960s. This was a group of artists that often employed a preponderance of industrial materials: resins, plastics, car paint and the like.

In addition to pieces by esteemed figures such as Larry Bell (known for his mirror and glass cubes) and Peter Alexander (who created transparent wedges of plastic that recede into trippy nothingness), the show also features other period objects, including a 1962 surfboard produced by board-making pioneer Hobie Alter.

And then, of course, there is the Orbitron. The car currently resides in the collection of Galpin Auto Sports, a car accessories and customization company in Van Nuys. Among other objects, Galpin Auto has an extensive collection of Roth cars and memorabilia. Robert Dean, who curated the show at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, said he found the Orbitron via a recommendation from the artist Robert Williams.

"I was turned on to the Galpin collection by Robert Williams, who early in his career had worked for Roth," he told me via email. "I picked it out from the others in the collection because it seemed to touch on all the qualities — fetish finish, polish, shaping, pin-striping, surface, plastic bubble, etc. — of the artists in the show."

The car also has one heck of a story. The Orbitron was built by Roth, from a design by Ed Newton. In addition to featuring an asymmetrical body (highly unusual), the car contained special design tricks throughout. One of the headlights, for instance, has three different lamps (red, green, and blue) — the three primary colors of light. When seen together, they come together to form white light. (Back in the day, the colors were also used as a symbol of color television.)

Despite its dragster-from-the-future look, the Orbitron was not a critical darling in its time.

"It wasn't very successful at car shows," explains Beau Boeckmann, the president of Galpin Motors. "It was the first vehicle Roth built that didn't have the motor exposed and I think people didn't take to it for that reason." 

Roth sold the car to a fellow custom car builder just three years after he built it. From there, it landed in the hands of a Texas collector. That collector reportedly sold it to a guy in El Paso. And it's at that point that the trail turns into a web of hearsay and myth. For decades, no one saw or heard anything about the Orbitron.

Then, in 2007, the car surfaced ... when it was discovered by an aficionado in front of a sex shop in Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico. By this time its electric-blue coat was missing and it was being used, rather unceremoniously, as dumpster. It was also missing a good chunk of the nose, along with a bevy of other parts.

But there it was, present in mind if not totally in body. (Kustomrama has a good story about the discovery and its remodeling.)

Boeckmann bought the car and brought it to California, where he assembled key members of Roth's original team to restore it — including Joe Perez, who did the irresistible fur interiors, and Larry Watson, who was responsible for the shimmering paint job.

"We also got the Roth family involved," Boeckmann says. "Even Robert Williams got involved." (By this time Roth had already passed away. He died in 2001 at the age of 69.)

The car, these days, serves as a beautiful, if impractical, show piece: "You might need yoga classes to get in and out of it," Boeckmann says. "And if you get inside of it and you're outdoors, it gets really hot almost immediately. You learn very quickly why bubble tops didn't take off.

"But the Orbitron wasn't built for convenience," he says. "This is art."

Which means it's right at home in between the ethereal wall-hangings and sculptures currently on display at Kayne Griffin Corcoran. Do not miss.

"Surface to Air: Los Angeles Artists of the '60s and the Materials They Used," is on view through July 5 at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, 1201 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, kaynegriffincorcoran.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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