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Manti's 10th Rat Fink reunion marks 50 years for wild-eyed, green mouse

Fans celebrate legacy of Ed Roth: counter-culture innovator, Mormon convert

By Ladd Brubaker

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, June 2 2012 7:57 p.m. MDT

Rat Fink statue

Ladd Brubaker

MANTI — More than 10 years ago before Ed Roth died, his wife promised him that she would carry on a legacy dear to his heart.

That legacy is a little green mouse who lives in a junkyard, has a huge mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth, twisted limbs and a tongue and eyes that his head can barely contain.

And so, through an Internet website, (www.ratfink.com), car shows and a yearly reunion in Manti, Rat Fink lives on. In fact, this year the pop culture icon that began in the ‘60s turns an almost respectable 50 years old. The reunion is also marking its 10th year.

“He loved Rat Fink so much because Rat Fink could do anything he wanted, he had no boundaries,” Ilene "Trixie" Roth said of her husband.

The annual reunion ran Thursday through Saturday in Manti, drawing hundreds of fans of the 1960s counter-pop culture icon and his gang of “Weirdos” — wild eyeball popping, tongue dragging, speed crazed, hot-rodding misfits. The junkyard gang popped up everywhere on T-shirts, lunch pail stickers, posters, model cars and more.

The gang of nearly-foaming-at-the-mouth caricatures was strange enough to frighten young children, scandalize proper adults, and fascinate and delight a generation of boys.

“Big Daddy” Ed Roth, a child of a German immigrant family, grew up in the heat of Southern California’s hoppin’ hot rod culture of the 1950s and 60s. He loved cars — figuring out how to take things apart and put them back together, albeit radically transformed — and he loved drawing.

His parents spoke German at home, so when Roth got to kindergarten, he had no idea what was going on. To keep a low profile and stay out of trouble, he sat at the back of the room and occupied himself by drawing. It became a lifelong love.

But cars called out to him as well. He bought his first when he was 12. The first thing he did was to “chop” it, Trixie Roth said. That means he lowered the roof and other parts to make the car lower to the ground.

His father told him, “Get that thing from my house. You don’t do that to a car.” Cars weren't meant to be cut up, his father believed. He couldn’t understand why his son would by a perfectly good car and then ruin it, she said.

Chopping cars led to building them. Roth was one of the first to create custom hot rod bodies from fiberglass. On his first try, as was his habit, he didn’t bother reading the directions. “He just started stirring (the fiberglass),” Roth said. “He put it out in the sun and it started to melt.”  

Undeterred, he tried again, only this time he read the directions. A sculpture piece on display at the reunion car show in Manti City Park Saturday was mostly a blue blob of melted fiberglass — a tribute to Roth’s early start, now the stuff of legend.  

Roth’s creations could be futuristic and innovative, as well. One of his designs sports a spaceship-like bubble glass window. He installed TVs and even a rear backing up monitor, just as some cars have today.

He was the first to create the “chopper” motorcycles, as well, Trixie Roth said. Ed would take Harley Davidsons that he’d picked up for cheap at police auctions, extend the front wheel way out, change the handlebars, pull down the seat — another counter-cultural icon born. For the lack of any books on how to create the choppers, Roth got a copy machine and printed his own.

The next step in Roth’s progression to legendary status came naturally. He began applying his natural artistic skills to decorating his motor-powered creations, his widow said. He fell in with a group of fellow travelers who created the art of pin-striping — painting thin, intricate lines of decorative detail on the body of a hot rod.

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