The smell of the grease pit

Even if you never burned rubber, painted a pinstripe, or "accidentally" got high from model-airplane-glue vapors, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth still may have phenomenologically insinuated himself into your subconscious via his "Rat Fink" creation, kinda the way Andre the Giant, in the de facto employ of Shepard Fairey and his posse, has been doing for the past several years. In the early '60s some Californian freaks were making surfboards out of fiberglass, but 6-foot-6 motorhead Ed Roth was pioneering its use as a lightweight auto-body building material, creating such custom Frankensteinian car classics as the Outlaw, the space-age Mysterion, and the bubble-topped Beatnik Bandit. He became a regular on the auto-show circuit, augmenting his means (when he wasn't snoozing in a trailer near one of his cars to prevent its theft) by airbrushing T-shirts, an evolutionary step up from his early professional pinstriping days. The lines were usually longest at Big Daddy's stall.

He only built the cars one at a time and was usually reluctant to part with them, but he could knock out hundreds of personalized T-shirts featuring slobbering, bug-eyed monsters jamming gears on fanciful Ford, Chevy, or maybe even Mopar-based custom street rods. BD's signature monster was Rat Fink, a mangy, slime-tailed anthropomorphic rodent Roth claimed he created after pondering on the parentage of one Mickey Mouse. As for Roth's rods, many were eventually distilled down from their original chrome-and-fiberglass states to more accessible Revell-Monogram polystyrene scale models for the younger set (that's where the airplane glue comes in). The folks at Revell liked Roth's monsters as much as his motorcars, so they cashed Big Daddy in on monster-inspired model kits and figurines too, and by the early '60s Rat Finks were being mass produced.

After the Serious Money started coming in, Big Daddy lived too hard, hanging out with Hells Angels and doing a lot of damage to his personal and professional lives. (Revell didn't feel very comfortable selling model kits for a guy who knew then-notorious head Angel Sonny Barger.) In the early '70s, Roth sold 15 of his custom cars for $5,500 and, in an all-too-American sign of Bottoming Out, he had a religious experience and became a Mormon.

The tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a salubrious effect upon Roth, as did the attention of hipsters and design geeks too young to experience Rat Finkery the first time around. Favorable thematic association, if not philosophical agreement, with Kustom Kulture kontemporaries such as Coop, Robert Williams, and Von Dutch caused the Fink star to rise again in the 1980s and '90s in the form of custom Rat Fink Fonts typography and reissued model kits from Revell-Monogram. (Nobody knows who Sonny Barger is anymore.)

These days, we've got lovely "outsider art" museums, but Ed Roth was outside when outside wasn't in, making cars and art out of personal compulsion. He never stopped going to car shows, contributed regularly to Cali car mag Drive!, kept on wearing that goofy top hat and shades, and planned to tour a new car in 2002. In 1997, he told the Associated Press, with maybe just a bit of a wink, "My fanaticism with cars has just destroyed my personal life. It's an obsession, an addiction. Every day, I pray to God, 'Release me from my calling!'" This past April 4, God listened. Big Daddy's heart quit on him, at the age of 69. But Rat Fink, Mr. Gasser, and Drag Nut will never die.

At the Drive-In - Samuel Z. Arkoff, 1918-2001
The Art of Living - Balthus, 1908-2001
No Big Eyes - Jane Greer, 1924-2001
Living in Darkness - James Carr, 1942-2001
Catch a Wave - Jeanne Loriod, 1928-2001
Talkin' Picture - Fred Neil, 1936-2001
Do the Math - Iannis Xenakis, 1922-2001
People who died - A salute to some of 2001's dear departed cult culture hereoes

Joe MacLeod writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature apperead. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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