Still Burning Rubber

Hot rod king Ed "Big Daddy" Roth is ready to talk about what's wrong with the world. But first he has to yell at his dog.

"Hey dawg, leave that kitty alone!" he hollers across his workshop. Explains Big Daddy, who has more on his mind than nitro-burning funny cars: "That dog puts the cats' heads in his mouth, and they get mad and punch him in the nose."

This morning, Roth's folding T-shirts for his mail-order business, a one-man operation centered around his cartoon creations--gleeful, pop-eyed monsters with rotten teeth, tooling down the highway in souped-up flivvers. Rat Fink, a cross between a junkyard Muppet and an old drunk guy, is the most recognizable of the bunch, immortalized during the otherwise humorless hippie era on countless T-shirts worn by big, hairy men and twelve-year-old girls with braces. Kids who grew up in the 1960s and '70s know Roth's dragsters, too--his candy-apple-finished, mag-wheeled machines, sporting names like "Beatnik Bandit" and "Mother's Worry," were miniaturized by Revell toys. He'll bring two of the full-scale creations to the Auto-Rama show this week: the Druid Princess (a baroque carriage with a baby coffin for a trailer, commissioned for the Addams Family TV series) and a three-wheeler called the Megacycle.

"I tell you, I was brought up differently than these kids are today," says Roth, his philosophy a blend of Popular Mechanics and The X-Files. People have lost track of what's important, he says: "I have to laugh when I see these telescopes that cost millions of dollars to build, when aliens are cutting crop circles in England and nobody can do anything about them.

"I keep telling these kids, 'Focus on making money, don't focus so much on making chords on the guitar,'" he continues. Roth, now 67, says he learned about hard work from his father, a cabinetmaker who drilled his boys through chores, but also gave them their own tools and workshop to build whatever they wanted. Since it was wartime, Roth made toy machine guns out of wood. After World War II ended, big old cars were so cheap that a thirteen-year-old could buy one, then work on it until he was old enough to drive. For $25, Roth bought a 1925 Studebaker with a 12-cylinder engine, then graduated to a '32 Ford Coupe. With the help of his school buddies, he "put bigger carburetors on it and gave it a higher compression ratio."

"They're still alive today," he says of his old pals from California. "We have our fiftieth reunion coming, and I told this one kid, 'Why don't you bring a carburetor and we'll disassemble it?'"

Roth's first show car, built in 1958, was called the Outlaw. "It looked like a Model T out of the year 2000," he says. "It was pearl white--we got the pearl color from fish scales" supplied by a taxidermist, who painted stuffed sharks' bellies with the crushed bone.

Until recently, Roth built a car every year; now he's down to one every two years. A convert to Mormonism, he spends much of his time traveling to drag races and car shows from his home in Utah, where he lives with his third wife, Ilene, a chairwoman for the local Republican Party. During last year's political campaign, he put a bigger engine in Ilene's car so she could burn rubber in the town parade.

Every morning, Roth checks the Internet for new information on alien crop circles. A friend working on a New York bridge recently sent him a letter about the Clinton-Lewinsky mess. He didn't want to hear about it.

"That's not real," he says of the impeachment scandal. "I told him, 'Write about something real.' Write about the bridge and what's going on. There was a rumor that aliens abducted somebody off the Brooklyn Bridge."


Ed "Big Daddy" Roth will be at the Auto-Rama at the Cleveland Convention Center, 500 Lakeside Avenue, 216-348-2200. Show hours are 6 to 10 p.m., Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $4 kids ten and under.

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