The previous post about Hialeah's penchant for producing religious cults and the "Big Daddy" God got me to thinking about the first "Big Daddy" God I ever heard of. And it wasn't from reading any religious text either-- unless, of course, you consider Car Craft magazine, the bible for car crazed American boys in the sixties, a religious text.
Although it was created in 1960, I probably was 12 or 13 when I first saw the "Beatnik Bandit." It blew me away and still does. In fact, I consider it to be one of the most beautiful cars ever made. That was probably around 1963, months before Camelot's king was assasinated and a year before the Beatles hit America. A simpler, more innocent time when gas cost about 35 cents a gallon and a supercharged dual carb gas guzzling engine wouldn't put a dent in your wallet. When Revell brought it out as a model car, I bought one and probably was the happiest kid on the block for a real long time. I still can remember the aesthetic visceral sensation I had applying and looking at the decals on the car. The "scalloped" paint job was so right for that car. So was the bubble top and the single post steering stick which also controlled the gas and shifting of the gears. The original "bubble top" was made by softening a sheet of plastic in a large pizza oven and then molding it over a form. Somewhere along the line, the model car I labored over got lost in growing up. Thirty years later the company re-introduced the car and I bought two, one to make and one to keep forever sealed.
The guy that built the "Beatnik Bandit" died in 2001 at the age of 70. When word got out about his passing, it touched off an unprecedented outpouring of grief and sympathy for the man and his family from thousands of men now in their fifties and sixties who shared a common touchstone with a wonderful past, where life was easier and they had not yet lost their innocence. The Viet Nam War was just on the horizon. None of us saw it coming. We were too busy building model cars and drawing cartoons of monsters driving hotrods with impossibly long gearshifts. We were all into Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, a car customizer out of California who was thinking way outside the box and that somehow made the future seem exciting, something we couldn't wait to get to.
In the beginning when he was struggling to make it while raising a family, Big Daddy sold monster t-shirt designs through car magazines and airbrushed them at auto shows to get money to finance his passion in a new medium called Fiberglas. Big Daddy was an artist in the truest sense, a sculptor who created his shapes out of plaster thrown on top of a wood form right on the car's frame. He then would spend countless hours sanding and cutting and smoothing away the plaster until he got what he wanted. He molded Fiberglas directly over the plaster and when it had hardened, either broke the plaster away or popped off the new Fiberglas skin. After awhile, the Revell plastic model kit company struck a deal with him to reproduce his wild designs for baby boomers who couldn't get enough of his stuff. At one point, Big Daddy had fallen behind schedule in building the "Mysterion" (see picture) and Revell engineers were coming over to measure the car to make the factory molds. Knowing there was no way he could finish the car in time, Big Daddy painted over the plaster and the Revell engineers seemed none the wiser. By the way, the deal Ed "Big Daddy" Roth struck with Revell in 1963 gave him one penny for every model sold. In that year, Big Daddy made $32,000.
I, like many people, think Big Daddy's work is worthy of display in art museums. Tom Wolfe, one of America's greatest living writers, describes Big Daddy as the "Salvador Dali of the (custom car) movement," that his designs are "utterly baroque" in his first book, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby." Listen how this master of the English language describes the Beatnik Bandit: "...his Beatnik Bandit is one of the great objets of customizing. It's a very Rabelaisian tour de force-- a twenty-first century version of a '32 Ford hot-rod roadster." He goes on as only Wolfe can including why teenagers considered Big Daddy a rebel and looked up to him. To get a sense about how much time has changed since 1963, this rebel leader's most shocking statement emblazoned across cartoon monster t-shirts was "Born to Lose."
Wolfe joins a host of other pop culture cognoscenti such as Jay Leno, Matt Groenig, and Billy Gibbons from Z-Z Top for commentary on a new DVD about Big Daddy called "Tales of the Rat Fink," the name of Big Daddy's most successful monster creation (the link will take you to a cool movie trailer). Finally, click here for a great link to his biography and a chance to see him working at his studio-- as he described his work place.
Had cable TV been around back then, I'm sure Ed "Big Daddy" Roth would have had the most successful reality show of all time. Unfortunately, times changed and boys grew up and got separated by war, politics, and girls from their interests in model cars and monsters with googly eyes and smoking slicks and their way cool creator Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Until he died. And then those great memories came rushing back of a time when everything we cared about was possible and we could run with the best of them and hope was in the air.
A retrospective of his work that includes the actual "Beatnik Bandit" will be on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA until June 3, 2007.