Friday, May 13, 2011

Rat Rods. Lots and lots of Rat Rods

Before I wrote this story, I punched the term “Rat Rod” into eBay and got nearly 6,300 hits. There were 2006 Cadillac STS-V seats, an ’86 Oldsmobile Cutlass Brougham, a set of ‘80s-style Keystone mag wheels, and a ’77 AMC Hornet included in the results.

Which goes to show, there is some confusion out there on what exactly a Rat Rod is.

In a way, it is sort of hard to pin down a definition. Typically, a Rat Rod is a, home-built ‘50s-style hot rod that was constructed from vintage parts. They’re often channeled roadsters from the 1930s, but they can also be sedans, trucks, coupes, wagons; anything that “might” have been around 50-60 years ago. That’s not set in stone, though. A ‘20s car or a ‘60s car could all be accepted as a Rat Rod if the modifications are right.

One thing’s for sure—an ’86 Olds Cutlass isn’t a Rat Rod.

To some guys, the term “Rat Rod” is offensive. One of the things that makes a Rat Rod a Rat Rod is the finish, which is usually left rusty or finished in primer. Welds and seams are typically exposed. Don’t expect a $10,000 pearlescent paintjob. If a guy spends five years massaging all the blemishes out of his ’49 Mercury 'Kustom', and the first time he shows it someone calls it a Rat Rod, you could see how he might get bent out of shape.

Are Rat Rods really “traditional”? Well, sort of. Certainly, there were radical home-built, primered hot rods in the 1950s. But more often than not, if a kid didn’t have any paint on his ride, he had ambitions to get it finished someday (whether he actually got to it or not). And yeah, they had some low cars, but if you were driving something an inch off the ground, and you couldn’t get it into the high school parking lot, you’d look pretty dopey. Plus, there weren’t many parents around that would tolerate some of the wild creations we have today.

Rat Rods could be looked at more as a caricature of the traditional ‘50s custom. Sure, the parts and pieces are there. The pinstriping is Von Dutch-ey enough. They’ve got the vibe. It’s just amplified.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was famous for his animated “Rat Fink” character, as well as his artistic, asymmetrical bubble-top show cars. The Rat Fink was often depicted driving an impossibly low hot rod while hanging out the top and working a three-foot-long gear shift. And a ’30 Ford Sedan Rat Rod that has been chopped and channeled so much that the driver has to poke out through the roof certainly has a similar feel to the cartoon.

Like anything else, Rat Rods can be awful, but they can also be extremely creative. Tacking on that old CASE tractor radiator shell that was purchased at a garage sale may just make the whole car look like a monkey butt. On the other hand, if it works, the results may be nothing less than rolling folk art. It takes a real visionary to figure out what combination of parts will make a pile of random junk into something cool.

The other issue that plagues Rat Rods is safety. Just because something has a rusty finish and looks a little different doesn’t necessarily make it any less safe than an original or traditionally customized older car. But just like the aesthetic aspects of a build, it’s the skill of the builder that makes the difference. The crude looks of a Rat Rod may encourage some people to build one that probably shouldn’t. Scary welds, Frankenstein suspension geometry, and inadequate brakes are often the result. Unfortunately, these are the cars that bring down the entire image of Rat Rods.

One thing that is common with most Rat Rod owners and builders is that they keep these cars to have fun. Rat Rods are usually driven regularly. It isn’t uncommon for several owners to meet up at a build session or at a car show.

There’s a whole culture that surrounds these cars that often includes ‘50s-style clothes and hairstyles and Rockabilly music. People that are really serious about it also may go crazy at the tattoo parlor. The people are just like the cars—if, for example, soldiers back from World War II had a tattoo on their arm, a whole armful of tattoos must be better. If a two-inch section from the body of a car was cool, eight-inches must be better.

The next time you’re at a car show around town, take some time to check out the Rat Rods if there happen to be any there. If you look at them with the same criteria of quality and workmanship that you expect in any other old hot rod, good or bad, you might be surprised at what you see.

The rather sizable slideshow below contains pictures of Rat Rods, or at least things that I considered to be Rat Rods, from various car shows all over Kansas City. I’m sure you’ll see something interesting in there, because there’s no shortage of creativity among the Rat Rod crowd.

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