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Artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth became the king of California custom car culture in the 1950s and '60s with his Beatnik Bandit model and characters like Rat Fink.
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Gasser, were also included in some of the model kits.
By the early 1960s, Roth was at the height of his popularity. People around the country were buying Rat Fink items and building models of his creations. Author Tom Wolfe wrote an essay on about the southern California custom car scene around this time and described Roth as “the Salvador Dali of the movement -- a surrealist in his designs, a showman by temperament, a prankster.” For example,
when Revell asked him to clean up his appearance, Roth responded, in his trademark rebellious manner, by going to shows dressed in a top hat and tails.
In the late 1960s, Roth became interested in motorcycles and started building three-wheeled vehicles called trikes. He started hanging out with members of the Hell’s Angels, a notorious motorcycle gang, and it was this association that led to Revell severing ties with Roth. Following his latest interest, Roth started a motorcycle magazine called Choppers, which was a dismal failure financially. Soon he found himself low on cash and had to sell 15 of his custom cars for a reported total of $5,500 in 1970.
In mid-1970s, Roth became a Mormon and stepped away from the custom car scene. He worked for many years as a graphic designer for the Californian amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm. Leaving his Los Angeles stomping grounds, Roth moved to Manti, Utah, in 1988. After initially giving up his passion for cars for his faith, he eventually returned to making automotive wonders. Referencing one of his greatest successes, he built Beatnik Bandit II in 1995. His final completed show car was the Stealth 2000, which has a classic hot-rod meets military vehicle look.
In his later years, Roth began to receive critical recognition. His cars were shown across the country in pop art exhibits beginning in the 1990s and the original Outlaw is part of the Petersen Automotive Museum’s collection.
Roth was working on a project in his workshop near his home on April 4, 2001, when he had a heart attack and died. While he may be gone, his interest in his work remains strong. His cars continue to be featured in exhibitions and models and other Roth-related items are still being sold. Five years after his death, Roth was the subject of a documentary entitled Tales of the Rat Fink, which featured, appropriately enough, animated segments using his trademark characters. John Goodman, Ann-Margaret, Matt Groening, Jay Leno and Tom Wolfe all contributed to the project.
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