"Rat Rods" Real Or Just A Copy Of The Real Thing?

Rat rods are popping up all over the place in my region. I travel between 4 states quite frequently and I see these creations a lot. I was under the impression that a “rat rod” was just a vehicle that was completed enough to drive until it was finally finished. That’s the way my rat rods were back in the day even though I didn’t call them that back in the day. I always followed the same formula when I was restoring a vehicle way back when. I made sure the body and frame were rust free then rebuilt the engine if needed. I always left the transmission rebuild, if needed, to someone else because I’ve never been a transmission guy other than dropping the pan and replacing the filter and fluid. As soon as I got the engine fired up and tuned in…I started driving it while working on the interior and paint. Depending on my financial situation at the time…I might drive it that way for many, many months.

These new rat rods seem to be unfinished and the owners have no intention of never completing them. They all have the satin flat black paint and look unfinished until you take a closer look. I know of one guy in our town who has a 1949 “3” Chevy window pickup truck with satin flat black paint, a blown 350 engine with a narrowed rear end and tubbed out with wide rear tires and wheels. He has been driving this pickup around here for over 20 years. I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago right after he added the blower and rear end. He told me that his rod was now completed and it was in the condition that he wanted so he could give it to his son when he could no longer drive. The guy is about 50 years old so his son may be in for a long wait. My aunt still drives every day at age 85 (she looks 75) and has no intentions of ever giving up her independence.

I like these vehicles but they are far removed from the ones that I used to drive. I drove them because I needed to get back and forth to work while leaving our new vehicle at home for the wife. The cars and trucks I drove while working on them were fairly reliable but I would never trust them to drive across the country. I saw a rat rod in a local supermarket parking lot that was from Oregon. It didn’t look like it could make it across town much less across the country. The owner said that he had no problem driving that far because of the fact that the running gear came out of a 2010 model Camry which included air conditioning. The only air conditioning that I ever had in one of my restorations was when I rolled down the window. I complimented him on his ride which looked like a cross between a 1930’s car and a truck and he went on his way…smoothly and quietly. It was a rolling contradiction but the guy and his wife seemed satisfied that they owned it. I always enjoyed my creations even though they were instantly recognized for what they were.

No, rat rods are not “vehicles completed just enough to drive until finished.” That definition could apply to any car being restored. Here’s a discussion of the history of rat rods and terminology.

Unfortunately most of what you see these days are “crap rods” as Pat Ganahl so eloquently calls them in the Wikipedia article.

Whether you agree or not, this quote is funny too:

"Hot rodder and freelance journalist Brad Ocock said of the rat rod trend: “There’s a huge difference between rat rod and beater. A beater has potential. A rat rod is something someone threw together to make a statement, and usually that statement is, ‘I don’t know how to weld. I had a bunch of crap lying around and realized there was enough to put together a car but didn’t want to put any effort into it.’”[19]

I think “rat rods” are a reaction to the high dollar billet street rods built by Boyd Coddington, Foose, Buttera and the like. Its a way to get kids into the hobby the way it started after WWII. They build it to their budget so they can drive and show and hang out. The movement seems to embrace a 50’s type culture; Rockabilly music, 50’s dress with the more recent addition of extreme tattoos and wild hair color for the girls. It is interesting to see a guy decked out in a white tee shirt, Levi’s and a DA haircut with his girl dressed in a poodle skirt with purple hair up in a beehive, both with full sleeve tattoos.

I like the creativity shown in some of the cars. Studebaker body with Cadillac running gear, Lincoln brakes, whatever works. Some aren’t painted. They leave bare metal, they sand through layers of paint to show the colors, they leave the rust as they found the car. Lately I’ve seen some trying to fake the patina and add high dollar parts. Not really in the spirit of the movement. I like the movement and hope it spreads.

In the early part of the last century, kids in rural areas made cars by cobbling together whatever they could find, old model T’s mixed with various parts left in fields and barns everywhere and without the benefit of money. I believe most of the rat rods are pretty much the same thing. Kids don’t realize they’re reinventing the past, but IMHO they are.

Most of the rat rods I’ve seen really aren’t safe. But, hey, I was a kid once too.

I agree with all the comments so far. I have have seen rat rods that I would love to own and others that I would tow directly to the scrap yard if they somehow fell into my possession.

I really love rat rods. Sure some are uglier than others, but one of the coolest things about them to me is the limitless imagination and ingenuity the builders have. There are no rules, and they’re meant to be driven. Its freedom in building, no adhering to “correct” this or that. Of course some are more appealing than others but I have a lot of respect for that style.

Rat rod owners these days seem to want the body to look like it just came from the junk yard, and with functional interiors that don’t have leather interiors with color coordinated piping and wool carpets. Something you couple smoke a cigarette in and not worry about where the ashes fell. Other than that, the drive train and suspension could be on par with the resto-rod crowd.

There are completely different levels of rat rods.

One is where the guy just gets a junk car and gets it running. Total garbage if you ask me.

Another is a guy really spends some time restoring a vehicle. First he gets it mechanically sound…then starts with the cosmetics. Right after it’s mechanically he starts to drive it until he can afford to restore it cosmetically.

The third type I’ve seen is someone who mechanically gets it running…then purposely makes it look like a pile of cr*p. Mainly does this for street racing. You look at the cosmetics…and pay no attention to rest until you see nothing put it’s tail lights getting farther and farther away from you.

I much prefer rat rods that can be driven every day, even in the rain, to show cars that are so polished and detailed that the owners don’t dare drive them on the street except for an occasional parade. I’ve been to one or two custom car and rod shows and I can’t help but wonder out loud if the engines in some of these show cars have ever been started.

The rat rods that I mostly see are done very well mechanically but kept a little faded and worn so you don’t have to worry about leaving it in a parking lot. A co-worker has a VW bug with some custom touches but has left the paint alone so if it gets a few more dings, why worry about it. There’s a place for the shiny hot rods but as long as it is mechanically safe and reliable, why not?

I’d love an older pickup with a few battle scars that runs and drives reliably. But you can still take it to Home Depot without worry.

You own a rat rod. A pristine show car owns you.

Then there’s the $200K version:

Same Idea but with a much bigger budget. Then there’s the guys who will take a new car and make it look like a rat rod (sand the paint down to make it look aged and abused)
At least one late model camaro received the treatment