Arguably one of the most eclectic and interesting elements of the hot rod and hot rodding community are Rat Rods and the people who make them. A Rat Rod is basically a modified vintage American car, built using entirely vintage parts, and designed to look rough or unfinished. A certain emphasis it put on maintaining a level of incomplete authenticity with exposed welds, the use of surface rust as an exterior color, the absence of paint or the use of matte paint, and a strong level of general 'badassitude.' These cars are not for the weak of heart, the conformists, or the folks who want to have a car that clearly states 'I am very concerned about how people perceive me.' Rat rods are built by and for people who are intentionally bucking against convention and living up to the standards and practices enforced by their earliest hot rodders. When you get right down to it, a rat rod is really just an early hot rod built by your Average Joe. It is rough, crude, cheap, and so personalized and individual that it more of an attachment of its builder than a piece of property that he or she owns.
Modern rat rod culture is engrossed in the romance of rebellious teens in the 1940's and 1950's. James Dean is a hero and rockabilly music is still outlandish and full of counter culture angst. Think slicked back hair, a healthy number of tattoos, jeans with the cuffs (neatly) folded up, chain wallets, and flames painted onto their leather boots. This unique version of rebellion is alive and well among select thrive groups, and it is among these individuals that rat rods have grown in popularity. A common starting point is any pre-WWII Ford, preferably a Model A of later, but other models are popular to such as early 40's Plymouths and Chevrolets. While chrome is non-existent, you will hardly miss it looking at a rat rod. A common theme is slamming the car as close to the ground as possible, sometimes so low that the axle is mounted directly to the frame. Wheels are usually left exposed, and the interior is left handsomely bare, with the seats usually consisting of a minimally cushioned bench with a Mexican rug draped across it. The engine is often exposed, a tribute to the old-school machinery powering it and a perfect homage to the rugged utilitarian nature of the motor that is not decorated with chrome and plastic.
To be perfectly frank, I find rat rods and rat rod culture to be one of my favorite brands of car culture. More so than any other group, rat rodder capture a part of history and proudly display it as if time had stopped. Being a history nut and a traditionalist, I admire the people and their creations with a great amount of respect. Be sure to stop by The Jalopy Journal or Killbillet.com to get a taste of this fantastic, and often overlooked (intentionally and unintentionally) part of car culture.
Ironically, rat rods have gained such momentum that some major automakers have even made them, most notably Toyota, which displayed a rat rodded 1967 Toyota FJ40 at SEMA.
Tomorrow I'll explore another unique brand of hot rodders: beatnik builders.
Pictures, clockwise from lower left, are of 1936 Ford V8 Coupe, Voodoo Diablo (based a 1928 Dodge sedan) side, interior, and the builder, 1929 Ford Model A Tudor Sedan, a 1940 Plymouth Coupe, the Sloppy Jalopy (a 1934 Ford Pickup) side and rear.