Ed "Big Daddy" Roth Lives Again
Story and photos by Dennis "Menace" Jackson
When I was in elementary school, I was in the library and stumbled upon a book on Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his tripped-out car creations and hotrod monster shirt art. I was already a little crazy for anything loud and fast and Ed’s creations blew my mind open. I found Ed’s creations at the hobby shop, toy stores, and the local mall t-shirt store where I promptly threw my paper route money down on an iron-on Rat Fink shirt. The dirty stinking Rat Fink, I wore that shirt with pride, feeling that I was a part of something cool that not everyone was aware of or understood.
When the opportunity came together that 7 of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s car creations were going to be on display at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I knew that I would need to make the 5-hour journey to see this kustom kulture mecca exhibit. As you walk through the maze of Corvette history there are subtle ques of a Rat Fink here and there making you salivate to finally get to feast your eyes on “Big Daddy” Roth’s creations. A handful of Rat Fink artists work dots the landscape as you enter the space of the Roth exhibit and immediately you see the Wishbone, the Roth shop truck, the Outlaw, the Orbitron, the Beatnik Bandit, Tweedy Pie, and the Mysterion, and your mind is blown.
Up until very recently, most of these cars had been lost, or unrestored, or only cloned. The Wishbone was built in 1967, and designed by Ed Newton, had even been cut in half by the order of Ed himself. The Wishbone never became a model because Revell said that the delicate front suspension and spindle wheels were too difficult and expensive to mass-produce in scale for the model kit. The Wishbone was the first and last car Roth built with a flat-four, air-cooled Volkswagen engine. Dirty Doug put the pieces of the Wishbone back together and put it on the show circuit as the Electra in red paint. The Wishbone was restored back to “Big Daddy” Roth’s original version and done very well by Dave Shuten and Galpin Auto Sports.
One of my favorites, Ed’s 1956 Ford F100 shop truck. Revell did make a model of this one. Ed had traded this truck off to a dealer and it was lost until it was found again in 2016. It turns out the truck had been stored in a barn in Oklahoma for more than 30 years. The truck had been painted green, but the grill had been left the original white with red flames. Dave Shuten and Galpin Auto Sports restored it to as original as possible even painting it the factory green and then the white with red flames over that to get the original overspray. The tonneau cover had been painted by Crazy Painter Larry Watson with his unique style caricatures. The cover had been stolen years ago and during the restoration, the art was skillfully recreated by Roth Studios artist Von Franco. Kustom Kulture artist and Roth Studios artist Robert Williams masterfully recreated Roth’s abstract painting that covers the truck’s dashboard.
Stunning in person, the Outlaw appeared on the cover of Car Craft in January 1960, it was called Excalibur mainly because of the revolutionary war sword kustom shifter Ed had made. The Outlaw was Ed Roth's first experience with fiberglass, and it started out as a monster drawing on the back of a weirdo sweatshirt. Larry Watson originally did the paint in pearl white with fogged candy-green panels. The Outlaw was “Big Daddy” Roth’s first model and the start of an extensive deal with Revell.
The Outlaw is the only car Ed made a mold for. Robert Williams owns the original mold of the Outlaw and produced a few bodies that several clones were made from. The Outlaw is on loan from the Peterson Museum.
Lost for over 40 years, the Orbitron turned up outside a porn shop in 2006 in Ciudad Juarez Mexico, where it was being used as a dumpster. Dave Shuten and Galpin Auto Sports restored the Orbitron in about 100 days under the supervision of Ed “Newt” Newton. Ed Newton did some initial concept drawings of the Orbitron and was influential in the original build. Larry Watson painted the Orbitron originally in a secret formulation of a gold Murano with blue and also helped in painting the restoration. I love the slingshot dragster look of the Orbitron, with the cockpit in the rear and its long sleek space-age frontend, although it never garnered much attention and Revell never made it into a model. Rumor even has it that it was almost bought and used for a salad bar in Oklahoma. A young kid even owned the Orbitron at one point and drove it to high school, until he got stuck in the bubble for over an hour and then sold it.
Now we get to the Holy Grail of Kustom Kulture bubbletop hotrods, the Beatnik Bandit. The Beatnik Bandit was Revell’s second in a long series of Roth-based kits, and Hot Wheels made a version too. The Beatnik Bandit does not have a steering wheel or any floor pedals. Steering, throttle, shifting, and braking are all controlled by a chrome-plated joystick mounted on the center tunnel. The steering linkage was driven by a hydraulic ram. The hand-constructed fiberglass body, space-age design, and wild paint by Larry Watson made the car an icon of the era. The Beatnik Bandit is on loan from the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. As of late, Ed’s son, Dennis “Lil Daddy” Roth, has recreated the Beatnik Bandit in a mini go-kart size fiberglass body. I of course had to have one that I picked up from “Lil Daddy” at his Roth Metalflake booth at a car show in Missouri.
Tweedy Pie is a 1923 Ford Model T Roadster originally owned and built by Orange County Ignitors member, Bob Johnston between 1954 and 1956. Bob's nephew Dick Johnston originally painted the car with more than 40 coats of purple lacquer using a vacuum cleaner in Bob's garage. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth did the pinstriping on Tweedy Pie. Ed bought Tweedy Pie from Bob with a certified check on Revell's account as the royalties from the Outlaw model rolled in. Revell made a model of Tweedy Pie and sold over 11 million. Filmmaker Piero De Luca is in the process of building a Tweedy Pie clone and filming the process for a proposed project “The Car That Ate My Brain II."
I had the model of the Mysterion, and it always piqued my imagination as a kid that art and mechanics could meld together in mind-bending ways. “Big Daddy” had once been dubbed “the Salvador Dali of hot rodding” and the asymmetrical Mysterion gave credo to that moniker. Ed sculpted the Mysterion body out of plaster, including the iconic cyclops reminiscent eyeball headlight, then covered it in fiberglass. Ed even put his kids to work after school, including Dennis “Lil Daddy” Roth laying up plaster and fiberglass on cars such as Mysterion and Orbitron to name a few. The Mysterion on display is a clone by Dave Shuten. The bubble was scaled off the model with calipers and a CMM and took Dave 13 tries to get right. The Mysterion had been parted out years ago with some pieces going to Ed and the rest basically becoming a mystery, with rumors the original body ended up being in Missouri somewhere, although that’s still a mystery.
The National Corvette Museum has announced an extension of the special exhibit that debuted in late January. “Cartoon Creatures, Kustom Kars and Corvettes: The Art and Influence of Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth” will now run through April 2021.
Dennis on Instagram: @menacemonsterart