Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Orbitron
The story of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Orbitron is as crazy and comical as Roth himself. From its height as the middle of maybe a dozen 1960s Roth show cars to becoming bail collateral leading to its disappearance in Mexico for more than 30 years, ultimately being rediscovered and restored with museum-like reverence and perfection; it's a wild and unanticipated Roth ride.
Ed Roth seemed to care little about his show cars after he was done with them, to the extent he once told me he wanted to cut one into little pieces to sell as key chains. He dismissed the Orbitron, saying it was a "failure" because 1) the engine was covered, 2) it was designed by a professional designer, Ed "Newt" Newton, and 3) it was finished just as "Beatlemania" swept the nation, diverting interest from cars. Yet over the years as the Beatles popularity grew he would build more cars designed by Newt-with their engines covered.
Newt is the artist behind most of the T-shirt monster art blowing out of Roth's Maywood, California, digs through most of the 1960s, and he designed or contributed to the design of other Roth cars including the Surfite, Wishbone, Bike Truck, and more. The Orbitron was his first assignment for Roth in February 1964, and they both set parameters from the beginning.
Says Newt, "I guess you could say Roth designed the Orbitron and I styled it. When I first saw it there was just a frame with a bunch of stuff piled on top, and he walked around the car waving his arms to indicate as he described what he wanted it to look like. I asked him where his idea drawings were, but he said he didn't have any-they were all in his head."
Roth's main idea or "gimmick" for the car was the round pod in front to house an asymmetric front ensemble with red/green/blue "electronic white" lights on the passenger side, and a conventional light on the driver side. Always inquisitive, Roth probably explored the red/green/blue basis for color due to Disney's Wonderful World of Color TV show, which sparked public interest in color TV when it debuted in the fall of 1961.
With the passenger compartment established behind the rear axle, Newt decided on a modified dragster look. Instead of an enclosed chute pack, the upswept body housed a single taillight made from red tinted plex. Roth wanted cycle fenders, but Newt designed integrated fenders "with a theme similar to the Beatnik Bandit."
Other suggestions from Roth included the conventional headlights further back on the body ("I think he wanted those for legal reasons." -Newt), the "bent antennae" spears much like those on the Road Agent-which ultimately were scrapped, and a hood scoop hiding the Chevy Tri-Power engine hooked to a cast-iron Powerglide he yanked from his daily-driver '55 Chevy.
Newt says Roth wanted this show car to be driveable, unlike previous efforts which were basically "pushers," hence the conventional drivetrain. But that's also the reason Roth wanted the engine covered. "He was actually embarrassed about that engine-Tri-Power was not as cool as six carbs or a blower," says Newt. "The more Ed got into building cars the more concerned he was about building them on a budget. The more parts he could use from a junk yard, finding sponsorship, or the more practical he could make them, the better."
Dirty Doug, Roth's sidekick for most of his car building antics, helped Roth create what the two Eds dreamed up. These early attempts at fiberglass hot rods were done by slathering solid plaster over a rough wood or cardboard armature. Fiberglass was laid over the plaster and ground smooth. With the plaster broken out, bodywork and paint were the final steps.