What is a Rat Rod? Find Out Its Origins And More
A rat rod is basically a type of hot rod or custom car that imitates the early hot rods of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Most rat rods appear unfinished with just the bare essentials to be driven.
The rat rod is the visualization of the idea of function over form. Rat rods are meant to be driven, not shown off. Sometimes the customization will include using spare parts, or parts from another car altogether.
Originally a counter-reaction to the traditional hot rod, a label recently applied to undriven cars and super high priced “customs”, the rat rod’s beginning was a throwback to the hot rods of the earlier days of hot-rodding, built to the best of the owner’s abilities and meant to be driven. Rat rods are meant to loosely imitate in form and function the “traditional” hot rods of the era. Biker, greaser, rockabilly, and punk cultures are often credited as influences that shaped rat rodding.
The typical rat rod is an early 1930s through 1950s coupe or roadster. Early (pre-World War II) vehicles often have their fenders, hoods, running boards, and bumpers removed. The bodies are frequently channeled over the frame, and sectioned, or the roofs chopped for a lower profile. Later post-war vehicles are rarely constructed without fenders and are often customized in the fashion of Kustoms, leadsleds, and lowriders. Maltese crosses, skulls, and other accessories are often added. Chopped tops, shaved trim, grills, tail lights, and other miscellaneous body parts are swapped between makes and models. Most, if not all, of the work and engineering is done by the owner of the vehicle.
Recently, the term “rat rod” or “rat car”, has been used to describe almost any vehicle that appears unfinished or is built simply to be driven.
Frames from older cars or light trucks are preferred for the chassis, because they provide a sturdy base for subsequent alterations. Older cars in poor condition are often advertised as candidates for rat rod conversions. In some cases the owner will design and build the frame himself.
Paint and finish
Typical “rough” finish of Rat Rods.
Many rat rods appear unfinished, with primer-only paint jobs. Satin or matte black and other flat colors are also common. Other finishes may include “natural patina” (the original paint with rust and blemishes intact), a patchwork of original paint and primer, or bare metal with no finish at all in rusty or oiled varieties, honoring the anti-restoration slogan that “it’s only original once”. Contrary to tastes of many car builders, rust is often acceptable and appreciated by a rat rodders.
Interiors of rat rods vary from fully finished to a spartan, bare bones form. Mexican blankets and bomber seats form the basis of many rat rod interiors. Most are designed to be functional without many comforts although this will vary with the owner’s taste.
Though a variety of engines may be used, the most common to be found in a rat rod are flathead V8 engines, early Chrysler Hemi engines, or more modern small block V8′s from any manufacturer, especially Chevrolet. It is not uncommon to see straight-8s straight-6s, straight-4s, V6s, or even diesel engines. These engines may exhibit varying displacements and modifications.
Most rat rods are rear wheel drive, with an open driveline. The rear-ends are typically passenger vehicle pieces, as are the transmissions. The Ford Banjo rear-end is popular, as is the “Quickchange” type as used in many early hot rods.
A beam axle is commonly accepted as the only type of front suspension that will look right when exposed without fenders on a vehicle with open front suspension. Independent front suspension is discouraged, and most rat rods use a 1928-1948 Ford I-beam axle with a transverse leaf spring. Although any solid axle is acceptable, the Ford axle is preferred due to the availability of spare parts.
Springs vary from transverse, parallel and coil setups in the front and rear. Parallel is not seen as frequently as the more common single-spring transverse setup, though both are used commonly. Coil springs are often deemed unsightly without fenders, but are still occasionally seen. Rat rods also will often have airbag suspension, which allows the driver to raise and lower the car.
The December 1972 issue of Rod & Custom Magazine was dedicated to the “beater”, a low-budget alternative to the over-polished, slickly-painted, customized early car. The beater could easily be considered a progenitor of the rat rod with its cheap upholstery, primer instead of paint, and lack of chrome or polished metals. However, owners of these beaters often had a high-dollar machine sitting in their garage.
As with many cultural terms, there are disputes over the origin of the term “rat rod”. Some say it first appeared in an article written in Hot Rod Magazine by Gray Baskerville about cars that still sported a coat of primer. Some claim that the first rat rod was owned by artist Robert Williams who had a ’32 Ford Roadster that was painted in primer. Hot Rod magazine has since verified this. Although the term likely started out as derogatory or pejorative (and is still used in this way by many), members of the subcultures that build and enjoy these cars have adopted the term in a positive light.
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