Back in the 1950s, car customizers worked in metal.
They’d use it to alter panels and chop tops, mostly with lead, earning their cars the nickname of “lead sleds.”
But one bucked the trend, becoming famous for full- and pint-sized cars made of plastic.
He was as outlandish as he was talented: Ed Roth, better known to the world as “Big Daddy.”
Along with contemporaries such as Gene Winfield, Sam and George Barris, and Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard, he built show-stopping cars—and created an unforgettable character known as the Rat Fink.
Roth was born in California in 1932. He was too young to be part of the Second World War, but became immersed in the California car culture that grew from it. It was tough to settle into everyday life after they’d seen combat, so soldiers dropped powerful engines into their old cars and took them racing on the salt flats—the origins of hot rodding. In 1946, Roth bought a 1933 Ford, the first of many cars he would customize.
Following college and a stint in the Air Force, he supported his wife and five children with a job at Sears, plus extra work pinstriping cars in his spare time. He also drew monsters driving outlandish cars, which he silkscreened onto T-shirts and sold through ads in hot rod magazines.
Characters such as Mother’s Worry and Mr. Gasser became a large part of his income, along with one that would eclipse them all.
“Rat Fink Rides Again” by The Rocketeer on Flickr.
That was Rat Fink, a nasty, bug-eyed rodent. Roth always said it was his response to Mickey Mouse, and that he’d first drawn the rat on a burger-shop napkin. It was later claimed that Rat Fink was created by Don Montéverde, a graphic designer who did some work for Roth.
Ownership was also claimed by poster artist Stanley Mouse, who said he’d been influenced by Montéverde’s work to draw a Fink-like character as a satirical self-portrait.
Nevertheless, Roth was the one who made the Fink famous, and the rat in turn did the same for him.
Ed Roth’s unforgettable “Orbitron”
Cars are the stars
Roth was a talented car customizer, but there was only so much he could do to change a vehicle’s design with metal. He began using fiberglass, which had been introduced in 1938 but was mostly used for boats. Roth built fanciful vehicles for the show car circuit, which was at its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Among his first was The Outlaw, a version of the T-bucket hot rod popular at the time. He also produced several cars topped with his signature Plexiglas bubbles, including the Beatnik Bandit, Road Agent, Megacycle, and Mysterion.
Plastic model kits were very popular, and in 1961, Revell approached Roth to turn his cars into kits, starting with The Outlaw. It took off, and Revell quickly produced a full line of Roth kits, including cars, renditions of his monsters, and of course Rat Fink. It’s reported that in 1963, his penny-per-kit royalty netted him $32,000.
Wanting something memorable to put on the boxes, Revell gave him the nickname “Big Daddy.” The company also sent him on promotional events, but Roth, a self-described “slob,” would wear work clothes. Revell asked him to dress better.
Ever the rebel, Roth showed up in a tuxedo and top hat he’d bought at a thrift shop. Fans loved it, and it became his trademark.
The dying craze
Like many of his contemporaries, Roth’s white-hot fame was fleeting. By the late 1960s, interest in custom cars and models was waning. Roth blamed it primarily on the Beatles: “Kids weren’t into makin’ models as much as buyin’ records an’ guitars,” he wrote. As well, some people were sniffing plastic cement to get high, and many areas banned the glue that was essential for building models.
Roth turned to motorcycles, but his association with the Hells Angels broke up his marriage. He went through a few more marriages and then converted to Mormonism. He stayed out of the public eye, working as a sign painter. But he still built a few vehicles, including a three-wheeled one called the Globe Hopper.
It had a Volkswagen engine, open fiberglass body, and two seats. In 1987, Roth decided to drive it across the country and ultimately to Alaska, accompanied only by a giant rubber Rat Fink in the passenger seat. At the time, the defunct Canadian Street Rod Association put on a national show each summer, that year in Kitchener, Ontario. When one of the organizers heard about the trip, Roth was invited to attend.
He turned down the hotel room booked for him. Each night, he’d just stop on the side of the road and roll out his sleeping bag on the ground. At the show, when he wasn’t looking, I peeked in the Globe Hopper’s trunk out of curiosity. It was full of canned baked beans, which he said was all he ate throughout the journey.
Roth was very personable, and while he was eager to get back on the road—he’d only promised to drop in—he didn’t leave until the long line of autograph seekers was done. He sold me a couple of Rat Fink key chains (I think they were two for a buck) and then he was on his way.
He died of a heart attack on April 4, 2001. In 2006 he was the subject of a documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink, and today some of his cars are enshrined in museums. Still, it’s that nasty little rodent that everyone remembers, from those fleeting days when hot rods and their creators walked and ruled the earth.