Rat Fink at full throttle; image courtesy Sphinx Productions. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

After a long hiatus from the automotive scene, custom cars are making a comeback, mostly fuelled by television shows. Chip Foose of Overhaulin’ is handled like a movie star; the battling Teutuls of American Chopper are now in toy stores as action figures.

But those builders are the latest in a line descended from the backyard hot rodders of the 1950s, many of whom are in danger of being forgotten. One of them, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, comes back from obscurity with the release of Ron Mann’s 2006 film, Tales of the Rat Fink.

This Canadian film made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and is now available on DVD.

Born in 1932, Roth grew up in Bell, California, where his education consisted of flunking every subject save auto shop and art. Young men were coming back from the war, buying cheap old jalopies, dropping big engines into them, and taking them to the dry lakes to race. Roth was intrigued, and began building cars of his own. When he met painter and pinstriper Ken Howard, better known as Von Dutch, Roth was inspired to use his art training to paint cars and eventually open his own custom paint shop. Big Daddy was on the road to success.

Mann came up with the idea of the film in 1999, when he went to a “lowbrow” art gallery and saw some of Roth’s work; when he read Roth’s autobiography, he realized the man’s importance, both in cars, and in popular culture. Mann was already known for his documentary Grass, narrated by Woody Harrelson.

Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in a 2004 photo
Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann in a 2004 photo; photo by Lee Sheppard. Click image to enlarge

He started making his Roth film in 2000, interviewing other car customizers and planning a conventional “talking head” documentary. But when Roth died in 2001, Mann shelved the project, and instead took a trip to California with Harrelson, which became the basis of the movie Go Further.

Roth was still on his mind, though, and when he met Mike Roberts, a young animator straight out of art school, he decided that Roberts’ work would be a perfect fit for Rat Fink. Mann and his team came up with an innovative new documentary form, which they dubbed “animentary”, that works surprisingly well.

For all his fame, there is very little vintage footage of Roth: the movie contains almost all the team could find, including a rare interview as Roth works on a vehicle. So Mann and Roberts came up with a multimedia presentation that uses animation, photographs and film, interspersed with commentary about Roth and his work, all tied together with a narrator. It proves to be an excellent way to get around the lack of actual film on the subject; photographs appear three-dimensional and are often manipulated to look like a movie.

John Goodman performs the voice of Ed Roth in the movie
John Goodman performs the voice of Ed Roth in the movie; photo courtesy Sphinx Productions. Click image to enlarge

The commentary is supplied by talking cars; that could have gone either way, but it’s rather well done. Most of them are hot rods, including Roth’s vehicles. Their voices are supplied by such people as Jay Leno, Brian Wilson, Ann-Margret, Paul LeMat and the Smothers Brothers, and when they “talk”, their headlights flash, a trick Mann copied from the 1965 TV show My Mother The Car.

Roth himself is voiced by John Goodman, supposedly looking down from heaven as he narrates the film. Goodman sounds remarkably like Roth, as evidenced by an interview in the disc’s bonus features, but even more remarkable is the story. Roth met Goodman at a car convention in New Orleans, where the two spoke for some time; out of the blue, Roth said that if anyone ever made a film about him, he was sure Goodman would be selected to play him.

Throughout it all are cameos by the Rat Fink himself, an ugly cartoon character Roth said he created because he disliked Mickey Mouse. (There’s some controversy over whether Rat Fink may have been influenced by a character drawn by artist Stanley Mouse, known mainly for his Grateful Dead artwork; the film doesn’t touch on this.)

Ed Roth and Rat Fink
Ed Roth and Rat Fink; image courtesy Sphinx Productions. Click image to enlarge

Roth was an innovator. At a time when other builders were using lead to form variations on existing vehicles, Roth discovered a brand-new product called Fiberglas, which was lightweight and easily shaped. His first show car, the Outlaw, was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and in its first year on the show circuit, it took the top prize in every major North American car show.

Over the years, Roth turned out a garage full of unique creations: the Beatnik Bandit, Mysterion, Tweedy Pie, Orbitron, Surfite, and Rotar, a flying saucer that was supposed to hover on a cushion of air, but which broke a camshaft on its debut and injured five people in the crowd at a show.

Roth’s success seemed to be a result of the right product at exactly the right time. Toy models were becoming popular with children, and so Revell hired him to produce a line of models (many of which have been recently reintroduced). Roth also takes credit for inventing the “T-shirt with a message”: since it was too hot in California for car club members to wear jackets, they would get Roth to airbrush their club designs on shirts. Roth took it a step further, embellishing T-shirts with the Rat Fink and other characters, and selling them to the public.

Tales of the Rat Fink DVD
Tales of the Rat Fink DVD; image courtesy Sphinx Productions. Click image to enlarge

Toward the end of the film, Mann draws parallels between Roth’s work and the products he eventually influenced. Some seem to stretch a bit too far – Roth’s paints to Apple computers, the Surfite to the Smart car, or his monsters into Star Wars characters are questionable – but it seems that Matt Groening, who voices a PT Cruiser in the film, has verified that the Fink was the inspiration for his Bart Simpson.

The disc comes with several extras, including deleted scenes, theatrical trailer, a music video by Toronto band The Sadies, who provided the film’s music, an interview with Ron Mann (who appears as a talking car) and an art gallery. But two extras are worth the price of the disc by themselves, one of them being a relatively lengthy amateur interview with Roth.

The other is a home video, done in a garage, where some of the country’s best pinstripers lay down lines on Roth’s truck. First and foremost is Von Dutch himself, who paints “Rat Fink is back” on the hood, backwards, and completely freehand, without any guidelines – an incredible demonstration that even floors Roth. Frustratingly, it’s often out of focus and it’s far too short, but any car fan will be spellbound.

“Car fan” is the key to the whole film. It’s the story of Ed Roth, but it’s also a much wider history of cars, racing, car culture and car customizing, from the 1950s up until the present. Still, it may be too narrow for those who aren’t into cars and don’t put a lot of emphasis on them as objects of pop culture.

But for those with gasoline in their veins, Tales of the Rat Fink is a must-see. Edgy, fun, informative and just the right length, this is gearhead cinema the way it should be.

Tales of the Rat Fink, starring John Goodman, directed by Ron Mann
76 minutes, close-captioned, $21.98; Visit the Tales of the Rat Fink website.

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