Ed “Big Daddy” Roth left an indelible mark on car culture with his flamboyant custom car designs and the grotesque, oversized, and toothy cartoon characters he depicted piloting them.
Roth was ahead of the marketing game, selling shirts with images of those monstrous creations driving muscle cars and hot rods, as well as plastic models of his outlandish hot rods. His shirt ads in the back pages of Car Craft magazines in the ’60s played both sides of the Ford/Chevy rivalry and even catered to Honda and Triumph motorcycle riders. Sorry Mopar fans, no shirts for you.
There were far more potential customers of $1.98 Weerdo shirts and scale models than there were for custom rods, and the sales of those shirts helped finance his seemingly unending creative process.
Throwing practicality aside, his cars were pure art, caricatures of what a hot rod could be. There wasn’t much room inside the bubble tops, and with no air conditioning or ventilation they’d cook their occupants in about the same time as it took for the engines to overheat, as there was often no radiator either. Still, these cars aren’t about cruising or even racing. They’re rolling sculptures of weirdness and they inspired millions.
After his passing in 2001, Roth’s amazing car creations were shown at the 2006 Detroit Autorama, where he was the featured builder. This gathering at Amelia Island marked the most complete assembly of Roth’s creations since then, as it also added the long-lost Orbitron as well as Roth’s personal Ford F100 pickup. Here’s a closer look at the seven cars featured at the 2018 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Restored in 1985, Beatnik Bandit was originally built in 1961 as an evolution of a design by Joe Henning. Underneath the bubble top is a single tiller that is used to steer, stop, and turn the rod.
Clearly inspired by twin-engine dragsters, Mysterion uses twin Ford V-8s and a helmet-like bubble top. It was featured on the September 1963 cover of Rod & Custom magazine. This version is a replica, built by Galpin Auto Sports.
Orbitron was built in 1964 and was missing for years. The slingshot-dragster-inspired body was found in Mexico and was purchased by Beau Boeckmann, President of Galpin Auto Sports, where the car was restored.
Surfite made cameos in the 1965 movies Beach Blanket Bingo, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, and Village of the Giants, with Beau Bridges.
Beatnik Bandit II
Beatnik Bandit II was built in 1994. Everything about it—the stylized Rat Fink, the Chevy LT-1 engine, the colors, and the wheels—all scream 1990s.