Big Daddy Roth Lives on at Amelia Island Concours
Big Daddy Roth lives on at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida. The literal translation of Concours d’Elegance is “competition of elegance,” so when a little more than 300 exotic, beautiful, unique, rare, and impossibly artistic vehicles are picked from the last 120 years of automotive production to gather in one place at one time, you know it has to be a special occasion.
Located on the Atlantic shore just south of the Georgia/Florida state line, this particular time and place were the sprawling grounds of the Ritz Carlton hotel and the adjacent Golf Club of Amelia Island, home to the 23rd Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
At this event you’d expect nameplates such as Auburn, Rolls Royce, Bugatti, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, Packard, and Porsche on the grounds, but what about those rare and limited-production vehicles from decades ago from the House of Roth?
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (1932-2001) is known far and wide in the hot rod world for creating the iconic “Rat Fink” cartoon character as well as designing and building a flamboyant and outrageous series of show rods. The Outlaw, Tweedy Pie, Orbitron, Beatnik Bandit, and other handcrafted vehicles (as well as his flamed ’56 Ford F100 shop truck) were displayed at this year’s event. But his reach was far beyond car culture.
As a pinstriper and artist he also unknowingly helped birth a subset of the art world now known as “low-brow” art, most famously depicted in his Rat Fink character—a sharp-toothed, flea- and fly-infested fat Rat that was the exact opposite of the squeaky-clean image put forth by his distant relative from the same era: Mickey Mouse.
All through the 60s thousands of kids across America built scale models of the weirdo cars Roth created. At that time, counter-culture sold well and Roth was on it. Roth’s “brand” may be more popular now than when he was alive, thanks in part to the endless marketing of his Rat Fink design, now found on everything from key fobs to coffee mugs.
But it all started with the cars and, in the ensuing decades since they were built, many were either lost or had fallen into various stages of disrepair.
Over the past few years interest had grown in the vehicles and one-by-one they were found and either restored or recreated to the point that eight were able to be gathered at this prestigious event and presented in a class by themselves: The Cars of Ed Roth.
The effort to recognize Roth and his rides at this level was spearheaded by automotive writer and historian Ken Gross, who admits he didn’t need much convincing when he presented the idea of the special class to the event organizers. “They were all in from the get-go” he said, as they immediately recognized not only Roth’s contribution to the automotive art form, but that those cars have had a lasting impression on car enthusiasts of all ages.
Indeed, when standing near one the vehicles at the event, one smiling patron walked by and said “Wow! These cars look like fun.” Older folks stopped and smiled at the cars, each one commenting on their connection in one way or another to Roth or his creations, while others explained the man, the myth, and the Rat to the young kids in tow who looked on in wonder.
The Amelia Island Concours is not as stuffy as some of the other high-end d’Elegance events held around the country, even though the vehicles represented on the 10th and 18th fairways of the golf course rival the best found anywhere in the world.
But where else will you find a “Cars & Coffee” event-within-an-event for local car clubs and owners who are invited to drive their own vehicles onto the grounds, grab a donut and hob-nob with the glitterati? Here, near the row of seven-million dollar Ferraris, you can see the very same Mustang fastback driven by Steve McQueen in the movie Bullitt. Alongside the rare 904 and Pre-A Porsches was famed car customizer Dean Jeffries’ restored silver 356 Carrera, which Dean reshaped to his own design back in the late ’50s.
American-based race cars are at the core of most hot rodder’s hearts, so it was great to see The “Guggy’s” Willys recently restored by Rob Ida get driven into the show, not too far from a row of historic IMSA GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) cars from ’81 to ’93. There was also a finned one-off ’56 Corvette SR-2 that Harley Earl’s son used to race.
But the Roth cars stole the show.
Ed Roth was many things, pretentious not among them. When someone once complained of his appearance at an event, he promptly went out and bought a tuxedo, complete with tails and a top hat. But the suit, which became his trademark outfit, was purposely ill-fitting, a thumbing of his nose to those who thought he should look, act, behave in some manner that was cross-grain to his own standards.
So all these many years later, here are eight of his best creations being justly honored for what they are alongside some of the finest vehicles on the planet. We could visualize Ed all decked out in his black tux, smiling down on the festivities.
The Rat Fink lives!
Big Daddy Roth Lives on at Amelia Island Photo Extra!