Rusted Metal and Polarizing Style: The History of the Rat Rod

Rat rods just might be the most interesting cars ever to roll along the blacktop. While any good build will turn heads and have people asking questions, nothing gets quite as much attention as a rat rod. Because with any build, people want to know what little tweaks and changes you made to separate it from others of its kind. A restored classic with modern guts. An unsuspecting family car hiding track-worthy power. But with a rat rod? That all changes. Almost nothing follows the standard recipe of the platform upon which it’s based. Almost every inch is a unique work of art. There have been so many customizations and alterations that often the question on people’s minds is, “What have you actually kept?”

Which got us thinking, “How did this trend actually start?”

But first, what is a rat rod?

Generally speaking, today a rat rod is an exaggerated, over-the-top imitation of a traditional 1950s hot rod. It usually involves a Pre-WWII vehicle but can include late-1950s models. It’s often a coupe or roadster body style but, again, there are no rules, so you’ll often see early trucks and sedans adopting the trend as well. And, what is the trend?

The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?

Well, the great David Freiburger sums it up like this, “Rat rodding started out … as a fast-and-loose deal in which guys built fairly retro-correct but primered and dirty hot rods. It pretty quickly spun into a scene loaded with rusty rods built from castoff parts for dirt cheap and with a proud finger to The Man—that being the lawn-chair-rodding crowd—who reacted, predictably, with outrage, formed industry committees against rat rodding, and started using the term rat rod with the same intonation as S.O.B.”

So, in a word? Rat rods are reactionary. Just like every major art movement throughout the history of time, rat rodding is reacting to what came before it. It is calling out the hypocrisies (in this case, building a car to look at rather than drive) and then it’s doing its own thing (a wild exaggeration of a hot rod that actually sees street time).

For August Cederstrand of Edelbrock, there are two clear rat rod categories. One that focuses on period correct parts but perhaps features that vintage patina fad taking the industry by storm right now, and then there are the renegades who throw out the rulebook altogether. “They’ll take something they find and piece it together, like semi truck tires and rebar,” he says. “This movement is great for the industry. It shows a lot of innovation. Much like artists, you may like it or not, but it’s creative, inspiring, and breathes new life into the industry,” he adds.

So, when did this start?

Because rat rods are so often based on vehicles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and the craftsmanship features such a throwback to the art of that era, and the build types almost always use traditional performance formulas, I assumed this was a trend that got its roots somewhere around that era—or at least in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Boy was I surprised to learn that rat rods didn’t really become “a thing” until the 1990s.

That’s not to say folks weren’t building rat rods before this time. But it’s safe to say they probably weren’t calling them “rat rods” and developing a following. (Many members of the scene now take umbrage with the term—but more on that later.) Besides, trends don’t usually pop up out of nowhere, and neither did rat rodding.

The Granddaddy of Rat Rods

According to the people over at Rod Authority, rat rods were reacting specifically to the “trailer queen show cars” that began to define the Pro Street movement in the late ‘80s. With high-dollar form and virtually zero function, these vehicles began to dominate car shows, sullying the tradition of true hot-rodding. So in 1987, Jim “Jake” Jacobs from Pete & Jakes Hot Rod Parts in Peculiar, Missouri, headed to that year’s Goodguys West Coast Nationals with a Frankensteined hot rod compiled of a 1932 Ford Frame and 1928 Ford Model A sedan body, powered by a Chevy small-block paired to a ’39 Ford transmission. It had no roof, a chopped windshield, and an old bench for a front seat. Additionally, it was unpainted—a detail Jake saw finished at the show with a bucket of red paint, several brushes, and the helping hands of passerby.

The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?

Nicknamed the “Jakelopy,” crowds were delighted. Better yet, Jake actually drove the misfit hotrod, both around town and on the Bonneville salt flats. But, in truth, he wasn’t doing anything that revolutionary. For years, auto enthusiasts had been building vehicles just like this, just not quite so overt, exaggerated, and blatantly “screw you” in nature. But a hodge-podge of parts that weren’t necessarily period-specific (though close enough) and, more importantly, fit the budget? Yea.

Jake’s jalopy simply reminded people of the heart and soul of hot-rodding—what it looked like before it went mainstream.

Who gets the credit for bringing attention to the rat rod?

If we follow popular culture, the car dubbed as the first real rat rod belonged to the artist Robert Williams. Williams was THE man behind the cover art for one of the greatest albums of all time, for one of the greatest bands of all time: Guns and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. He was also the art director for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a legendary artist in his own right and creator of Rat Fink. Williams’ ride was a unique take on a 1932 Ford that he nicknamed “Eights and Aces,” a reference to the Dead Man’s Hand in poker.

It was a throwback to the hot rods of his youth—a modestly modified roadster that was loud and fun, with a half-finished look he felt would be on-brand for budget-minded enthusiasts of the 1950s. He had no intention of setting a trend or launching a movement. Williams was simply indulging his gearhead passion in his own way.

Whether myth or historical fact, supposedly Hot Rod Magazine editor, Gray Baskerville, saw this ride at a car show and referred to it as a “rat rod”—referencing “rat bikes,” or hodgepodge motorcycles slapped together on a budget—and the name stuck.

Like most reactionary trends, it didn’t take particularly long for rat rodding to gain steam. Attracting the misfits, the oddballs, the edgy enthusiasts looking for a new and rowdy way to express themselves, the trend, or culture, or scene, or whatever you want to call it, has wildly evolved to mean different things to different people.

“Um, excuse me, but I find ‘rat rod’ offensive.”

When you look at Williams’ original “Eights and Aces” and compare it to your Google search of modern rat rods, you’ll notice some key differences. Many of today’s builds feature big custom headers, a nasty v8 engine up front, all sitting on a lowered platform that has plenty of custom art incorporated into the structure of the car and everything has more than its fair share of patina—sometimes real and sometimes fake. The term “rat rod” has now come to encompass a wide variety of hot rod interpretations, something the scene’s purists take issue with.

While Williams’ ride was still period-correct, other people drawn to the rat rod scene began experimenting with builds that looked more like something Williams and Roth would have painted rather than driven. Vehicles like the 1950 Ford “Sellers Seaweed Coupe” and the Pontiac-powered Model A sedan known as the “Purple People Eater” began capturing media, and ultimately, attention.

The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?

But these builds, though radical, were pretty thoughtfully constructed. Unfortunately, many who jumped on the trend didn’t care about safety or quality construction, or really even artistic direction, and simply began slapping parts together in a race of “whoever has the most rust wins.”

Break It Down

Author, editor, and hot rod connoisseur, Pat Ganahl describes rat rodding as falling into three categories. First, are those who are essentially just building a hot rod. In this case, what outsiders call ‘rat rods’ are actually just unfinished “pure retro cars in primer.” Next, are those building Ed Roth-inspired vehicles. “They’re artistic, fun, and sensational reinterpretations of late-’40s/early-’50s hot rodding as a culture that includes music, clothing, hairstyles, and tattoos,” explains Ganahl. After that, things get murky. “Third are what … I derisively call crap rods today,” he says. These are vehicles with “shoddy construction” that are presented as cool examples of the rat rod style.

The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?

Freiburger and the folks over at Hot Rod Network wisely observe, however, that an unfortunate fourth category is beginning to take shape as well: one made up of people who love the rat rod term—and take it quite literally. Often encompassing vehicles that are in no way period-correct, “they might not even be based on a recognizable body or traditional rod of any kind. They often over-rely on accessories such as iron crosses, rubber rats, beer-tap shifters, mailboxes for air cleaners, and stylized spider webs all over everything. They are generally disproportional and thrown together,” finishes Freiburger.

Strange Changes

Everything about rat rodding is, in a way, ironic. The guy who’s credited with really launching the trend doesn’t seem particularly fond of the recognition. (In fact, he took the legendary “Eights and Aces” ride, covered it in a wild purple and yellow paint job, and redubbed it “Prickly Heat.” If that doesn’t say, “I don’t want any part of your club,” I’m not sure what does.)

The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?The rat rod just might be the most interesting style of car ever to roll along the blacktop. But how did this trend start? And how much has it changed?

Also amusing, is the fact that the people who took inspiration from Williams began to imitate his paintings rather than the build that actually inspired the term rat rod to begin with. And it’s worth noting that what started as a fringe style movement that mocked over-the-top mainstream hot rods, has become, in many ways, an over-the-top mainstream version of itself—just look at their presence at SEMA. “I think what you’re going to see is a small handful turn into professional rat rod builders with groundbreaking projects. I expect we’ll see a rat rod class emerge at shows too, like a People’s Choice,” adds Cederstrand.

Regardless, we’re happy this wild and rusty car culture is around, if for nothing else than to keep things interesting. And we can’t wait to see what serves as the reaction to this movement.

%d bloggers like this: