Individual expressions built from whatever happens to be disintegrating in your backyard, or your dad’s, or your uncle’s…
Hidden in the depths of the collector car hobby is a beast all its own. Built from the ground up from salvaged parts and random trinkets such as old tools, road signs, beer bottles and mailboxes, the possibilities are endless for the car most commonly known as a “rat rod.”
The cars are low, loud, chopped, unpainted and rusty. They sport giant rear tires, lots of carburetors and tall shifters with knobs ranging from keg levers to hand grenades. For better or for worse, they are works of scrap art on wheels, with much time invested and very little money involved. And what they lack in performance, frills and creature comforts, they make up for in personality, originality and spirit. Rat Rod magazine contributor “Porkstick” likes rats because, as he puts it, “I love paint. Great paint is expensive and is ruined every time by a door ding or some jerk who runs a stoplight to wreck it all. I like rats because one doesn't need to worry about paint being ruined or chipped. Most people clear a path.”
No Mistaking Them
There is a fine but distinct line between rat rods and hot rods. Josh Joyce from Village Customs explains, “Rat rodding isn’t defined by the rust or lack of parts. Rat rods are built from the leftover parts of other projects, pieces of metal that are taken from other common things, and in general they are made from what the builder has access to. If I can go to the scrap yard and find a ton of cheap tractor parts, my rat rod is going to be built of tractor parts.” But just because it’s in primer doesn’t mean it’s a rat. Be careful calling someone’s unfinished hot rod a rat rod — you could get an earful.
If you don’t like to get your hands dirty, then rat rods probably aren’t for you, because these cars are built, not bought. Big money cars do not exist in the rat rod world. Because they are built as cheaply as possible, long garage stays are out. If you are lacking certain skills, however, there are specialty garages that will help you out: Cornfield Customs of Loveland, Ohio; Roadkill Customs of Mesa, Arizona; and Village Customs Rat Rod Shop in Clayton, North Carolina, are all aces.
Frames can be built from the carcasses of cars and trucks, from the 1920s all the way through today’s modern production chassis. Chevrolet S-10 pickup frames are not uncommon, for example. If you are unable to find a car deemed rotted enough to sacrifice its chassis, there are other options: Build it from scratch out of 2x4 square stock steel, or purchase a chassis kit. Many rat rodders use truck cabs for their builds; they are easy to work with and involve less fabrication.
Engines, however, are the gem in a rat rod. They can be anything — again, whatever is cheap and easily accessible. Big-block Chevys, Hemis and Buick nail-heads are common. Many are finished off with a fabricated exhaust, massive intake or perhaps a monstrous blower.
As with everything else in the car hobby, rat rods are always evolving. They started as a revision of hot rodding from the late 1940s and early ’50s. “Modern day” rat rodding began in the late 1980s — back when the hot rod world was dominated by decked-out street rods. Many hobbyists were dumping five or six figures into a car, only to shy away from driving it on the road. Not every average Joe could afford the high-chrome trailer queens. Builders wanted a one-of-a-kind car they could drive, without worrying about a stone chip ruining their world. There was a need for a low-budget alternative to pristine street rods, and rat rods were the perfect rebellion. Some even have a mocking resemblance to their more polished counterparts.
Rat rod culture includes rock’n’roll, distinctive clothing, 1950s hairstyles and tattoos. There is also a growing number of people who don’t necessarily fit the “scene” or dress the part, but simply enjoy the cars for what they are — anti-trailer queens. Rat rods aren’t limited to any particular region, and new events are springing up in support of the cars and the culture. Clubs such as Rat City Rodz in Everett, Washington, hold annual shows. The Rat Rod Rumble at the Knoxville Dragstrip in Tennessee takes place each spring. In 2013, Division Tattoos of Hazel Park, Michigan, arranged the first annual “In Rust We Trust” anti-dream cruise during the well-known Woodward Dream Cruise. And increasingly, rats have begun showing up at more traditional shows like Back to the ’50s in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you hit a show, check out the engineering of these cars and the use of random nuts and bolts, repurposed parts, and old tools fabricated into items such as brackets, suspension pieces and steering components. Personal quirks can be discovered in every corner, and humor is everywhere: rubber rats holding umbrellas, zombie hula girls, and sayings such as “Rust is a color” or “It’s done when it runs.” Cartoon characters produced by the late Ed “Big Daddy” Roth — like the hot rod culture’s unofficial mascot, Rat Fink (aka the anti-Mickey Mouse) — are ubiquitous.
Above all, rat rods are built to be enjoyed and driven. They are a mechanic’s art form that allow each builder to think outside the box. Ben Klienfelter, who built a rat rod from a ’90s Chevrolet S-10, favors his rat rod over his restored muscle car. Parts-finding is a snap, but more importantly, he can enjoy it and be carefree. “It’s nice to be able to drive it and not worry about the mileage or expensive repairs,” he says. “I can park it without worrying about crazy drivers or shopping carts.”
Like other aspects of the classic car world, the rat rod scene isn’t only about the cars — it’s about the people involved. People who are happy to tell you about their builds. And since the majority of cars were built by the owners themselves, there is always a great sense of pride and accomplishment.
Rat rods are a great way to let loose and have fun. Many folks proclaim them a unique art form — call it drivable sculpture — while others thumb their noses. But they wouldn’t be rebel rods if everyone loved them. And this is one rebellion that isn’t going to end anytime soon.