What Is A Rat Rod?

Car Culture / 17 Comments

A comprehensive introduction to a customization scene that almost anybody can get into.

Most people are familiar with the term 'hot rod,' but if you're not, Wikipedia defines it as "typically American cars that might be old, classic, or modern and that have been rebuilt or modified with large engines optimized for speed and acceleration." Hot rods are pretty popular; there's even a national day dedicated to celebrating these flashy classics.

But what is a rat rod? Is this defined simply as a hot rod that looks ratty, or is there more to it?

While a hot rod is typically something that has been finished to an impeccable standard and conforms to a particular theme, rat rods, on the other hand, are the antithesis to clean, well-planned, beautifully executed builds. Rat rodding is something of a counterculture, and as such, documenting its origins and inspirations accurately has proved near impossible.


What is a Rat Rod? Deciphering the Definition

Dictionary.com defines the term 'rat rod' as "a custom car with a deliberately worn-down, unfinished appearance, typically lacking paint, showing rust, and made from cheap or cast-off parts." We can't find a more concise definition anywhere, and although there are many subcultures within the rat rod scene - not to mention many differences of opinion over what constitutes a rat rod - we'd agree with the above explanation.

The Wikipedia page on the subject adds that the cheap parts used on these cars need not necessarily be automotive, as many such builds include repurposed parts from almost anything you can imagine, such as a rifle used as a gear shifter, wrenches as door handles, chains as trim elements, and so on. A diesel engine is not unheard of either.

Simply put, a rat rod is a car that democratizes the tuning of pre-War American automobiles (although cars as new as those produced in the Sixties are sometimes included under the definition). Rat rodding spits in the face of immaculately kept creations that live in garages with gleaming paint. Rat rodding is about making do with what you have and enjoying all the attention that comes with driving a car that looks intentionally unfinished, for better or worse.


The Origin of a Culture: Where Does 'Rat Rod' Come From?

Like hot rods, rat rods have chopped roofs and are typically based on late-1920s to late-1950s coupes or roadsters, although trucks, sedans, and even buses do occasionally sneak in. Pat Ganahl, the late hot rod legend and former editor of numerous hot rod-focused publications, explained the rat culture thus: "They're artistic, fun, and sensational reinterpretations of late-'40s/early-'50s hot rodding."

Where does rat rod come from? The first known use of the term cannot be agreed upon, but Anthony Casteneda is said to have coined the term while being interviewed for a Rod & Custom magazine article, stating that to him and his car club, their cars lacked traditional hot rod elements like paint, or upholstery, making them similar to rat bikes of the time. Hence the term rat rod was born.

Rat bikes are motorcycles that have fallen prey to the passage of time but have been kept running with kludge fixes that care little to nothing about appearance. Rat-look bikes copy this look intentionally, while survival bikes are styled to look like something out of a post-apocalyptic world; bikes that would look at home in a Mad Max film.

According to lore, the first rat rod was owned by artist Robert Williams, whose '32 Ford Roadster was painted in primer.

The Javelina/Wikipedia

Criticism of Rat Rods

Rat rod influences include the rockabilly, psychobilly, and punk sub-cultures, which already offends many older enthusiasts. But a great number in the hot rodding scene would consider rat rods the lazy, unskilled, and downright pathetic way of stealing attention at a car show.

Hot rodder and journo Brad Ocock says, "There's a huge difference between rat rod and beater. A beater has potential. A rat rod is something someone threw together to make a statement, and usually, that statement is, 'I don't know how to weld. I had a bunch of crap lying around and realized there was enough to put together a car but didn't want to put any effort into it.'"

Ouch. Others have described rat rods as cars committing "style violations," with no flow or style, created by those with no hot rod knowledge and a lack of interest.

Basically, rat rodders are seen by hot rodders in the same way that a Pebble Beach judge might look at a Ferrari F40 dressed in a Liberty Walk kit.

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There's a clear sense of elitism in the hot rod scene, but it is unfounded. Purists will argue that there are certain styling tropes an old Ford must conform to when modified, but the truth is that any sort of modification is going to offend some sort of purist. Hot rods can trace their origins to bootleggers who were active in the Prohibition era, and you can bet that those moonshine runners would fit absolutely anything to their cars that would help them evade revenue agents and cops.

On the one hand, rat rod fanatics argue that they at least drive and use their cars. Rat rodders tend to work on their cars themselves, fitting parts, swapping frames and bodies, changing engines, and even painting their cars by hand in their backyards. On the other, hostile hot rodders deem their oft-outsourced builds to be beautiful art that should be carefully preserved, not driven.

The problem is that art is subjective. Somebody who loves Van Gogh's realism and lifelike painting style may be appalled by the trailblazing cubism and surrealism that made Picasso one of the greats. Who's to say that one use of canvas is better than the other?


Not All Rat Rods Are Random

Some rat rods are built simply to garner attention, and many of them are completely devoid of theme. But we have also come across a number of rat rod builds that adhere to a clear vision and are decoratively finished with patina body panels, rusty hoods, and unpainted fenders.

Mustang Kyle is one of the most talented fabricators in the land and has created a rat rod based on a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle that is powered by a Hayabusa engine and places the driver in the center of the cockpit. That doesn't happen by accident. Then he's got a Ford Mustang from 1967 with a C5 Corvette drivetrain. It looks nothing like the original 'Stang did, and its rusty widebody is anything but concours-worthy - but it's still one helluva build.

You can do anything you want in this category of cars. A 1940s sedan with a chopped roof, patina paint (or a rusted body), and a gleaming engine bay hiding a beautifully finished small block V8 sounds like a great time to us. Mixing cleanliness and precision with a worn-out look should not be taboo.


A hot rod requires perfection. A rat rod requires persistence. But both achieve the same goal: reimagining old classics and keeping them on the road. You can call rat rods rust buckets all you want, but they're proud of the fact. Truth be told, many of these rat rods are built on the bones of cars that would otherwise be consigned to a scrap heap for all time. Keeping them alive should be applauded.

Sure, some are more "out there" than you may like, but we should encourage avenues of automotive tuning that kids can learn at home with minimal skills. We should praise these unconventional artists for bringing old beaters out to the car meet for us all to see. And we should learn that being toxic in any form of fun simply makes the activity worse for everyone else.

Chop up some frames, weld rusted bodies atop them, and fit a big V8. The fun you'll have driving such a monster may be more rewarding than detailing your flaming paint job. Plus, you can drive with a steering wheel made of chain links, and that's gotta be worth something, right?

Hot Wheels
Wagon Master Johnson/Wikipedia

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