How the Traditional “Rat Rods” Began

Originally a response to the 1950s “Hot Rod,” the term was later given to undriven cars and extremely expensive “customs” or “trailer queens.” The traditional “Rat Rod” began as a homage to the early days of Hot Rodding, when cars were built to the best of the owner’s abilities and intended to be driven. Rat Rods are intended to loosely resemble the “Traditional” Hot Rods of the era in terms of form and function. Biker, Greaser, Rockabilly, and punk cultures are frequently attributed to shaping Rat Rodding.

The typical rat rod: Early automobiles frequently lack fenders, hoods, running boards, and bumpers. Frequently, the bodies are funneled over the frame and sectioned, or the roofs are sliced to achieve a lower profile. Later postwar vehicles rarely lack fenders and are frequently altered in the style of custom, lead sleds, and low-riders. Frequently, Maltese crosses, skulls, and other adornments are added. Between makes and models, chopped tops, shaved trim, grilles, taillights, and other miscellaneous body parts are swapped. The majority, if not all, of the work and engineering is performed by the vehicle’s owner. Recently, the nameRat Rod has been applied to nearly any vehicle that appears unfinished or is constructed just for the purpose of being driven, regardless of whether the vehicle would have been customized or even existed during the 1950s. Numerous Rat Rods appear unfinished due to the prevalence of primer paint treatments. Other treatments include “natural patina” (original paint with rust and defects preserved), a patchwork of original paint and primer, or bare metal in rusty or oiled forms. Contrary to the preferences of many automobile builders, a Rat Rodder frequently accepts and appreciates rust.
Rat rod interiors range from fully finished to bare bones. Many rat rod interiors are built around Mexican blankets and bomber seats. The majority are designed to be useful without sacrificing comfort, though this will vary according to on the owner’s preferences.

While a number of engines may be utilized in a Rat Rod, the most frequent are Flathead V8 engines, early Chrysler Hemi engines, or more recent Small Block V8 engines from any manufacturer, particularly Chevrolet. Straight-8s, straight-6s, straight-4s, V6s, and even diesel engines are not rare. These engines come in a variety of displacements and configurations.

The majority of Rat Rods are rear-wheel drive and use an open driveline. The rear ends, as well as the transmissions, are commonly found on passenger vehicles. The Ford Banjo rear-end is popular, as is the “QuickChange” rear-end, which was used in a large number of early hot rods.

A beam axle is widely acknowledged as the only front suspension configuration that looks good when exposed without fenders on a car with open front suspension. Independent front suspension is not recommended. The majority of Rat Rods have a 1928-1948 Ford I beam axle with a transverse leaf spring. While any solid axle is adequate, the Ford axle is recommended due to the ease with which spare parts may be obtained.

Front and rear spring configurations include transverse, parallel, and coil springs. Parallel is less frequently seen than the more typical single-spring transverse configuration, though both are frequently utilized. Without fenders, coil springs are frequently thought unattractive, yet they are nonetheless occasionally seen. Preservationists feel that modifying any historically significant vehicle should be discouraged. Additionally, classic Hot Rodders decry Rat Rods as cheap knockoffs or outdated. Additionally, many Rat Rods are condemned for their enormous proportions and superficial alterations that prioritize shock value over function and safety.

Rod & Custom Magazine’s December 1972 issue featured the beater, a low-budget alternative to the over-polished, slickly painted and modified early automobile. The beater might well be regarded as the rat rod’s forerunner. However, the owners of these beaters frequently kept a high-dollar machine in their garage: no expensive upholstery, no primed or polished transverse leaf spring/Jaguar rear ends, and no chromed and polished transverse leaf spring/ Jaguar rear ends.

As is the case with many cultural idioms, there is some debate over the word “rat rod.” According to some, it first appeared in a Gray Baskerville piece in Hot Rod about autos still wearing a coat of primer. According to some, the first rat rod was owned by artist Robert Williams, who had a primer-painted ’32 Ford Roadster. Although the phrase was probably coined as a disparaging or pejorative term, members of the subcultures that build and love these automobiles have embraced the term positively.