On Friday, January 31, 2020 the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky celebrated the grand opening of a new exhibit with a ribbon cutting ceremony, bringing together icons of the 1950’s and 60’s ‘Kustom Kar Kulture.’
“One might ask why the NCM has devoted a year-long exhibit to the art and influence of Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth,” said Dr. Sean Preston, President and CEO of the Museum. “While our Museum was established 25 years ago to be the caretakers and collectors of Corvette history, we understand that you cannot tell the story of the early days of Corvette without telling the story of the Ford Thunderbird. You cannot tell the story of Corvette Racing without talking about the Cobra, the Viper and the Ford GT. And you cannot tell the story of Corvette design without talking about those who influenced the designers, which brings us to Ed Roth.”
Considered a renaissance man, Roth became a central figure in the 50’s and 60’s Kustom Kulture era of automobile history, becoming a cultural phenomenon himself in the process. With no formal education in engineering, he designed and created some of the era’s most iconic cars, many of which are displayed as part of the exhibit. The Revell model company would turn Roth’s car creations into toy model kits that would sell millions of units. One car, ‘Tweedy Pie,’ sold over 11 million units alone. When Hot Wheels emerged on the toy scene, they crafted a series of 16 cars that would include Roth’s ‘Beatnik Bandit.’ Both cars can be seen on display at the National Corvette Museum.
‘Rat Fink,’ a cartoon character created by Roth, later became the car culture mascot and would go on to introduce a generation of young people to the amazing world of automobiles. Some of those young people would grow up to build their own tributes to Roth, creating some of the amazing cars that can be seen in the exhibit.
“One of my jobs at the National Corvette Museum is to collect Corvette history on camera so we can save those stories and use them to educate, entertain and inspire others,” said Bob Bubnis, Curator of the exhibit. “Back in July 2014 I recorded Tom Peters life story. I asked Tom, ‘what caused you to want to draw cars, what were your influences?’ and he said, ‘Ed Big Daddy Roth.’ When his excitement grew talking about it, that’s when the idea for this exhibit began.”
As a teenager, Peters was an aspiring car designer, mimicking Roth’s t-shirt advertisements. He would later become the design team leader for the Corvette C6, C7 and 2020 Stingray mid-engine Corvette.
“This exhibit was specifically designed to bring back the memories of our older guests, but along with that, we hope to ignite the imagination of young people and challenge them to harness, cultivate and believe in their own natural abilities as Ed Roth and Tom Peters did,” said Preston.
Peters, who served as co-curator for the exhibit, is excited for others to share in his passion.
“This brings me right back, coming into this fabulous exhibit like I’m 13 years old again. As I look around here, all the wonderful artwork and all these cars together for the first time ever in a setting like this, there’s something for everyone, adult and young.”
“I don’t know if Ed Roth realized the extent of his impact over the years. I can tell you many designers that I’ve talked to over the course of my career, we have that discussion of where you began, what inspired you,” said Peters. “So many will say ‘I remember drawing those Rat Fink cars and building those models.’ The impact has been an incredible phenomenon within the industry. It’s such a timeless effect. This exhibit will inspire young people to get involved, whether it is with cars or some other avenue for a career. It really speaks to a level of heart-felt creativity and an explosive way of generating new ideas to rock the world, and rock the boat. I’m really excited about that.”
Beau Boeckmann of Galpin Auto Sports and owner of many of the original Roth cars shared what made Roth unique. “What I love about Roth, he was incredible and did things on his own terms. He didn’t care so much about what others thought, and that’s what really made him great. He took the automobile and turned it into artwork in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
Boeckmann credits Roth and other legends including Robert Williams and Ed Newton for creating the Kustom Kulture. “It was a whole movement for all of us to enjoy. It inspired generations, not only to build custom cars, but to do fine artwork, and to do things that are a little outlandish, pushing the envelope, and maybe upsetting our parents a little bit. Ed loved what he did, and he did what he loved.”
Roth’s widow, Ileene, shared that experiencing the exhibit was like three of four Christmases on top of each other. “It is amazing to have it all come together in this beautiful facility. The talent is just dripping when you see everything. There has never been a more humbling experience for me than being here and seeing what they have done with Ed’s things. I know that my sweetie would just totally appreciate how they have displayed it. It wasn’t about himself it was about sharing his life with others.”
‘Car-Toon Creatures, Kustom Kars and Corvettes: The Art and Influence of Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth is now open in the National Corvette Museum’s Exhibit Hall and runs through April, 2021. Access to the exhibit is included with regular Museum admission. The Museum is open daily, 8am-5pm CT and is located at I-65, Exit 28 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“After over a year of working on this project, it was a thrill being able to share it with the world,” said Bubnis. “I’d like to again thank Ilene Roth for getting behind this from the beginning and loaning us the precious artifacts we’d need to tell the Ed Roth story; Beau Boeckmann for his enthusiastic willingness to share so many of the original Roth cars with us and our guests; Dave Shuten for his devotion to the task of restoring these cars to a level of historic perfection that only someone who loved them would do; Rob Palmer and Gary Reid for sharing the cars that Roth inspired them to create; The Petersen Automotive Museum for loaning us “The Outlaw”: the National Automobile Museum for letting us display the “Beatnik Bandit”; the licensed artists who gave of their talents to be a part of this; the Museum team who worked so hard on this to make it as special as it had to be; and Tom Peters, design team leader of the last three generations of Corvette, for co-curating with us. This exhibit was designed to be a fun, educational, and inspiring look at the impact that one person had on the automotive world. We hope to bring back the memories for some and create new memories in another generation.”
Discovery Channel filmed the exhibit opening for a new series featuring Galpin Auto Sports titled ‘Driven’ slated to air late winter. As part of the ceremony Roth’s ‘Wishbone’ car was revealed after being restored by Galpin. That episode is slated to air in March 2020.