Ed Roth's Orbitron

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Ed Roth inside the Orbitron.
The Orbitron as it sat when it was found in Juarez in 2006
The Orbitron as it appeared after the restoration.

The Orbitron is a bubble top show car built by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth in 1964. The car was designed by Ed "Newt" Newton. Newt designed the Orbitron to look like a slingshot dragster with space age influences. The distinctive nose of the car incorporated a set of red, green and blue lights. The lights were intended to function like television tubes, which when illuminated together would create a strong white light beam. Dirty Doug and Dick Cook assisted Ed in the building process.

Under the hood, the Orbitron featured the engine from Ed Roth's own 1955 Chevrolet daily driver. The 283 motor was painted blue, and dressed up with Corvette valve covers and three chromed Stromberg 97's. The engine was hooked to a Powerglide two-speed transmission. The rear end came from a 1956 Chevrolet. The frame was hand made out of 2x4 inch rectangular tubes. The front of the frame featured a handmade four bar setup with a cross leaf spring on a suicide perch. Front axle was a dropped early Ford V8-60 tube axle with finned Buick drums and Lincoln brakes. Everything was chrome plated by Model Plating in Bell Gardens. The car ran on Astro slotted chrome wheels wearing single-groove Inglewood whitewall cheater slicks and Cal Custom fake knockoff caps.

The driver’s compartment was placed at the rear of the vehicle, with the driver sitting behind the rear wheels similar to the setup of a slingshot dragster. The car featured a Cragar steering wheel that was hooked to a 1940 Ford steering box. It also had a Dixco tach on the column, a pair of Stewart-Warner gauges mounted in the center console, a Hurst shifter, a Moon gas pedal and a TV mounted in the center console. The interior of the car was done by Joe Perez. Light blue fur was used in the compartment. The seat was a bench type with simple tuck and roll. The Bubble Top used on the Orbitron was blown by Acry Plastics. The bubble measured almost 64" from front to back, and a little over 57" from left to right.

The Orbitron was painted by Larry Watson of Watson's House of Style. The first time it was done in candy blue over white pearl. As the car got scratched in transport, it was only shown once in this condition. The second version of the car was also painted by Larry Watson of Watson's House of Style, this time in a secret formulation of a gold Murano with blue.

When the Orbitron debuted in September of 1964, the car turned out to be a failure at shows. Ed always felt that the failure of the car was due to the engine being hidden. He always regretted covering the engine. The fiberglass hood was raw inside, so it was kept closed, and the chromed and painted engine was never displayed. He also blamed the Beatles for the “failure” of the Orbitron saying, “the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and all model sales stopped. Guys got guitars instead o’ cars.”

Roth sold the car to fellow custom car builder and bubble-top king Darryll Starbird for $ 750.00 in 1967. Darryl had planned to lease the Orbitron from Big Daddy and use it in his own travelling car show. But Ed said that he would sell it to him for the lease price instead.

Gabe Gabriel of Duncan, Oklahoma remembers seeing the Orbitron as a young boy. The futuristic show car was displaye at a used car lot at the east end of the main street, and he went to see it often. "It was my first expose to a futuristic car and I thought it was beautiful, being about 14 years old at the time." Gabe remembers that it was in town for a few days only before it was gone.[1]

After Darryl, the car ended up in the hands of some introverted collector, a doctor in the state of Texas. The Orbitron was traded by the doctor to a guy for another project. This unknown owner got into some drug trouble and in turn traded it to his lawyer for his fees. In the seventies the car was owned by a local attorney named Sid Abraham and a bail bondsman named Victor Apodaca. Abraham’s Brother Eddie and his nephew, John Attel, took an interest in the car knowing about Roth and his show cars. John tried driving it to school, but the car didn’t run all that good. At one time he got stuck inside the car for over an hour and they had to break the bubble to get him out of the car.

Later on, the car was sold to a couple of guys in Mexico who planned to use it in a carnival. It was used in carnivals until 1991 when one of the owners was killed because he flaked on a drug deal.

Eventually, the car ended up in Juarez, Mexico parked in front of a sex shop, being used as a dumpster. The owner of the Adult Book store was the nephew of the carnival owner, and he had the Orbitron since 1991. The owner of the book store believed that his uncle had actually built the car but the only thing that the uncle had done to the car was to cut off the nose of the vehicle and put a radiator in it to drive it around the carnival grounds. The reason for cutting of the nose was to show all of the chrome work that was hidden. One version claims that the snout was removed to make the car look more like a T-Bucket roadster, another is that the nose was accidentally torn off when the owner attempted to tow the car by its bodywork.

In 2006 Michael Lightbourn found the car outside of the adult book shop. The car was fairly complete, but the acrylic bubble top and nose were missing. Michael hounded the family for over a year trying to buy the car. The owners of the book store didn't want to sell the car because of sentimental reasons. Michael convinced the owner of the book store that he was familiar with his uncle's car, and if he had sentimental feelings for the car, then why was it that he was allowing people to use it as a trash can? Michael then convinced the owner of the book store that he could restore the thing back to it's original condition.

Shortly after Michael acquired the car, he decided to sell it to Beau Boeckmann President of Galpin Auto Sports. Beau and Galpin Auto Sports were responsible for the restoration of the Orbitron. Beau's mission was to restore the car back to perfect condition without making it perfect. The taillights were sloppily placed by Roth, the bubble and fenders were off to one side. This was the way Ed built things, and Beau meant it was important to preserve these details. Among the people working on the restoration of the Orbitron was Ed "Newt" Newton. Newt designed the car in the first place with Roth, and helped out a lot with details in the restoration. Other people that contributed were Dave Shutten and Jimmy C who reproduced the missing nose section.

Larry Watson helped out with the painting of the restored version. Larry still had the secret formula filed in his archive under Roth. Gene Winfield loaned his paint booth for the paint job. Joe Perez did the interior of the restored version of the car.

The restoration of the Orbitron was completed during 2008 and the car was unveiled to the public at Galpin Auto Sports October 18, 2008.

Magazine Features

Car Craft September 1964

Video Archive

Ed Roth's Orbitron Rides Again





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