by Mike Mueller
Yellow Fang’s body came from Tom Hanna’s shop in San Diego. Beneath this banana’s skin is a Jim Davis chassis stretched out on a 153-inch wheelbase.
Unlike Dean Moon’s ever-present pair of clear and bright peepers, these ogling eyes were beady, bloodshot and bulging, and they belonged to a flea-bitten face not even a mother could love—not with that psychotic saw-toothed smirk. Remind you of someone?
If you were a T-shirt-wearing teen during the Sixties you can’t help but remember “Rat Fink,” yet another undying car-culture icon born in zanier yet simpler times. Mr. “R.F.” might still be found lurking about today, perhaps amongst a gang of graybeard bikers or maybe around a convention of custom-car crazies. Or in the company of anyone with a taste for the weird, wacky artistry of a weird, wacky man surely not of this world.
Here on Earth he was known as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (no relation to Don “Big Daddy” Garlits), an only-slightly-evil genius who, according to allegedly official records, was born in 1932 in Beverly Hills, California. Roth was an imaginative kid, and like any other card-carrying So-Cal teen at the time he grew up a hot rodder. He was always good with his hands, both mechanically and artistically, so instead of simply stripping down and hopping up an old Ford coupe he would pay every bit as much attention to outward appearances. Roth preferred his rods decked out in flashy flames or trendy scallops. Though he was no stranger to wrench or welder, painting and pinstriping became his priorities.
By 1956 Roth was in business for himself in south suburban L.A. charging $4 to stripe a “complete car,” compared to rival treatments from the likes of “The Baron,” Von Dutch, and Dean Jeffries, priced at $10 and $7, respectively. Ed then teamed up with Dutch (and young “Crazy Painter” Tom Kelly) for a couple years before leaving The Baron, Roth and Kelly paint shop in South Gate in 1959 to open Roth Studios in nearby Maywood. From his new digs Roth began big-time sales of his “weirdo shirts,” a somewhat demented art form he had discovered the year before.
As legend has it, Roth airbrushed some shirts for a local car club in 1958; these garments soon were seen in a magazine feature on the Southern California hot rod scene; and requests began flooding in from there. Most popular right out of the gate were Roth’s many cartoon monsters, they with their wagging tongues, jagged teeth and sometimes more than two wild, way-out eyes. Rat Fink joined Roth Studios’ mail-order lineup some time before 1963 (accounts vary) and wasted little time stealing the show.
American teens loved the fat, little rebellious rodent, undoubtedly because some immediately recognized the connection between his initials and a popular bit of early-Sixties surfing lingo. On Southern California’s too-cool-for-school beach scene “R.F.” referred to something equally repugnant, as well as totally unsuited for audiences 17 and younger. The “R” did stand for “rat,” but the “F” was short for a four-letter word heard all too often today spewing from the pie-holes of countless rappers and nationally televised, oft-intercepted quarterbacks. Back in 1962, “R.F.-ing” another surfer was akin to screwing him up, over or whatever, though most often from a practical joking standpoint. Fortunately, for Roth, comedian Steve Allen by then had also introduced T.V.-watchers to the term “rat fink,” so American parents (they too apparently being simpler then) from coast to coast generally were none the wiser.
Nor, apparently, were the folks at Revell, who marketed plastic Rat Fink model kits along with various 1/25-scale glue-together renditions of Roth’s most famous creations, these with four gleaming wheels and futuristic fiberglass bodies. Kooky customized dream machines represented Roth’s main claim to fame; he dreamt ‘em up, he did most of the work himself (at least early on), and he made sure they got on every magazine cover possible. Car Craft readers and model-car fanatics alike will never forget Outlaw, Beatnik Bandit, and Tweedy Pie, the first of many show-stoppers that salted away Ed Roth’s place in hot rodding Valhalla. Rotar, Mysterion and Road Agent, among others, followed later, as did various crazy custom bikes and trikes. It was Road Agent that starred (along with a tux-wearing Roth) in what easily qualified as Ed’s biggest publicity coup: a two-page-plus feature in Life magazine’s October 16, 1964, issue.
That article’s title, “Drag Racers’ Big Daddy,” was a bit misleading; Roth’s customs were built for show, not necessarily for go. They all did run, but the goal was never to see how fast; the main idea was to promote Roth’s shop and his rapidly expanding T-shirt line, which according to Life was bringing in $250,000 a year by 1964. As it was, driving most of them was not an easy task anyway, at least as far as adult-sized mere mortals were concerned. Confines beneath those clear plastic domes were tight, to say the least, and controls were often unfamiliar to earthlings. Perhaps Ed’s cars were meant to race only on his home planet, wherever that is.
One definitely active quarter-miler did carry Roth’s signature during the Sixties, however, if only as a favor to a cosmic comrade. Though the name on the body read “Ed Roth’s Yellow Fang,” this memorable top-fuel dragster actually belonged to George “Bushmaster” Schreiber, himself no slouch when it came to wackiness. A Montana-bred hot rodder who had moved down to Southern California to be were it was at, Schreiber had become a regular at Roth’s shop immediately after meeting Ed at a car show. A fast friendship developed, as did George’s interest in drag racing after he took in a strip show for the first time.
Schreiber started dreaming of his own fire-breathing fueler in 1963—dreaming because his imagination initially outdid his wallet. He wanted a fuel dragster, and he wanted one bad, but he also hoped to become the first driver to top 200 mph in a streamliner. Was that all? At the time the Bushmaster didn’t have the bucks to build a future, let alone a cutting-edge drag car—nor his own conception of a cutting-edge drag car.
George was the first to admit he was no engineer; his original vision for a long, pointed, sharp-edged dragster body reflected aesthetic inspiration, not aerodynamic. As he later told hot rod historian Pat Ganahl, author of CarTech’s Ed “Big Daddy” Roth: His Life, Times, Cars, and Art, “I wanted it to look like an arrow, because arrows go pretty straight.” Its cockpit was enclosed with a canopy, but all four wheels were fully exposed, as was the engine. Putting Schreiber’s design in the streamliner class was akin to calling the ‘62 Mets a baseball team—though they looked the part (in their major-league uniforms and all) they didn’t play it very well. Not at all.
Functional or not, Schreiber’s “streamliner” impressed Roth, so much so he eventually supplied much-needed construction funds as part of his personal “sponsorship.” He also took care of the artwork, which originally consisted of black-marker hand lettering on a bare-metal body tipped off at its sharpest point by a splash of yellow paint—thus Yellow Fang. Roth sprayed the entire car in bright yellow epoxy (with white lettering) after its first run, which came at Long Beach in May 1965.
The body itself came from Tom Hanna’s shop in San Diego. Beneath the skin went a Jim Davis chassis stretched out over a long, long 153-inch wheelbase. Reportedly Hanna’s bill was $5,000, Davis’ $2,400. Bill Demerest (of “Groundshakers” fame) put together Yellow Fang’s first powerplant, an .030-over 392 Hemi, but Schreiber took care of engine-building chores from there.
George also did all the driving, at least after veteran Connie Swingle had put Yellow Fang through its paces that first time out at Long Beach. Swingle managed a disappointing 175 mph before climbing out of the cramped cockpit complaining of obstructed vision. After seeing (or not) for himself, Schreiber cut a hole in the canopy, a quick-fix that apparently did little to help. Later the windscreen was left off entirely.
Schreiber campaigned Yellow Fang from coast to coast for about five years, winning here and there, hitting 207 mph along the way. He also took the radical rail to Australia as part of the “USA Olympic Drag Racing Team” tour in 1966, by which time it had been repainted metalflake gold after a bad engine fire at Carlsbad. Roth advised against the trip Down Under, fearing a financial flop, and he was right. The Bushmaster had to borrow $1,400 from Big Daddy to bring Yellow Fang back home.
Both Ed Roth and Yellow Fang were on the downhill slide as the Seventies dawned. Roth’s business was fading into the sunset, as were front-engine dragsters. Ed suggested that Schreiber “buy him out” and take his name off the car, which George did, though only a small fraction of Yellow Fang’s construction costs were reimbursed before Roth called the deal done. In place of the golden finish went a wild psychedelic scheme, courtesy of George Cerny.
What was once Yellow Fang was bought up along with other Ed Roth rides in the early Seventies by Jimmy Brucker for his “Cars of the Stars” museum in Buena Park, California. A decade later Brucker’s museum closed and his Roth collection moved east to Harrah’s in Reno. Following Harrah’s death, the Fang went to auction where then-zealous car collector (and Domino Pizza man) Tom Monaghan topped Don Garlits’ bid to take over ownership. Schreiber’s “streamliner” then made one more stop in North Carolina before Garlits succeeded in a second attempt to add this intriguing piece of drag racing history to his collection in Florida.
After initially being displayed with its Cerny paint job untouched, the Bushmaster’s dream dragster finally turned radioactive yellow again in 2003, this time at the hands of Garlits’ talented resto man, Ron Singleton. Though Ed Roth is no longer with us (he left this dimension in 2001), so much of his krazy, kookie legacy remains, including Yellow Fang, which can be seen today in Ocala in all of its original “weirdo” glory.
Be sure to wear your sunglasses. And your Rat Fink T-shirt
Big Daddy Roth was undoubtedly best known for his “Rat Fink” T-shirt artwork. Hot rodders and model-builders alike remember his many custom show cars, including the Outlaw, one of various Roth creations recreated in 1/24-scale plastic by Revell. (Courtesy Pat Ganahl)
Taken from Mike Muller's The Garlits Collection Published in 2004