Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, creator of Rat Fink: A son remembers
In the den of Darryl Roth’s Corona home, cartoon ogres cover the walls, staring back at him with salivating tongues, bloodshot eyes, jagged claws and gnashing teeth. To Roth, the images represent rebellion, a gloriously grotesque imagination — and his father.
“I look around and I swear, it’s like he’s still alive. He’s still here,” Roth said. He’s the youngest son of iconic hot rod artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and this year marked the 10th anniversary of his father’s passing. “Even now,” said the son, “I’m blown away by him.”
Between the late 1950s and the mid-1960s, Ed Roth was what famed journalist Tom Wolfe described as the Salvador Dali of the hot rod world. Roth helped pioneer Southern California’s Kustom Kulture — a flamboyant style of hot rod building that relied on fiberglass rather than metal and reveled in flames, pin striping and exposed chrome engines — then marketed it through his artwork and accessories.
His character Rat Fink, a sort of grotesque version of Mickey Mouse, became shorthand for cool in the post-"Easy Rider” era. Young fans around Southern California, and then the world, scrambled to get their hands on his T-shirts, model car kits and plastic figurines of gruesome monsters stuffed into tiny, super-groovy hot rods. Their names? Mother’s Worry, Mr. Gasser and Drag Nut.
But after the decline of hot rod culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Roth’s conversion to Mormonism and family squabbles over the business, Rat Fink and company became less and less ubiquitous until it all seemed to fade away entirely.
“My dad was always convinced that once the Beatles came to the States, kids kind of lost interest in cars and American culture and started picking up guitars instead,” said the 51-year-old Roth, who worked for two decades as a manager in an auto parts store and is a reserve policeman for the City of Bell.
With today’s resurgence of interest in hot rod culture and Big Daddy’s legacy, Darryl Roth has decided the huge collection of his dad’s work that he spent years tracking down and now has lying around his house should probably be in a museum somewhere.
His den, garage and various storage spaces are crammed with original model kits of “Big Daddy” cars found everywhere from Japan to Mexico, old bikes and cars his father created, rare photo reels of him in his famous top hat and red suit coat with tails. Some of his collection includes an original sketch of the Flying Eyeball logo created by Von Dutch (born Kenny Howard), a Kustom Kulture legend and friend of Big Daddy’s whose name is now associated with a lucrative clothing line. The valuable collection contains thousands of mementos, art pieces and artifacts that his dad created.
For well-known custom car designers like Steve Stanford, Big Daddy’s influence doesn’t come with a price tag. “I had all the Rat Fink-related items growing up,” Stanford said. “It was rebellious, but paradoxically, it was just good clean fun.”
But to Darryl Roth, the collection is simply part of his childhood. Roth remembers souped-up hot rods his dad had worked on out of the renowned Movie World, Cars of the Stars and Planes of Fame museum in Buena Park.
“I used to sell Rat Fink key chains for lunch money,” Roth, the youngest of five brothers, recalled. And while hanging out in Roth Studios in Maywood, he remembers that his 6-foot-4, 240-pound father’s hands were enormous and dwarfed any brush he was holding.
Life felt less sweet when Big Daddy began associating with the biker gang Hells Angels in the late ‘60s. That lifestyle eventually contributed to the end of his first marriage, to Darryl’s mother, Sally, in 1970. It also took an emotional toll on Roth and his brothers, who moved with their mother to Cudahy after the divorce.
After remarrying several times, Big Daddy converted to Mormonism. Though he continued to build cars sporadically, he shunned the rebellious remnants of Rat Fink mania, dropping out of the limelight and severing ties with family and fans. By the early ‘80s, he’d taken a job as a sign painter at Knott’s Berry Farm, using the assumed name Bernie Schwartz (based on actor Tony Curtis’ real name).
In the early ‘90s, Darryl saw a renewed interest in hot rod culture and decided to start tracking down his father’s old signature hot rods, which were scattered from the garages of car collectors in Santa Paula to the casinos of Nevada. The first of his finds was the Wishbone, a car that Big Daddy originally hated so much that he sawed it in half after building it in 1967. After finding out that Darryl had restored the damaged auto with longtime Big Daddy collaborator Doug Kinney (a.k.a. Dirty Doug), he was so angry he refused to speak to his son for two years. Eventually, Big Daddy realized Roth’s quest was one born out of loyalty and a sense his father still had something more to give.
Pete Santini, a custom car painter out of Westminster, has helped Darryl track down and restore two more of Big Daddy’s classic cars, the Druid Princess and the Motorcycle Hauler.
“I could tell that as more of the cars were being restored, deep down Big Daddy knew that … ‘Hey, it’s my name, but my kid pulled me out of bed, splashed water on my face and said, “Hey, we’re going back on tour.”’"
Roth and his father began rebuilding models together, and Big Daddy began appearing with his cars at car shows again and revived some of the old T-shirt designs and merchandise that had made him a legend decades ago. As a manager of an auto parts store, Roth was able to help Big Daddy with parts that he needed to build his new hot rods. The walls of his home shrine are littered with old faxes of drawings that his father would send him with salivating Rat Fink cartoons requesting steering wheels and tail lights. Little air bubbles over the cartoon’s mouth were full of amusing questions like “what’s your crazy dad up to now?”
But by the late ‘90s, Roth’s brothers Howard and Dennis — both artists and hot rod builders in their own right — clashed with Big Daddy over the rights to operate Roth Studios, which their mother had owned since the divorce. Big Daddy refused to let them have it, sparking a court battle that resulted in him suing his sons and his ex-wife. He won the fight shortly before his death in 2001.
Surrounded by his dad’s legacy, Roth feels an obligation to ensure that this unique slice of Southern California pop history is remembered and enjoyed by future generations. Roth said he would like to get the bulk of the collection into a museum. Exhibitions about Kustom Kulture and its effect have been done, most notably at the Laguna Art Museum.
Besides Big Daddy’s art, Roth’s collection provides a visceral sense of his dad’s personality jumping out at you like a lick of flame from one of his hot rods — a free spirit, a showman, a prankster, a dad.
“He was always a showman,” Roth said. “He likened himself to a P.T. Barnum in the hot rod world. He wasn’t the lady with the beard, the man covered in tattoos or some sideshow act. He was the one at the center of it all, the guy who ran the circus.”
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