Low Buck Trucks

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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

A Builder’s Guide to Rat Rod Pickups.

Low buck truck might be a more apt description, but “rat rod pickup” is the name that stuck. While the “rat” part of the name probably offends some owners, others revel in the anti-establishment, rebel rodder connotation. Regardless of what you call them, rat rod trucks offer a lot of bang for the buck.

The low-dollar, “more creativity than cash” approach to building these trucks harkens back to the early days of hot rodding. Early rodders were the original recyclers, and today's rat rod builders are continuing that tradition. They take parts other builders ignore, then chop, cut, shorten, stretch, weld, mix and match them until they have highly individualistic rods. This fact alone probably irritates the mega-buck street rod builders.

Hot rods are supposed to be fun, a fact the trophy-chasing crowd seems to have forgotten. Rough is a plus when building a rat rod pickup (or any type of rat rod). The well-worn, “ridden hard and put away wet” nature of old trucks makes them an ideal canvas. Instead of spending huge sums to massage an old body back to as-new condition, most rat rods are left as found.

Rat rod pickups cover a wide spectrum of sizes and styles. The following are an overview of what to expect if you decide to travel the rat rod pickup route.

Raw Material

The sheer volume of raw material is one of the best reasons to build a rat rod pickup. Old trucks were less apt to be discarded than cars. Back before pickups became luxury vehicles with uncovered trunks, they  were designed to be rugged, Spartan beasts of burden. A heater or passenger side windshield wiper was considered a luxury item. Given their sturdy, functional designs, trucks were literally driven into the ground. Many old trucks were simply left where they stopped running, which is why there is so much good raw material.

These discarded old trucks may have a blown engine or any number of terminal mechanical maladies, but the cab and frame are the most desirable elements. Bad floorboards aren’t much of a problem, because channeling the cabs over the frame rails is a very popular modification. The old floors need to be removed anyway. Chopped tops are also very popular, so damaged or missing glass isn’t a problem, either. New glass is required after a top chop.

Brands don’t make much difference. Because of their high production numbers, Ford and Chevy/GMC trucks dominate the scene. Less prolific brands such as Dodge and International make great choices because of their styling differences. Beyond the better-known brands are other car/truck makers like Studebaker, Hudson, Plymouth, and Willys. Of course, there are also the big commercial makes like Diamond T, Reo, Mack, and White.

Half-ton and ¾-ton trucks are most commonly used, but some rat rods have been built from larger trucks. They can either be built in their original scale or cut down. On the smaller and older side of the size equation are the twenties roadster pickups. With their abbreviated beds, these vehicles are more roadsters than pickups. However, they do form a very popular subset of rat rods and have strong ties to early hot rods.

Body/Building Styles

The vintage and size of the truck have a lot to do with how they’re built. The oldest rat rods, the roadster pickups, are very minimalist vehicles, and are almost exclusively fenderless. Their look is highly influenced by the type of stripped-down forties and early fifties cars that reeked of rebelliousness. World War II influences, such as using military surplus components and decorations similar to the nose art on fighters/bombers, are popular on these trucks.

The closed cab era started with the 1928-1931 Model A Fords (the flat back 1928/1929 models are preferred). These trucks are still plentiful and affordable. A bonus to building a Model A is the extensive number of reproduction parts and hot rod chassis components available. Most rat rodders shun modern street rod chassis, but it’s nice to know new frame rails and crossmembers are available if needed.

Thirties pickups of all makes form a huge segment of rat rods. The most popular trend is to build the truck around a thirties cab. Chopped and dropped are common building styles, so fenders are usually missing.

Cut-down cabs with minimal beds are still very popular with forties trucks. Bodies that never caught on well with mainstream street rodders, such as the 1942-1947 Fords, are quite affordable and look very slick when given the fenderless, bobbed rear, stretched nose treatment.

1948 and later Fords, as well as 1947 and later Chevy/GMC pickups, lend themselves to the full-fendered look. These trucks can receive major body mods, such as top chopping and even sectioning, but they’re most likely to retain stock profiles. This is something to consider if welding isn’t among your prime skill sets.

The newer trucks (post-1947) are plentiful, and there’s a substantial aftermarket parts industry. At the same time, there’s also more competition from builders of more refined hot rod pickups. The roughest examples still offer affordable starting points, because the cost of restoring a marginal body can exceed the total cost of turning that truck into a rat rod.

Where to Find Raw Material

Old trucks are everywhere. Automotive swap meets are excellent sources, because sellers have realized the increased demand for usable cabs. Trucks previously left behind in the barn are now being brought to swap meets. A good thing about buying only the cab is that most of them will fit into the bed of a compact pickup.

The newer the truck, the easier it is to find in major metropolitan areas. Online and print classified ads are good sources.

If you have friends in utilities or delivery services industries, they may know of an old truck sitting in some side yard. Driving up and down alleys of older neighborhoods can also turn up lots of raw material.

In general, blue collar and lower income neighborhoods are better hunting grounds. Driving out in the country can turn up old trucks, but these trucks are often farther away from the road and harder to spot. Owners of city trucks are more likely to be under pressure from neighbors or city ordinances to get rid of one that’s been sitting for years.


Rat rod builders aren’t averse to using finned aluminum after-market cylinder heads and aluminum intake manifolds, but are just as likely to retain many less glamorous factory parts. The two stalwart engines are the Ford flathead V-8 and the small-block Chevy V-8. The flathead is a rat rod favorite, because it’s so period perfect. The flathead Ford is the founding engine of hot rodding. Putting flathead V-8s into stripped-down, former four-cylinder cars formed the basis of early hot rodding. Small block Chevys are also popular, but need to be early versions such as the 265 and 283. Billet parts are taboo amongst this group. Rare or unusual speed equipment from the era is always cool.

Less often seen fifties V-8 engines are welcome because they break the monotony of countless flatheads and small-block Chevys. Chrysler Hemi engines from the fifties are also good, as are the smaller displacement Dodge and DeSoto versions. The Dodge and DeSoto Hemi engines have more colorful names on their valve covers.  

The various 1954 and later OHV Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln V-8 engines make good powerplants, as do all the non-Chevy GM engines from Buick (nailhead Buicks are very popular), Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Cadillac. Studebaker and Packard V-8 engines are harder to find, but are unique choices.

Even though the V-8s dominate the market, various in-line, six-cylinder engines have good potential because of their strong torque and unique one-sided intake and exhaust manifolds.

Rolling Stock

As rough as rat rod pickups are visually, an area which is seldom ratty are the wheels and tires. Upgraded wheels and tires have always been at the top of most “best mods” lists, so brilliant white walls and brightly painted wheels are almost standard equipment on rat rods. The contrast between the bright and shiny rolling stock versus mottled, primered, and dull bodywork works well.

Period correct mag wheels (especially those with rough cast finishes) and chrome reverse wheels look good on rat rods. Tires need to be tall old style bias ply (or modern reproductions of old tires) and never modern low profile tires.

Old school wheel covers, such as Moon Racing Equipment spun aluminum discs and Olds spinner or Cadillac “sombrero” covers are good choices.


Rat rod pickups aren’t for people used to riding around on Connelly leather seats in a climate-controlled environment. These trucks also aren’t for NBA centers. Legroom and headroom can be tight, especially on chopped and channeled trucks. These cabs weren’t overly spacious in their original form, so when a foot or so of height is removed, expect a corresponding drop in comfort.

The two main interior styles are the totally bare bones racecar look and the often-gaudy early kustom approach. The bare look can be as simple as an old aluminum airplane seat with minimal padding. The flashier interiors use wild animal prints, Mexican blankets, and crazy vinyl (such as Metalflake) that looks like a kitsch fifties kitchen chair. Metalflake steering wheels are very popular, as are any unusual doodads or trinkets. Pinstriping, skull or voodoo shifters, and Lucite knobs are all popular interior touches.

Rat rod pickups have a high potential fun quotient. They’re inexpensive to build, so if you decide to change styles, the financial risk is minimal.

Raw material is quite plentiful and relatively affordable compared to similar era coupes and roadsters. This 1934 Ford pickup had a lot of spare parts including an extra cowl (for rust repair), but it would still look cool with the existing rust worm damage.

The fenderless look (if local vehicle codes permit) is not only a traditional hot rod touch, but it’s a good way to save time and money. Whitewall cheater slicks and Moon discs are classic styling cues.

Roadster pickups are a hot rodding staple. This 1926/1927 Model T appears to be the front half of a touring body with a severely shortened pickup bed. The sharp, wide, whitewall tires and red wheels provide contrast to the mottled body.

Rat rod patina is as highly valued as mirror-smooth paint on a show car. This slammed 1955-1957 Chevy appears to have only made it part way through the paint stripping process. Notice again how the wide white wall tires and red wheels provide a nice contrast to the imperfect paint.

Rat rod pickup interiors tend to be inexpensive and stark or inexpensive and colorful. This early fifties GMC used the ubiquitous Mexican blankets for the seat and door panels. The octagonal green Metalflake steering wheel is a great find.

Low is pretty much the way to go when building a rat rod pickup. A variety of low-tech tricks can be used to slam a truck. This frame has been notched for clearance; lowering blocks raise the axle; it has shortened coil springs; and a Panhard bar for lateral stability.

Rat rod trucks have a “permanently under construction” look, but the look can also be temporary, as seen in this “before” shot of John Terry’s 1958 Mercury (Canadian Ford) pickup. The welds show how much effort was required to chop and section the truck.

Here is an “after” shot of John’s radical pickup. The chrome reverse wheels and narrow whitewalls are a nice sixties touch.

Mixing components from different brands is part of the fun of building a rat rod pickup. This 1933 Dodge uses a 1933 Ford commercial grille shell and a small-block Chevy engine. Faded, real or faux shop lettering implies a former shop truck.

Open engine compartments are a natural showcase for rare engines, such as this fifties Lincoln V-8. Other non-Ford/Chevy choices are Studebaker, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Packard. Rare induction systems, like this wild four carb Offenhauser intake manifold, are a crowning touch.

Once overlooked oddball grilles, like this 1937 Oldsmobile unit, have become hot swap meet items because so many people are adapting them to rat rod pickups. The patina on this one is near perfect.

Vintage accessories like sun visors and window-mount swamp coolers are popular add-ons for rat rod pickups.

This forties Chevy has a beautifully worn finish and a ground-hugging stance, but the most unique feature is the shortened bed (both length and height) and custom rear pan that matches the contour of the fenders. The vintage 3-bar spinner wheel covers are aftermarket variants of 1956 Olds covers.

The 1947-1955 (first series) Chevy/GMC half-ton pickups are plentiful and make great hot rod pickups. There is an extensive aftermarket of body and chassis products.

1948-1953 series Dodge pickups have largely been overlooked by rodders, but they look great slammed and adorned with classic pin striping.

1942-1947 Ford pickup cabs take on a whole new personality when chopped, channeled, sectioned, and fitted with a sectioned 1933/1934 Ford truck grille shell and hot rod headlights.


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