Ed Roth, The Architect of Odd Rods!
By Kurt Kuersteiner ©2012 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards for The Wrapper Magazine
Sometimes, you look at a card series and have to ask yourself, “Where the heck did they come up with this idea?” Often it’s because the idea is so bizarre, it defies common sense. (License plates, anyone?) But other times, it’s because the concept is so inspired, that it seems like pure, unadulterated genius. For me, the classic Odd Rod stickers qualify well in both categories. They’re bizarre… unique… and total genius. Donruss certainly produced enough of them to prove how much kids loved them. The colorful stickers were ubiquitous during my 1960s childhood, almost like gang graffiti, marking clear pathways wherever kids frequented. It drove the parents and teachers crazy, much to the glee of the prepubescent perps who stuck them on everything from home furniture to school lockers.
Odder Odd Rods , Donruss 1970
Whoever dreamed up mixing monsters with hot rods? It was a combo so clever, it defied explanation – and got none. (The backs were usually blank.) Some had titles, others didn’t, but really, it was the artwork that sold the series. And did they ever sell well!
The maniac mind behind the monster hot rod cartoon craze was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. His “Weirdo” t-shirts were a fad as early as 1959, traveling across the nation via mail order from the pages of Car Craft magazine (which also featured Roth’s custom cars). Roth’s colorful career spanned decades and many different media forms. He was a subject of Tom Wolf’s first collected book of essays (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby). It broke all sorts of writing and punctuation conventions, and made Wolf and Roth famous, as well as the “new journalism” writing style. Roth’s wild car creations also appeared in movies like Beach Blanket Bingo, as well as some of the more eye-grabbing model kits from Revell. His Beatnik Bandit was one of the first 16 die-cast cars introduced by Hot Wheels in 1968. He also recorded several surf rock records under the name Mr. Gasser & the Weirdos. In later years, Roth’s characters appeared in their own comic books.
His upbringing was almost as varied. Born in Beverly Hills in 1932, Roth grew up in a German speaking household, the son of cabinet maker. He loved to draw and learned how to build things from his father. He joined the Air Force in 1951. By 1955, he was honorably discharged but was married with five children (all boys). He joined “The Baron” in 1958 to build custom cars with a new process called fiberglass. Soon he became known as a hot-rod “gear head” who financed his weird machine creations with mad-monster style decals and T-shirts that he sold at drag races, car shows, and the aforementioned Car Craft magazine. He would personally airbrush t-shirts with monsters driving hot rods, and the crowds lined up to exchange their money for them. His most famous character was “Rat Fink”, a hairy rat with jagged teeth and bulging eyes. It was the counter-culture answer to Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and a true anti-hero.
Roth’s customized hot rods were part of a growing coast to coast craze to build your own hot rod with spare junkyard parts and fiberglass. His creations included the Mysterion and the Ed Roth Outlaw. When the Beatnik Bandit and Road Agent (along with his Rat Fink character) were marketed as models by Revell in 1962, Roth was given a single penny royalty for each kit sold. The very first year, he earned over $32,000.00. That’s 3,200,000 models sold in a nation of less than 200 million (or nearly 1 model for every 50 people). And that was only one year!
His most famous record was the 1963 album, Hot Rod Hootenanny. Fans of his music style and monster motifs include The Cramps and Rob Zombie. A fellow painter who worked for Roth in 1965 was Robert Williams, who still paints stunning pieces with hot rod/monster themes, which sell for many thousand$ each.
Some of Roth’s custom creations were lost to the ages. His most dramatic rediscovered artifact was the Orbitron, probably the first car that had its own in-dash installed color television, as well as the overall appearance of an alien UFO (complete with a plexiglass bubble top that hydraulically opened over the cockpit, and three different colored Martian-like headlamps). It was built in 1964, lost, then eventually found in 2007 parked outside a Mexican adult bookstore (dilapidated and not working). It was purchased and returned to the USA and fully restored by Beau Boeckmann of the “Pimp My Ride” TV show.
Silly Cycles, Donruss 1970
Throughout the 1960s, Roth also sold a lot of his art in different forms, but not trading cards. Donruss cashed in on selling stickers using Roth’s monster/hot rod concept (without credit or royalties) but with a different, little known artist who was fresh out of art school (B.K. Taylor). Odd Rods, Fiends and Machines, and Silly Cycles were just a few of the titles spawned by Roth’s rich influence. (Roth also built custom motorcycles. He had to publish his own magazine to publicize them since no “serious motorcycle magazine” would run images of his odd ball designs.)
After being married four times, Roth became a Mormon in 1974. Joining the conservative Mormon faith was quite a change for “the King of Kounter Kulture”, but he remained married to his (last) wife and faith up until the end. He died in 2001 just shy of age 70. He never received glory or greenbacks from the vintage monster hot rod stickers or cards. (Topps published a postcard set called Rat Fink greeting cards in 1965 which used the name but not the actual character.) However, Roth eventually got his own art on cardboard. In fact, he got two! Rat Fink series 1 (72 cards) was printed in 1996, and Rat Fink series 2 (49 cards) was printed in 2000. The color cards are slightly smaller than 2.25” x 3.25". Series 1 has all sorts of commentary on the backs written in a beatnik style, while series 2 has an identical generic Rat Fink graphic on every back. None of them are numbered, but there are four different checklists in series 1 with specific titles and corresponding numbers. (It just adds to the overall confusion!) Examine some of the Rat Fink cards compared to other series inspired by Roth’s creations. Rat Fink cards are currently sold by Roth’s estate at Ratfink.com
Rat Fink series 1, Roth 1996
A sample of the Rat Fink reverse text:
“There’s all kinds of rehab boys & girls. Rehab means that you want to give up a bad habit like picking your nose in public or spitting out the window of your dad’s car or stopping smoking or drinking. Most of the organizations like AA or Drugs anonymous help you replace the powerful urges for alcohol or motorcycles with more positive thoughts. Like when Finky got hooked on Motorcycles. First it wuz a ride around the block then to Arizona then across the USA. It coulda been bad news. That’s when his friends helped him. First they tied a big copper wire to his head & every time he thought about “Bikes” he got zapped. Then they strapped him to a chair at KFC & stuffed chicken down his throat till he almost choked. He forgot all about bikes & became a Hot Rodder. No problemo!”
Rat Fink (aka Funny Finks) Series 2, Roth 2000
The Non-Sports Trading Card Article Index