Ed Roth: the Car Customization King of the 1960s
Well, apart from this, the sixth decade of the twentieth century also meant the rise of the Kustom Kulture and Hot-rod movement in Southern California. Among the people responsible for making what some people might actually call a form of art were Kenneth Graeme Howard (better known as Von Dutch or J.L. Bachs) and the colorful Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who was a larger-than-life car cult figure. Roth was born in 1932, in Beverly Hills, but he really surfaced on the hot-rodding scene after the Second World War.
He became a true celebrity, mostly known for his nonconformist goatee and his off-beat manifestations whenever he found himself in front of a camera. He (along with his contemporaries, Von Dutch and the Barris bros) was especially noted for being one of the first people who understood the marketing potential of the Kustom Kulture, therefore making it available for people of all classes, but mostly teenagers.
During the mid-1950s, Roth established his reputation as a successful pinstripe artist who had a very close connection with the hot-rodding scene, also doing flames or similar paint jobs for customized cars. After he opened a custom paint shop called the “Crazy Painters” together with fellow pinstriping artists Tom Kelly and “Baron” Crozier, he soon realized that what he shouldn't be reserved for cars only. Therefore, he also began airbrushing and selling what he called “weirdo shirts”. These shirts began to be advertised in magazines like Car Craft and Rod and Custom and his business really began to flourish.
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth's grotesque caricatures were typified by the “Rat Fink” character, which depicted a monstrous-looking rat with bulgy bloodshot eyes and a very depraved overall look. Roth had created this character out of his hatred for Disney's “Mickey Mouse”, and didn't realize at first that his drawing would eventually become a symbol for the entire hot-rodding movement of the 1960s. Also, many historians are crediting him for popularizing the printed T-shirt, even though after the number of silk-screened shirt today many people don't realize that there was a time before Roth when almost all t-shirts were plain.
Realizing the amount of success the Rat Fink character had gathered in a very short time, Roth asked his own studio artists to create dozens of similar creatures, which eventually became an army of gruesome monsters rendered on chopped-up hot-rods and other customized cars. Of all the creations he conjured over the years, Rat Fink remained as the archetypal Roth monster, mostly because it also had a special significance for him: “Whenever I looked at that drawing, I felt I was looking, for the first time, at reality—my reality. The world that my parents, teachers, and responsible type people all around me belonged to wasn’t my world. Why did I have to be like them, live like them? I didn’t. And Rat Fink helped me realize that.”
When the sixties came to an end, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was also touched by the decline in people's search of customized cars, which eventually led to a decrease in sales. The end of the “kustom kulture” golden era found him switching to more fuel-efficient cars powered by Volkswagen or Honda engines and also a small number of custom trikes. After numerous arguments with members of the “Hell's Angels” motorcycle gang, Roth decided to leave the business that he had founded, selling all of his assets and returning to custom painting alongside Von Dutch.
This soon ended and 1974 found him trying to seek new meaning in his life, so he converted to Mormonism. He also started to regret the 1960s, when he was making money by selling Rat Fink t-shirts, endorsing illegal street racing and having confrontations with biker thugs. He never regretted the cars he had built and continued to manufacture custom hot-rods and trikes until his death, which happened in 2001. His legacy remains behind and many of his creations can now be found in various private collections and automotive museums around the world, keeping his spirit alive.