Rat Fink! Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
Updated on February 27, 2009 St.James moreContact Author Where to Start…
Custom car designer, artist. Born on March 4, 1932, in Beverly Hills, California. An underground icon in California’s “Kar Kulture,” Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was one of the leading custom car designers of the 1950s and 1960s. He also remembered for his over-the-top characters, most especially the bug-eyed Rat Fink, which appeared on T-shirts, stickers, and other merchandise. Roth’s love of all things automotive started early on. In high school, he bought a 1933 Ford and began tinkering with it.
In college, Roth studied engineering at East Los Angeles College in the hopes of learning more about car design, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 1951, he joined in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged after four years. Roth, by then a family man, took a job at Sears to support his first wife and their five sons.
After work, Roth began detailing cars. He was one of the first to add pinstripes, or thin lines, to decorate a car. At first, it was a part-time venture, but soon cars took over Roth’s life. His business expanded to include selling equipment for hot rods, and he continued working on his own creations made from junkyard parts and fiberglass, a revolutionary material at the time. Two of his earliest cars were known as Little Jewel, a 1930 Model A, and Outlaw, his first custom car. Taking his vehicles to shows, Roth started attracting attention for his work.
To help fund his projects, Roth opened the Roth Studio in 1959, which made T-shirts and other items featuring his characters and sold them at car shows. While his monsters were very popular, Rat Fink also developed a substantial following. This rodent was created to be the anti-Mickey Mouse, inspired in part by Roth’s hatred for the famed Disney character. With its bulging, blood-shot eyes, jagged teeth, and tattered tail, Rat Fink was the kind of figure that appealed to young people, but not their parents. “Some people thought that Rat Fink was ghastly. . . . Moms used to drag their kids away from my booth,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1997.
One of his most famous cars was the Beatnik Bandit, which used a shortened chassis from 1955 Oldsmobile as its base. Featuring an exposed engine, unusual curves, and a bubble top, the car was selected by the Revell Company to be the inspiration for a model car kit. Roth signed a deal with the company, making him nationally known. One of the company’s publicists developed Roth’s nickname, “Big Daddy,” because he thought “Ed Roth” was not going to help sell Beatnik Bandit. Rat Fink and some of his other characters, Drag Nut, Mother’s Worry, and Mr. 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.
The Art of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth
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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.
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Creations at the Petersen Museum
Rat Fink: The Anti- Mickey Mouse Movement
Rat Fink is one of the several hot-rod characters created by one of the originators of Kustom Kulture, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Roth’s hatred for Mickey Mouse led him to draw the original Rat Fink. After he placed Rat Fink on an airbrushed monster shirt, the character soon came to symbolize the entire hot-rod/Kustom Kulture scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Although Detroit native Stanley Mouse (Miller) is credited with creating the so-called “Monster Hot Rod” art form, Roth is accepted as the individual who popularized it.
The Rat Fink is a green, depraved-looking mouse with bulging, bloodshot eyes, an oversized mouth with yellowed, narrow teeth, and a red T-shirt with yellow “R.F.” on it.
Other artists associated with Roth also drew the character, including Rat Fink Comix artist R.K. Sloane and Steve Fiorilla, who illustrated Roth’s catalogs. Rat Fink and Roth are featured in Ron Mann’s documentary film Tales of the Rat Fink (2006).  Jeannette Catsoulis reviewed in The New York Times:
Ogling fins and drooling over fenders, the movie traces the colorful history of the hot rod from speed machine to babe magnet and, finally, museum piece and collector’s item. Along the way we learn of Mr. Roth’s lucrative idea to paint hideous monsters – including the Rat Fink of the title – on children’s T-shirts, a sartorial trend that, in the 1960s, had the added benefit of getting their wearers banned from school, thus giving them more time to play with Mr. Roth’s model car kits.
A Rat Fink revival in the late 1980s and the 1990s centered around the West Coast grunge/punk rock movements. The term fink was originally underworld slang for an informer, comparable to “stool pigeon”, and ratfink is an intensified version of “fink.” By the time Roth used this name for a character, the term had started to pass into more general usage. It is also thought to have been a toned-down form of “ratf@#%king,” a slang term for playing dirty tricks.
Rat Fink Links
The Official Site of Ed “Bid Daddy” Roth – Rat Fink Lives!
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Mr. Gasser.Com
Tales of the Rat Fink
he film, a multimedia laughfest, not only gives the viewer a look into the very fertile mind and imagination of Ed Roth, but is also a window into the ’50’s and ’60’s that brings back memories of those times much like American Graffiti did.
Tales ot the Rat Fink: The Movie
A Movie About Custom Cars, Monster T-Shirts, and Anti-Mickey Mouse
Automobile HistoryFastest Muscle Cars from the ’60s
Creative WritingOriginal Short Fiction: “Mr. Cat Fink Becomes a New Cat”
by Linda Sue Grimes0
Future CarsGoogle Artificial Intelligence Robot Cars
by L M Reid6
Future CarsAutonomous Cars: New Age of the Modern Automobile
by Michael S.5
Future CarsTop 4 Hybrid Supercars
Future CarsConfessions From “Roy,” a Shady Automotive Mechanic
by Kenneth Avery8
Future CarsFuture Car – Ford’s Hydrogen I.C.E.
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RatFink 07 6 years ago
In the mid 70’s I was in, while in high school, I would go out to the drag strip near our town in Missouri to race my ’69 Z28… That is where I met Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, as he air brushed a t-shirt of that Camaro with the Rat Fink coming out of the top. I wore that shirt, when my sister wasn’t stealing it to ware herself until it was just tatters. Over theYears I have collected so much Rat Fink and Ed Roth stuff, but am always looking for the next Rat Fink thing. I think that is the reason, 25 years ago when we started our paintball team we named it “Team Bad Rat” and my team name is Rat Fink…
Long Live The Rat Fink
Lady In NC 6 years ago from A Small Town In North Carolina
RatFink 07 7 years ago
Ed Roth was a huge influence on many of us who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s!!! I met him at a drag strip in a small town in Missouri when I was a teen, running my 69 Z28, and he did an air brushed t-shirt of the Rat Fink in his version of my Camaro… I wore that shirt unitll it just fell apart. I sit here at my computer surrounded by all the Rat Fink, and Big Daddy collectables, just to remember that misspent youth, hahaha and say thank you for doing the article…
P.S. I still use the name on my paintball jersey of “Rat Fink” with my number of 07!!! For my team called Team Bad Rat…
Shawn Plep 7 years ago from New Orleans
I love the work of “Big Daddy” Roth and loved reading your hub. I pretty much knew all this stuff but the guy was a fascinating individual and a very entertaining subject. He’s one of the icons of the 20th century and (I daresay) America. God broke the mold when He made Ed Roth. 🙂
Amen dobkry, AMEN!
dobkry7 7 years ago
man this guy was one of the most amazing men ever! i drag race for a living and he is the man who got me facinated with cars in the first place. he did what he wanted to and i conider him a lucky man just for that reason. LONG LIVE RATFINK!
AuthorSt.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida
AWESOME Weldon! Thank you… I will be there!
Weldon McDowell Jr 7 years ago
Hi St.James …was doing a search for DragNut and ran across your stuff here. Ed Roth was definitely a one of a kind guy and he touched a lot of our lives. I colored the “Roth Originals” guy you have posted above …thanks for using it here. I’m a moderator over at www.EdRothWorld.com and the entire movie about Ed Roth “Tales of the Rat Fink” is posted there for anyone to watch by just “clicking.” I just completed the series of 12 FINK models for The Petersen Automotive Museum in LA and several photos of each are posted as well as several more colored FINK drawings …Please visit us and tell us Roth stories …you’ll be glad you did and so will we …Weldon
Gypsy Jazz 7 years ago
Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit thrilled my teenage automotive heart when I saw it in the hot rod magazines. I admired the man for his freewheeling imagination and creativity. As a grown-up I’m still artistially and engineeringly (?)tickled, but it just struck me – was the Beatnik Bandit really driveable with the bubble top in place? I saw a publicity picture on-line with a couple of models scrunched into the interior. It looks like keeping control of that little booger would be a challenge – if you could sit upright at all. Looks like the old conflict between style and comfort/utility. Any thoughts?
I do envy the man, Kate in MO. For that very reason.
Thanks for Driving-by
Kate in MO 8 years ago from Kansas City, MO
Love his Rat Fink! He was a talented man. Every artist has to find his niche and he certainly did that. Glad he got to live his life doing what he loved.
AuthorSt.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida
Very cool about the b-day!! Ed Roth, Dutch Von Dutch, and Harley Earl were such incredible auto visionaries.
jjrubio 8 years ago
BADASS!!! Love it…and guess what?! He shares the same b-day as me! So even better!
Merle Ann Johnson 8 years ago from NW in the land of the Free
Sorry this is not in my realm of chat…i am too woman to deal with cars…hee hee G-Ma :o) Hugs & peace
Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States
I put together a model of the rat fink in some kind of bizarre vehicle when I was a kid. Thanks for bringing back the memory!