Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was born in Beverly
March 4, 1932. He grew up in a German speaking household with a younger
brother, Gordon. In school Ed learned to speak English and he liked to
was able to do his homework and keep up with the rest of the class
drew pictures of airplanes, hot rods and monsters. His father Henry was
strict with the brothers and kept the two out of trouble by supplying
tools and a workshop. Ed's dad was a German cabinet maker and it was in
where Ed learned how to build crazy stuff out of wood.
As his family grew so did the bills. In 1958
Ed went to work
full time with "The Baron" and his grandson Kelly. Using junkyard
parts and a newly developed product called fiberglass, Ed created
in his garage. Ed's first car was called the "Little Jewel" and then
shortly after that came the "Outlaw", which showed the world that
anyone could design and build a car without being some kind of
automotive engineer. All you really needed was imagination, some motor
know-how, a lot of elbow grease and gumption.
When Ed got so busy that his garage couldn't
work, he moved his operation into a new shop in Lakewood, California.
Ed had to
hire several employees to help him build and produce more custom car
t-shirts. Revell American produced model car kits that featured the
Bandit" and " Road Agent". Other model kits included "Rat
Fink" and the gang a group of hot rodding monsters. Here is a very
interesting Note: During 1963 Revell paid Ed a one cent royalty for
sold. Ed brought in $ 32,000 that year in royalties, now figure out the
that's how popular Ed's creations were.
Ed Roth's artwork can be found throughout
the late 80's and
mid 90's in underground comics produced by Roth and Sloane. You can
Roth's artwork in tattoo parlors and in art galleries. Yes, many of us
Roth's work fine art. You can also find Roth's creations on posters by
American cult artist as Johnny Ace, Jimmy C, Frank Kozik, Von Franco
and a host
What ever became of Big Daddy?
by Pat Ganahl, Street Rodder, June 1976 issue
It is very difficult for me to realize that many of you might not know who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is.
If Ed Roth isn't a hero or a legend in the automotive world today, it is because he didn't want to be. In an article for a 1963 issue of Esquire magazine, "Kandy Kolored, Tangerine Flake, Streamline Baby," journalist Tom Wolfe sums up Roth - whom he called the Salvador Dali of the movement - by stating, "So far Roth has resisted absorption." In the same article Wolfe dwells upon the career of George Barris, and mentions Cushenberry and Starbird - customizers who have become part of the tradition of the sport. Most of the big names, however (and Barris is a perfect example), became absorbed long ago.
Ed Roth has never been traditional. And few, if any, have ever been able to successfully duplicate his work. I guess I can understand why young rodders haven't heard of him.
But to me, and to any rodder who has been following the sport for more than ten- years, the name Ed "Big Daddy" Roth brings immediate recognition, if not some degree of hero-worship. I can distinctly remember the first time I saw a Roth car. It was on the cover of the Jan. '60 issue of Car Craft, on the magazine rack at Hattan's Market. 'I was thirteen years old, and it was the first time I actually bought a hot rod mag. That car - the "Excaliber," later called the "Outlaw" - excited me like no other car has since. I still have that magazine, too.
If you remember Roth's cars - the Outlaw, the Beatnik Bandit, Tweedy Pie, Mysterion, the Surfite, Yellow Fang, etc. - you undoubtedly also remember the image of this bigger-than-life creator of the "weirdo" shirts and Rat Finks. Big, scruffy, goateed, zany; wearing a top hat and tails or paint- splattered levis. Wolfe described him, in 1963, as "the most colorful, and. the most intellectual, and the most capricious. Also the most cynical . . . a showman by temperament - a prankster." By the way, I'm no great fan of Tom Wolfe, but if you are interested in Roth, Barris, and the history of the sport of hot rodding, this article (also contained in the Wolfe collection with the same title), though it's 1963 "camp," is worth the time it takes to read it.
If Ed Roth is not in fact a legendary figure, stories about him nevertheless abound in hot rodding circles. I had heard through the grapevine a couple of years ago that he was working in some capacity at the Cars of the Stars museum in nearby Buena Park. I knew that most of his cars were, in fact, on display there. Then, very recently, I was informed that Ed was working for - of all places - Knott's Berry Farm. And he is. He loves it.
Although Tom Wolfe found Ed Roth to be "an intellectual," before interviewing him he was worried: "I had been told that Roth was a surly guy who never bathed and was hard to get along with." The stories have, of course, continued since '63 - that Ed had dropped out of the car scene to join the Hell's Angels, for instance - so I had little idea what to expect when my wife and I drove over to Ed's house the other night to meet him and his family.
After showing Ed some of our past issues and discussing what had been going on in the street rodding scene, we left Anna and Ed's lovely wife Bev to converse by the warm fire and went out to the garage to see his latest project. I have to admit right now that my preconception of Ed Roth had deteriorated somewhat through the years as his cars subsequent to the Outlaw and the Beatnik Bandit got more and more outlandish. I wondered about the quality of their construction. I never cared much for non-functional show cars. But no sooner had Ed shown me his new "Rubber Ducky" than he began to tinker with it. And I could see immediately that those big hands were doing what they loved to do. As we talked he fashioned a fender bracket of quarter-inch steel— cutting with a torch, grinding, arc-welding, shaping, smoothing; almost as if he weren't paying attention to what he was doing, but more like those hands had done it so often that they didn't need guidance.
"I used to have a 'mistake' pile at the shop," he told me. "If something didn't turn out right, I'd throw it on the pile. It got pretty big." The garage was equipped for serious work: a lathe, drill press, steel saw, arc and gas welders, air compressor. Ed said the equipment was what was left after a huge theft at his Maywood 'shop several years ago.
When I asked how he had gotten into the custom car field Ed said that he had been turned on to lettering by a teacher in a drafting course. Of course, Ed had several high school hot rods, including a full-fendered-then-channeled '32 coupe. But the lettering intrigued him. When he later entered the Air Force he continued practicing, and earned spending money lettering duffle bags and things for servicemen. Before the early 60's he was primarily doing striping - he even worked in Barris' shop for a while with Dean Jeffries. Then he helped create that passing California fad of painting names on the rear fenders of cars; at the peak he and a partner were "naming" as many as eighty cars a day.
Then, after the completion of the Beatnik Bandit in 1960; Ed began the car show circuit trail. He was heavily into the "monster shirt" business by then, too, and showing his cars gave him an opportunity to set up a booth at the various arenas across the country to paint and sell shirts. I asked him how he got the cars from one show to another, and Ed said he had an old Cadillac hearse "because it was a lot nicer for cruising than a truck, and we could sleep in it, too." He said they would get hassled about sleeping by the side of the road, so he eventually fixed up the car trailer to look like it was full of coffins, and painted "Heavenly Rest Mortuary" on the side. Then he didn't get bothered. The biggest problem, he said, was that the show tour was just too much of a rat race.
"It got so that I would be inside an auditorium, somewhere in the country, and I would forget where I was. I'd have three thousand dollars in my pocket, but I'd have to be in the next city by the next week." Later on, when he was heavily into drag racing with his streamlined "Yellow Fang" rail, he said he would set up a booth and sell shirts at the track to make enough money to buy fuel for the meet. It was a vicious circle that he is glad to be no longer caught up in.
Whatever became of Ed Roth the custom car builder? He became, in the latter 60's, Big Daddy Roth, the custom motorcycle builder. Ed pioneered the VW-powered, 'glass-bodied "trike," and began producing them in kit form. He also ventured into the publishing business at the same time, initiating Choppers magazine, which was considered an "underground" publication at the time, but which Ed later sold and is currently on the newsstands. By the way, a young guy who helped around the shop was pressed into service as an editor for the magazine. His name was Jim "Jake" Jacobs.
After selling his magazine and closing up his studio, Ed sort of went underground himself. For the next five years he worked for Jim Brucker, helping to set up the Cars of the Stars auto museum, and most of the Roth vehicles are collected there now. Ed spent much of his time traveling around the country with a large carcarrier, picking up and delivering vintage autos for the museum.
As I mentioned earlier, Ed Roth is now happily employed by the famous Knott's Berry Farm. If you visit Knott's in the near future, take a close look the pinstriped glass windows in the new Roaring Twenties section, or the ornate popcorn wagons, or the antique signs. Most of this has been striped, lettered, or painted by Big Daddy Roth. And don't be too surprised if you happen to see someone pinstriping a hot rod in the Knott's parking lot - it might be Ed working on his lunch break.
Those of you who remember Big Daddy from his zany, top-hat, big-promotion days are probably wondering if he's still the same character. Well, yes and no. When I first talked to him, he said that he would jot down a few notes for me to do a story from. This is what he wrote:
"I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I have also had a great respect for the talent that I have been given and have tried to exercise it with at the greatest discernment possible. The finished machine has never turned me on as much as the process of getting it together. I love grinders, lathes, drill presses, and the unlimited things that are possible to do with them. The limit is our minds. In this society we are fortunate to be able to act as free men and to think out our own personal fantasies in a mechanical 'hot rod' world. . . and that is why we lead the world with our wacky cars and bikes. I have always enjoyed this freedom and am grateful for it. I like the finished product for the enjoyment it can give people. I am happy when I see someone enjoying a bike that I built. I love the one or two trips per year when I can drive my machine and prove to myself that what I have built lives up to my own personal expectations. I plan my machines many years in advance. As I build and ride my current projects through the country I am pondering the construction of another machine. One better than what I am on; or why should I even bother to plan ahead to the sweat-filled months to get another set of wheels on the ground? The fiberglass in each and every pore that will keep me awake at nights… the resin fumes that burn my lungs… the burns, cuts, beat up fingernails. And the time that I could be spending helping others. That is why each of my projects over the last twenty years has been better than the last. I must also comment that I have always kept this hobby of mine down to a reasonable level of commitment as far as time goes - nights and sometimes on weekends.
"I have tried not to make it a business or to let it interfere with my effort to support a family. That is why I started with the T-shirts. I raised the first part of my family selling monster shirts. As my sons can tell you, we printed and sold them for many years. In 1970, I went to work for a movie rental company, where we rented cars to movie studios for such series as Manhunter, the Waltons and more recently, 'Lombard & Gable,' In this museum, I learned to paint signs and when Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park, started to expand their roarin' 20's area I went to work in their graphic arts department. I love my job and the challenges that this very forward-thinking park offers the Art Department.
"The names of my cars: Outlaw, '59, Beatnik Bandit, '60, Road Agent, '61,…"