How to Build a Street Rod Part 1

Over the next few months, we’re going to provide monthly articles on how to build a street rod. Author and street rod builder Tara Baukus Mello gives us a rundown of how she got started, followed by the first thing you should know: the type of rod you want to build.

It’s been a long time since my father and I completed my ’32 Ford pickup, but I remember it clearly. The 18 months I spent toiling in the garage with Dad was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. There’s something very gratifying about spending hours sanding one body panel, repeatedly running your hands over it and feeling it becoming increasingly smooth under each stroke.

At times though, it’s frustrating beyond imagining. You’ll spend weeks waiting for the one part that will allow you to progress to the next level only to discover that it doesn’t fit the way you had hoped. Somehow, you find a way to make the part work, and you move on to the next step. Soon enough, you see progress: parts get repaired, then primered and then painted. Before you know it, you’re ready to start bolting things together.

As you embark on the journey of building your first rod, I hope that these articles will serve to give you plenty of ideas about how to create the street rod of your dreams.

What Type of Rod Should I Build?

Many different vehicles may come to mind with the term “street rod.” However, the true definition of a street rod is a pre-1949 vehicle (or a replica that has been manufactured to resemble one from 1948 or earlier) that has been modified from the manufacturer’s original design or has a body constructed from non-original materials. A wide variety of vehicles, built in a huge range of styles fall within that broad definition. Whether you decide on a Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Willys or some other make, it’s easiest to decide what type of rod to build by thinking about the era, the body style and the overall style of the rod. Here’s a look at each.

The Era

Rods can be broadly divided into two categories based on their eras: slender-fendered cars and fat-fendered cars. Though the years vary from one manufacturer to another, rods with slender fenders were generally built from 1928 to 1934. For many years, they were the only cars considered for rodding because they were smaller and lighter than the fat-fendered versions. Their lesser bulk also made them more suitable for racing, which was very much part of rodding in the early days of the hobby. Because they’re smaller, there’s less room for occupants and luggage than in their fat-fendered counterparts.

Fat-fender cars were generally built from 1935 to 1948 and are substantially larger, making them good candidates if you want some extra room for additional people or luggage. One interesting difference between the two vehicle eras is that it’s considered perfectly acceptable (and to some, more desirable) to build a slender-fender rod without fenders and running boards, which is known as a “highboy.” With fewer parts to source, losing the fenders often translates into less expense. Fat-fendered rods, however, are almost always built with full fenders and running boards.

The Body Style

Within the range of street rods, there are numerous body styles. Although reproductions have been made from many of these styles, in some cases, your only option is to source an original steel body, which can sometimes be quite costly. If your goal is to build a Ford, numerous manufacturers build reproduction bodies in almost every style. You can even choose a “phantom” body – one that an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) never made – such as the phantom 1937 Ford three-window coupe that echoes the original 1937 styling and has become increasingly popular with rodders. Reproduction Chevrolet bodies are also widely available, though not in as many years and models. Although it may be a challenge to find reproduction bodies for other brands, there are some out there.

The two most popular body styles for rods are coupes and roadsters. Coupes have two doors, solid roofs and are typically called “three-window” or “five-window,” which refers to the number of windows (not counting the windshield). Coupes usually only have a front seat and either a trunk or a rumble seat located in the open air behind the rear window.

Roadsters are basically similar to a coupe of the same model year, except they don’t have a stationary top or side glass. Instead, roadsters have a soft folding top, a removable hard top or no top at all. In place of side window glass, roadsters originally had side curtains that zippered or snapped into place to keep out the elements. However, many rodders build cars that don’t have any curtains. Later-model rods with drop-tops had roll-up windows; these cars are called cabriolets or convertibles.

One body variation that is similar to a roadster – it doesn’t have side windows or a solid top – is a T Bucket. Based on the Ford Model Ts produced in the 1920s, these rods have a bucket-like space that holds two people, plus a very short pickup bed. T Tubs are an extended version with a rear seat and no pickup bed. Track Ts are T Buckets with a modified nose to make them more aerodynamic. Rodders originally built these for racing in the ’40s and ’50s, but today people build them because they like the look.

Sedans come in many configurations and usually have front and rear seats, which makes them great family rods. Those with a front seat only have a large cargo space in the rear and are called sedan deliveries because they were typically used as delivery vehicles when new. Sedan deliveries only have front side windows; there’s a metal panel where the rear side windows are located on the sedan version. They also have a rear door for easy access to the cargo area. Yet another variation is the Phaeton or Touring car, which is a sedan with a folding top, but no side windows. Like a roadster, a Touring car uses side curtains to keep the elements at bay. 

Some Ford sedans have two doors, called Tudors, while others have four doors, called Fordors. Many early sedans do not have a trunk and instead have cargo space behind the rear seat, similar to today’s sport utility vehicles. Depending on the model year, the cargo area can be quite small or practically non-existent. Later-model sedans usually have a trunk that is accessed from a rear hatch, just like modern-day sedans. These vehicles offer the greatest amount of passenger and cargo space for rodders who need the flexibility to carry both people and stuff.

Pickups are pretty straightforward. Depending on their width, they seat two or three people and have a pickup bed for storing cargo. The important thing to remember about pickups is that there were no extended-cab versions prior to 1949, so any street rod pickup with rear cab storage or a back seat is a phantom. Some larger commercial trucks, such as cab-overs, had extended cabs. These larger cabs appeal to some rodders, who add a pickup or a flat-bed to create phantom trucks.

By their definition, street rods are meant to be one-of-a-kind vehicles. That means that just about anything goes in terms of style. If you want some wild combination of colors or styles, go for it – that’s how many professional rod builders have found their niches.

All About the Statement

As you think about what kind of “statement” you’d like to make, it may help to think about rods in several broad categories of styles. Traditional rods, also called nostalgic rods, are built in the style of the rods built in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. If the bodies are modified, they are done in a way that echoes the modifications commonly done in that era – like chopped (a portion of the upper body is removed to reduce the window height) or channeled (the body is lowered over the frame by raising the floor). Sometimes these rods have only primer (called suede) instead of finish paint, and often they run painted steel wheels and use a period engine such as a flathead Ford. Rodders who mix nostalgic details with styling or components from today build “newstalgic” rods. Resto-rods are rods that don’t have any body modifications but contain modern-day components, such as a late-model engine or running gear.

The most popular rods are contemporary, or hi-tech, rods. These rods are built with modern day engines, suspensions, gauges and other parts. They’re painted in the popular colors of today and sport wheels similar to what you’d see on a modern vehicle. Body modifications can include many that were done in the early days of rodding, but they can also include modern touches, such as removing the exterior door handles and replacing them with solenoids that remotely “pop” the doors.

Rat rods are the newest term to define a street rod style. Sometimes, these cars refer to vehicles built only with parts from swap meets or junkyards, using old technology that can make them unsafe. Other rat rods simply look rough but are actually built with modern parts that are hidden, making them safe and more comfortable with features like air conditioning. Rat rods are rarely painted or have completed bodywork. Upholstery is often limited to seats covered with a blanket and bare metal floors.

No matter what make and model you decide on or the “statement” you choose to make with your rod, the most important thing to remember is to build what you like. There’s no rule that says your street rod has to be a Ford or a Chevy. In fact, DeSotos, Nashs, Buicks and Cadillacs also make terrific rods, because they represent the epitome of street rodding: the idea of building something different.

Next month, we take a look at “Where to Start” after you have chosen your street rod style.

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