Exhibits / February 14, 2018
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was a central figure in the hod rod and custom car scene that flourished in 1950s and early 1960s Southern California. Born in Beverly Hills to German immigrants, Roth grew up in Bell, California, home of “speed shop” Bell Auto Parts and nearby Slauson Avenue, a popular drag strip. After a stint in the Air Force, Roth became a sign painter at Sears and, in 1958, starting designing cars out of his garage. The adoption of fiberglass in the automotive industry allowed Roth and others to create unique designs that prized individuality, style, and speed over suburban uniformity and practicality: the “Outlaw” and the “Beatnik Bandit” are two of his most famous designs.
Roth was also a self-taught illustrator, and he started selling his “Weirdo” or “Weerdo” t-shirts in the late ’50s at car shows, where he would airbrush them on the spot, and through Car Craft magazine. (“I’m a weirdo,” Roth told the Los Angeles Times in 1973. “I never grew up.”) Although the shirts and sophisticated cartoons initially took a backseat to his custom autos, his reputation as an artist grew. In the early ’60s, he invented Rat Fink, a lewd, dissolute mouse meant to be, or so the story goes, a kind of anti-Mickey Mouse: Roth was tired of seeing so many kids wearing the wholesome plastic ears. His mascot appeared in the pages of Car Craft in 1963, and shortly thereafter Revell approached him to design a series of plastic models—the hobby was then at its peak—for which he received a one cent commission per sale. Over three million were sold in the first first year, and Roth became a local celebrity—and a brand name across the country.
Over the next several years, Roth perfected his comic aesthetic: grotesque, oversized monsters powering monstrous “mean machines.” These illustrations would define the spirit of “Kustom Kulture,” as it came to be stylized. Roth’s quirky characters and their over-the-top rides soon graced coloring books, trading cards, decals, and, of course, more and more t-shirts. While Kustom Kulture struck a rebellious, “outlaw” pose, it was not an anti-establishment movement. Roth’s politics were conservative, and many of his cohorts were far-right. A Roth cartoon might declare “a good cop is a dead cop,” but he was decidedly pro-military during the Vietnam War, and many of his depictions of the conflict were unabashedly racist. Still, Roth absolutely influenced the underground cartoonists and illustrators of the late ’60s, whether they shared his views or not: he was that good at what he did (Tom Wolfe called him “the Salvador Dali of the [custom car] movement”). In 1967, Roth got cozy with the Hell’s Angels—long admired by, but misidentified with, the counterculture—which prompted Revell to yank his contract.
Roth’s fiberglass-and-chrome dragsters and airbrushed monsters have since become deeply embedded in So Cal culture, and heavily influenced both the surfing and skateboarding subcultures, from visuals (see, for example, the work of Santa Cruz Skateboards artist Jim Phillips) and attitude. Although Kustom Kulture declined in the 1970s, its anti-authoritarian legacy lived on in films like Vanishing Point (1971) and Smokey and the Bandit (1977), as well as the CB radio craze sparked by rampant gas shortages. Roth himself converted to Mormonism in 1974, claiming that his “fanaticism with cars… destroyed my personal life” (he remarried four times and had protracted legal battles with his brothers over the rights to Roth Studios), and passed away in 2001.