The cars of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth

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It may be hard for today’s youth to believe, but there was a time in the pre-Snapchat ‘60s when lots of kids and teens were crazy about toy cars and building plastic model car kits. Hot Wheels and Revell catered to these car-centric hobbies and both featured the custom cars created by noted artist, cartoonist, illustrator, pin-striper and custom car designer/constructor Ed Roth. He’s known as “Big Daddy” Roth because Revell insisted he spice up his name. They originally proposed names like “Spider” or “Roach,” possibly riffing on the airbrushed “weirdo” T-shirt monsters Roth had been selling in the pages of Car Craft since July 1958. But the robustly sized father of five settled on Big Daddy. Starting in 1959, Roth contributed substantially to a car-customizing trend that had been in full swing (and abundantly featured on Motor Trend covers) for a decade. Ed sold most of these heavily chromed flights of fancy for next to nothing after they’d spent a few years on the show circuit, and many fell into disastrous disrepair. Fortunately most have been resurrected or recreated—many by Southern California Ford megadealer Galpin Motors. At the 2018 Amelia Island Concours, we rounded up eight of Ed’s best.

1959 Excalibur/Outlaw

Roth’s first custom car was conceived to help promote his expanding T-shirt business. It was designed in the T-bucket style, but with a completely custom fiberglass molded body and nose-cone. Another unconventional choice was powering it with a heavily chromed Cadillac V-8 engine. He used a civil-war-era sword as a shifter, which inspired the car’s original name: Excalibur. The Excalibur made its debut at a show at Disneyland, but wasn’t judged because the interior wasn’t complete. People apparently had trouble pronouncing the name (?!), so he changed it to Outlaw shortly thereafter. The car once featured a low-slung top with “Gullwing” T-openings to ease entry, but this blew off while being trailered through Kansas, and Roth never went back for it. The car was featured in the January issue of Car Craft, and went on to win many trophies. The car became so popular that Revell inked a licensing deal to sell model kits of it. Ed managed to sell Outlaw for $3,250 in 1961 (about $27,000 today), which he plowed into the build of the…

1961 Beatnik Bandit

Roth’s most famous custom car started out with a 1949 Oldsmobile chassis, shortened to an 85-inch wheelbase. Originally envisioned simply as the “Bandit,” Roth reportedly read newspaper accounts of a bank robber dubbed the Beatnik Bandit and that name stuck. The Olds 303-cubic-inch engine was topped by a Bell blower and two Ford carburetors. The clear bubble-top canopy was inspired by the all-Plexiglas top on singer Bobby Darrin’s DiDia custom car. Roth formed his top by heating a piece of Plexiglas in a pizza oven and using air to shape it. Replacing most of the controls was a single large triangular control stick envisioned to handle steering, acceleration, and gear shifting. But this car was trailered everywhere it went. Revell produced a kit of it, and when Hot Wheels first appeared, its original run of 16 cars included the Beatnik Bandit, cementing its image in America’s automotive psyche. Roth is believed to have sold the car in 1970 for $50 (about $330 today), after which the Harrah collection acquired and restored it.


1963 Mysterion

The twin-engine Mysterion was inspired by dragsters of the day that were frequently fitting multiple engines (generally lined up sequentially in a row). Mysterion featured a custom frame and rear axle with two differentials, each accepting torque from one of the side-by-side Ford 406 Thunderbird V-8s and FMX automatic transmissions and sending it to the wheel on that side. Ed took Mysterion to numerous shows, then rented it to a show promoter who ended up damaging the vehicle. In shambles, it eventually disappeared. The car on display was lovingly recreated by Galpin Auto Sports, primarily by meticulously scaling up the Revell model and painstakingly finding such items as the six Stromberg/Bendix WW carbs, Plymouth Sport Fury headlight bezel, and 1963 Panasonic solid-state TV.

1964 Orbitron

This one was designed as a futuristic interpretation of a “slingshot” dragster, with the driver sitting aft of the rear axle. In a radical departure from Roth’s other custom cars, this one’s 1955 Chevy small block (plucked from Ed’s daily driver and dressed up with Corvette valve covers) remained covered by a hood. Roth partly blamed this misstep for the car’s generally poor reception on the car-show circuit (he also blamed the then-rising Beatles for making young boys lust after guitars instead of cars). The three colored lights in the front were inspired by the cathode ray tubes in a color TV, which were supposed to combine to form a brilliant white beam of light (they didn’t). Roth sold the car in 1967 for $750 (about $5,650 today), and it eventually ended up outside an adult book store in Juarez, Mexico. A friend of Galpin Motors president Beau Boeckmann eventually rescued it and Galpin restored it to its current (and original) splendor.


1965 Surfite

This minimalist bespoke surfboard carrier was built on Austin Mini underpinnings, and includes a heavily chrome-plated Mini engine. It may not have made much of a splash on the show circuit, but it was featured in at least two movies: Beach Blanket Bingo, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and Village of the Giants, with Beau Bridges and Tommy Kirk. The car’s current owners allege it was also in Bikini Beach (also starring Frankie and Annette), but there are no images to prove this on the Internet Movie Cars Database as there are for the first two.

1923 Tweedy Pie

This one was not originally built by Ed Roth, but rather by Bob Johnston of Orange County Ignitors between 1954 and ’56. The classic T-bucket features a 1923 Model T body widened 3 inches and channeled to fit down over a ’32 Ford frame. It was originally powered by a flathead Ford but got a ’57 Corvette engine swap sometime before it was shown at the 1959 Disneyland Car Club Day show. Ed Roth pinstriped this car when it was first painted, and he bought the car from Bob in 1962 for $1,150 (about $9,500 today) with royalty monies from sales of Outlaw model kits. Roth’s ownership earned Tweedy Pie a Revell model contract, and that one has sold 11 million copies.


1994 Beatnik Bandit II

The Roth-designed and -built Bandit was as a tribute to his best known custom car of the ’60s, with design cues inspired by, rather than lifted directly from, the original. Here, the bubble roof is tinted yellow and opens electrically. In place of the crazy joystick controller are more conventional controls with an electronic control panel for ancillaries. And instead of a conventional TV and rearview mirror, there’s a rearview camera monitor (they’re commonplace now, but were novel in 1994). Four headlights were a pretty new idea in 1960, and six were equally novel in the ’90s. The sides are adorned with stylized images of the Roth cartoon character Rat Fink. Power comes from an LT4 Corvette V-8 of the day, perhaps to allow Roth to enter Beatnik Bandit II in burn-out competitions. Revell obligingly developed a kit so that everyone’s 1/25th-scale Roth collection can be considered complete.

1956 Ford F-100

Roth bought this truck new for the same reason folks do today—to work for his business, hauling stuff and serving as a rolling advertisement. Toward that end, he painted the green truck white with a red flame job on the front. The flames served their purpose. Soon, lots of folks were coming to Ed in droves for flame paint jobs. He also air-brushed images like those found on his T-shirts onto a tonneau cover. As happens when any work truck ages, it was sold (in 1957) to a guy who eventually moved it to a farm in Oklahoma where it ended up in a barn for almost 50 years. That owner reportedly repainted it twice, but never altered the grille flames, which identified it as the Roth F-100. In 2016 Beau Boeckmann acquired the truck and Galpin commenced a thorough restoration, which included stripping off all the paint, painting it green, and then painting the white and flames over the green.