Imagine showing a funky rat rod to someone from the “right” side of the tracks, living in the uptown world of over-polished, slickly painted luxo-rides. The culture clash would be akin to Andrew “Dice” Clay crashing a yacht club party in a weathered leather jacket, faded jeans and greased-back hair amid the navy-blue blazers, khaki pants, and Sperry Topsiders.
Think of the reactions when a neglected jalopy in flat-black primer and Coker wide-whites on steelies pulled into a “Members Only” parking spot, right next to those BMWs and Lexus sport sedans. The yachties just wouldn’t know what to make of it. They’d take one look at the skull-head shifter, Maltese-cross emblem, and tattered Mexican-blanket upholstery, and after hearing those brapping exhausts, flatulent and elephantine, they’d call the cops. Talk about an anti-social statement!
For those not familiar with the term, a rat rod represents a throwback to the early days of rods, when they were too fast, too short, too loud, too dangerous—and too much fun. It’s a backlash against the mega-buck Boyd Coddington cars (although some rat rodders like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top owns both types— recall his Cadzilla and note the surfer wagon shown here). Whipped into the rat rod scene is a frothy mix of biker, greaser, rock-a-billy, and punk culture.
Rat rods imitate (and often exaggerate) the early hot rods of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Don’t confuse them, though, with their close cousins, the traditional resto and/or hot rods, which are accurate re-creations or period-correct restorations from the same era. Most rat rods appear unfinished, but that’s entirely intentional, with just the bare essentials to be driven. Taking that trend one step further, many look downright scary and unsafe, which is part of the outlaw appeal.
Rodent rods usually have their fenders, hoods, running boards, and bumpers removed. The bodies are frequently channeled over the frame, or the roofs chopped to an impractical and impossibly low profile. The owner of the vehicle handles most of the work and engineering (using the latter term loosely). Can you imagine a pro builder wanting to take on a job of deliberately building a crappy car?
Black- or gray-primer paint jobs are common, but other rat rod finishes include “patina” (the original paint with rust and blemishes intact), a patchwork of original paint and primer, and bare metal with no finish at all in rusty or oiled varieties.
Inside a rat rod you’ll find everything from a Spartan, bare-bones bomber seat to tuck-and-roll velour upholstery. Bric-a-brac accessories are the norm, scrounged from the scrap heap of pop culture.
Under that dented and rusty hood (if it’s even still in place), just about any mill is fair game, but a Flattie or Hemi is a status symbol. But don’t look for a clean crate Chevy 350. Instead, expect some corroded cast-iron and chrome acorns. Billet isn’t welcome here. It’s amazing how rat rods can take something new and make it look old. And forget about electronic fuel injection—a leaky multi-carb setup dripping gas down the manifold means this rat rod’s a runner.
Old-school suspensions are the norm, usually a solid beam axle, commonplace under most cars until the late Forties. It’s accepted as the only type of front suspension that looks cool when exposed without fenders. An independent front suspension looks too bulky. So most rat rods use a 1928 to1948 Ford I-beam axle with a transverse leaf spring. Coil-overs are rare. Although any solid axle is acceptable, parts are easy to find with the amount of aftermarket products available for the Ford I Beam axle. Brakes are deliberately old-tech, such as finned Buick drums.
On the other hand, occasionally rat rods show some innovative tricks not seen elsewhere. And they’ve brought people into the hobby who didn’t they could compete with a $250,000 Foose or Brizio car. You can build a rat rod for $10,000 or even less. So if sinister-looking ride rumbles in front of the country club, don’t be so quick to give it the bum’s rush. It just might have something you’d dig.