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The Original Rat Fink on Show
Roth's Beatnik Bandit showcases the exhibition
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth needs no introduction to the world of Kustom Kulture, mainly because he and the likes of Von Dutch and Robert Williams were largely responsible for the movement. It seems that the initial Kustom Kulture art show, at Laguna Art Museum in 1993, firmly established hot rod and custom artwork in the public eye. Well before that, however, Roth had created a whole raft of wild custom cars and motorcycles, as well as his Rat Fink rodent mascot and a proliferation of artwork that ended up applied to T-shirt designs, decals and a wide range of other items.
Sadly, Roth passed away in 2001, but his spirit is very much alive and well, and currently being honoured at the Peterson Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, with a special celebration of the life and works of this extremely talented individual. The exhibition, entitled “Ed Big Daddy Roth, the Original Rat Fink”, runs until June 3, 2007 (http://www.petersen.org), and is a fitting tribute to this iconic, non-conformist individual.
Outlaw was one of the earliest custom hot rods not based on a production car. A 1949 Cadillac engine provided the power for the one-off fibreglass body that sat atop an equally unique chassis. Outlaw was Roth’s first custom automobile, and was built in part to help promote his expanding T-shirt business. It definitely succeeded, with the original design helping to put Roth clearly in the spotlight of the hot rod movement.
Roth's creations graced many a cover of Rod & Custom and other automotive magazines
Roth’s automotive creations were always wild, always innovative, but as they often featured asymmetrical design elements, bubble-top canopies, and other custom styling influences of the era, they can easily be pigeonholed. By comparison, Roth’s Rat Fink character, the official mascot for his merchandise, is simply timeless. It’s also a much loved, and instantly identifiable image of Kustom Kuture, which is one of the reasons why a couple of enthusiastic individuals recreated the Rat Fink character as a 12-inch Polystone sculpture last year – a sort of detailed and larger rendering of the original ’60s version, produced by Revell.
Customised Rat Fink statue with reshaped hands, feet, blow torch tail and a fine pair of boots by Dave Higgins
About 100 of these statues were delivered to Kustom Kulture artists, pinstripers and painters, so they could add their personal touches, and the results are now on show for all to see at the Peterson Museum as part of the Roth exhibition. Some of the sculptures remain faithful to the original Rat Fink character, but others have been cut and shaped into new custom creations that are very original – and funny! How about an eight-legged Rat Fink with the eyes of a spider, or another one, which appears to be dressed as the Pope, with the words “Thou Shalt Drag” incorporated in a stained glass window backdrop - below.
The good news for would-be modellers, and Roth fans alike, is that the 12-inch Rat Fink statue is on sale in a limited run of 500. It comes with a commemorative poster, a soft-cover book containing interpretations of the Rat Fink sculpture by all of the Kustom Kulture artists in full colour (over 400 photos), a certificate of authenticity and a display base. The bad news is that it costs $200, plus shipping of well over $20 for international sales. If you just want the book, entitled Rat Fink’s Revenge, then this is also available at $24.95 plus shipping.
If you are in LA and have the time, then this exhibition is well worth a look. If you haven’t, here’s a taste of what’s on show.
Story: Andy Kirk & Graham Jones
Photos: Andy Kirk
CARtoons was a bi-monthly magazine containing automotive-related humour intended for hot rod and custom car enthusiasts. It was published from 1959 to 1991.
These reproductions of classic Roth artwork, (above & below) printed on canvas, were intended for t-shirts and decals, and became Rat Fink trading cards in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Road Agent was the first rear-engined show car built by Ed Roth. It was powered by a Chevrolet Corvair engine mated to an inverted Corvair transmission. The chassis was fashioned from chrome moly tubing and fitted with 1937 Ford suspension modified to accept a VW torsion bar. Its wild shape and aggressive look ensured it was the centre of attention wherever it appeared, and it was featured on the cover of Rod & Custom magazine in April 1964.
Mysterion boasted a number of distinctive features, such as a bubble canopy and, of course, its twin Ford engines. When completed and painted by Larry Watson, this wild custom was displayed at numerous auto show circuit venues, and also appeared on the September 1963 cover of Rod & Custom magazine. The twin engines proved too heavy for the chassis, however, which cracked on numerous occasions, and the original Mysterion was eventually dismantled in 1970s. The car on show at the museum has been built by a Roth fan and automotive enthusiast.
Beatnik Bandit above was based on a 1949 Oldsmobile chassis, shortened by five feet. Roth achieved the trendy hot rod aesthetics by chrome-plating virtually every external component of the Olds engine and installing a specially designed supercharger and twin Ford carbs. The interior was upholstered in white Naugahyde, while the body was painted in a matching pearlescent white with brown and gold inserts. Futuristic touches included a joystick control for the steering/throttle/brakes, and a bubble top that was created in a pizza oven, using compressed air to inflate a sheet of clear acrylic plastic into a dome shape.
During the early ’60s, Roth got together with Mr Gasser & the Weirdos to create a novelty band with a surfer music sound. Beach Boys colleague, Gary Usher, oversaw production of the album, engaging a large number of studio musicians, including the then-unknown guitarist, Glen Campbell. Originally released in 1963, Hot Rod Hootenanny is a send-up of car-related songs, and includes such epics as “The Fastest Shift Alive” and “You Ain’t Nothing But a Honda”.
You can begin to appreciate the amount of work the various artists have put into remodelling the Rat Fink statues on display in the exhibition when you consider this one is an original unmolested casting. It's available from www.tornadodesign.la
If you are looking for further Rat Fink memorabilia, then you might like to take a look at Tales of the Rat Fink, a DVD on the life and times of Ed Roth, by director, Ron Mann.
This animated documentary features the voice talents of John Goodman, Ann-Margret, Jay Leno, Brian Wilson, Matt Groening, Tom Wolfe, Steve Austin, Robert Williams, Paul LeMat, Billy F Gibbons and the Smothers Brothers. Special Features include: Big Daddy Lives, rare interviews with Roth, and much more.