Scratch 'n' Sniff

I’ve mentioned Ed Roth several times the course of this without really telling you about him. And I want to, because he, more than any other of the customizers, has kept alive the spirit of alienation and rebellion that is so important to the teen-age ethos that customizing grew up in.  He’s also the most colorful, and the most intellectual, and the most capricious. Also the most cynical. He’s the Salvador Dali of the movement—a surrealist in his designs, a showman by temperament, a prankster. Roth is really too bright to stay within the ethos, but he also stays in it with a spirit of luxurious obstinacy. Any style of life is going to produce its celebrities if it sticks to its rigid standards, but in the East a talented guy would most likely be drawn into the Establishment in one way or another. That’s not so inevitable in California.

I had been told that Roth was a surly guy who never bathed and was hard to get along with, but from the moment I first talked to him on the telephone he was an easy guy and very articulate. His studio—and he calls it a studio, by the way—is out in Maywood, on the other side of the city from North Hollywood, in what looked to me like a much older and more run-down section. When I walked up, Roth was out on the apron of  his place doing complicated drawings and lettering on somebody’s ice cream truck with an airbrush. I knew right away it was Roth from pictures I had seen of him; he has a beatnik-style beard. “Ed Roth?” I said. He said yeah and we started talking and so forth. A little while later we were sitting in a diner having a couple of sandwiches and Roth, who was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, pointed to this huge tattoo on his left arm that says “Roth” in the lettering style with big serifs that he uses as his signature. “I had that done a few years ago because guys keep coming up to me saying, ‘Are you Ed Roth?’”

From The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline BabyTom Wolfe, 1965


Auto-Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

David Gartman

The art and science of car design is a cynical crock of sheet metal, a sucker’s game of chrome, a stylist’s laughing deceit, a jellybean for the sweet tooth of America’s auto-buying public. Eighty years of designers and their model trends are explored here, from the clay-model magic of Harley Earl (at GM in the ‘20s), to the customizers’ tricks appropriated by John DeLorean (with GM in the early ‘60s). Example: A new form of technological expressionism was advanced by designer Bill Porter (GM, late ‘60s): “I was interested in exploring more profound fusions of technology and design.” This idea found expression in the ‘68 GTO, which was “free of chrome clichés but nonetheless bore the look of advanced jet aircraft in its subtly sculpted forms.” The look was developed further in the 1970 Pontiac Firebird, to which Porter gave “not only an aircraft feel but also a ‘muscular look,’ as if the skin of the car were forced out by the mechanical strength underneath.” Auto styling is all looks and sex-fantasy—but we love it. Detroit’s pencilpushers give us a rolling chance at the American Dream. GR

Publisher: Routledge
Paperback: 264 pages

Barris Kustoms of the 1950s

George Barris and David Fetherston

Kings of Kustom Kulture: See Nick Matranga’s chopped coupe, painted royal maroon with a gold iridescent finish. Von Dutch’s pinstriping on a flamed Ford woody wagon. The “Mandarin,” nosed and decked with an oval grille shell and frenched Ford headlights. Kool Kars. In the ‘50s you could see their work in movies like High School Confidential and Hot Car Girl. Later, in the ‘60s, you could see Barrismobiles on TV’s The Green Hornet and Batman. “Sam and George Barris… epitomized customizing, and in the ‘50s they were at the leading edge of their craft. This portfolio of their work in that lively decade lets you examine the range of their creativity. They produced vehicles that were shapely and subtle, and also created cars whose customizing was colorful, loud, and extreme.” Fully featured—in color—are the Barris brothers’ legendary kustoms including the “Golden Sahara,” a remade 1953 Lincoln Capri, complete with television in the front seat and a full bar in the back. It was the Barris version of a GM Dream Car, and Detroit had to take notice—they were being upstaged by “a bunch of guys in California.” GR

Publisher: Classic Motorbooks
Paperback: 128 pages

Car Culture

Frances Basham and Bob Ughetti

This book about car culture hails from England, which gives it a certain objectivity. It also means that European cars are placed in a historical context. Included is a lot of design history and its relation to consumer priorities: “But even here, and perhaps above all here, logic and necessity play only a small part. The architectural dictum that form should follow function rarely entered the thoughts of most car designers until very recently. Their job was, and is, to stimulate and satisfy desire; to express an ideal of proportion and line, and to provide a symbol of the aspirations of the age.” Roland Barthes called their work the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: “The supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as purely magical objects.”
A large part of the text is devoted to customizers and hotrodders and their impact on design. Even the Ant Farm’s “Cadillac Ranch” logically works its way into the mix. We are introduced to the world of specialized hotrodding publications and the influence of icons like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Custom-car shows are described: “The quest for show points reached ludicrous heights. Cars were set on clouds of cotton wool, bathed in sympathetic light and finished in such extravagant detail that they had to be towed to the venues.” The role of the car as an image in advertising and movies is scrutinized, and the automobile in fine art is also given its due, including examples by Warhol, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein and Dali. But this very well-conceived text takes a back seat to the copious stroke-book quality photographs. Being caught actually reading the text is akin to claiming that you’re only reading that issue of Playboy for the articles. SA

Publisher: Plexus
Paperback: 144 pages

Confessions of a Rat Fink

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth

During the “lost years” between the initial burst of fame of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and the rediscovery of his work by the world of fine art as “Kustom Kulture,” Roth became a Mormon and worked for 10 years in the sign department at Knott’s Berry Farm. These facts and many other surprises await the reader of this 1992 autobiographical memoir, which isn’t chronological and is written in an idiosyncratic “hep speak” reminiscent of Lord Buckley. Mr. Roth is ultimately a decent fellow. He likes his grunge with a “G” rating. His cartoon mascot Rat Fink is no Fritz the Cat, despite his grooming and other “unsavory” habits. What Big Daddy loves most of all is cars—customizing cars and showing them off. He respects women. He dislikes loud music and air conditioning. He digs computers. He’s a free spirit but a good role model (although he alludes to a past in which this wasn’t always the case). He hasn’t let success go to his head. He’s made business mistakes. He’s quick to acknowledge the contributions of others. Given the somewhat specialized presentation of the information that this book contains, it is probably best enjoyed by the true aficionado. It contains many illustrations and a special fold-out Rat Fink poster. SA

Publisher: Pharos
Paperback: 169 pages

Custom Cars of the 1950s

Andy Southard and Tony Thacker

“Custom Cars of the 1950s lets you see how some of America’s most innovative customs looked as they rolled out of the shops. Andy’s photos include rare shots of the early East Coast custom scene and views of trendsetting West Coast customs being built and painted. Radical grills, louvered hoods, chopped tops, pinstripes galore, and characters like Ed Roth, George and Sam Barris, and Dean Jeffries. And there’s Andy himself, laying down smooth pinstripes when he’s not behind the camera.” 130 photographs, most of them color.

Publisher: Classic Motorbooks
Paperback: 128 pages

The GM Motorama: Dream Cars of the Fifties

Bruce Berghoff

General Motors’ Motorama was a trade show which toured numerous major cities in the U.S. between 1953 and 1961. It grew out of a 1949 event staged at the Waldorf-Astoria that was billed as “Transportation Unlimited.” From the very beginning, these shows had an obsessive quality about them. When it was discovered, for instance, that the Waldorf’s freight elevator wouldn’t hold a full-size automobile, crews were called in to disassemble and reassemble cars for display on the second floor. By the time these exhibitions had evolved into the touring Motorama shows, it was as if the presenters were attempting to transport the whole of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland from city to city and staffing it with Broadway-style casts and circus performers. This is one of America’s great, unique, contributions to the mass psyche of the arts. Elements of stagecraft, lighting, choreography, storytelling and multimedia effects collided into a curious spectacle the likes of which have yet to be matched. This book is a visual feast. The cars which starred in these pageants frequently resembled spaceships on wheels. The giddy enthusiasm of the performers is set into utterly moderne pavilions. Every detail from the cantilevered platforms to the bursting-atom light fixtures conveys an optimism about “things to come” that verges on hysteria. Besides the auto enthusiasts who will immediately respond to the dream cars featured here, there is a larger audience of sociologists, set and stage designers, and futurists who will find a lot between the covers of this book. SA

Publisher: Classic Motorbooks
Paperback: 136 pages

Heroes of Hot Rodding: Legend and Folklore of the Men and Machines That Sparked the Flame of Hot Rods and Custom Cars

David Fetherston

“The life stories of legendary hot rodders who had the vision and skill to turn cars into speed machines and custom classics are captured here, in a series of more than 30 profiles on the real shapers of the sport of hot rodding. Their influences, their grand plans, their great successes and even their humbling failures are chronicled in this book, which contains more than 250 historic photos, many from their personal collections. Heroes of Hot Rodding traces the backgrounds of speed kings such as Craig Breedlove, Don Garlits, Bill and Bobby Summers, Ed Iskendarian, Vic Edelbrock and ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo. The book also charts the careers of great customizers such as Dean Jeffries, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Joe Bailon, Tony Nancy, Gene Winfield and Bill Cushenberry… Included in the profiles are descriptions and histories of their great creations, including cars like Joe Bailon’s ‘Miss Elegance,’ Dean Jeffries’ ‘Manta Ray,’ Don Garlits’ ‘Swamp Rat,’ Andy Brizio’s ‘Instant T,’ the Meyers ‘Manx,’ Art Chrisman’s ‘Hustler,’ the Devin sports cars, Craig Breedlove’s ‘Spirit of America’ and Bill Cushenberry’s ‘Silhouette.’”

Publisher: Motorbooks Intl
Paperback: 192 pages

High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-1990

Robert C. Post

“The fury produced by an engine on a big load of nitro is a sensation one cannot begin to convey in words,” says former drag racer and now Smithsonian Institution curator Robert C. Post. A first-generation Southern California hotrodder, Post has packed High Performance with historical detail and personalities like “Pappy” Hart, who opened the first commercial drag strip, the first professional drag-racing star “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and his Swamp Rats; and female drag-racing superstar Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney. He analyzes the American addiction to speed and presents drag racing as a “new theater of machines.” Covers drag racing phenomena from aerodynamics, the Bonneville Salt Flats and the land speed record to the widespread kid-appeal of Hot Wheels and Mattel model kits. SS

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University
Hardback: 417 pages

Hot Rods and Cool Customs

Pat Ganahl

An excellent, thick little guide to the history and world of hot rods and custom cars. Crammed with 277 color photographs and accompanying text that take us from the “stripped and channeled” ‘28 Model A roadsters of the early ‘40’s to elaborate early ‘60s creations. Car freaks, artists and connoisseurs of pop culture will consider this book a must-have for the killer pix alone. The author does a fine job explaining why the hot rod is a “uniquely American phenomenon.” Also included is a really cool and potentially useful glossary that explains the difference between an “A-Bone,” a “beater,” a “T-bucket” and a “street rod.” CS

Publisher: Abbeville
Paperback: 336 pages

The Illustrated Discography of Hot Rod Music, 1961-1965

John Blair and Stephen McPartland

Hot rod music from 1961 to 1965, with a massive amount of photos. Every page has some cool poster, 45 label or LP cover of that era. All the popular bands of the time are included: Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, the Hondells, Davie Allen and the Arrows, et al.—as well as obscure favorites like Jekyll and Hyde’s “Dracula’s Drag” b/w “Frankenstein Meets the Beatles.” Contains a huge index and bitchin’ glossary of hot rod slang terms. This book illustrates the overlap of the surf and hot-rod genres. DW

Publisher: Popular Culture Ink
Hardback: 184 pages