Rat Rod History

Submitted by Daniel Fehn on



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To understand the idea behind the rat rod, the history of the hot rod needs to be understood. The hot rod was born in California in the 1920's and 1930's, when young men wanted to race. By the mid to late 1920’s, millions of cars (mainly Ford Model T’s) had been sold and many had already gone through their short lifespan, so cars and parts were readily available for low prices. Racers would meet at the salt flats east of Los Angeles with their new rides. The early Model T engines had around 20 horsepower, so the cars were made lighter to go faster. This was accomplished by removing any unneeded parts including running boards, extra panels, ornaments, hoods, and even headlights, which was the cause for some gruesome deaths.

The hot rod took on it’s known look in the 1930’s with the introduction of the Ford Flathead V8 engine. The increase from the earlier 20 horsepower to 80 with the new Flathead V8 was a big improvement, and the Flathead was the main power plant of choice for many hot rodders. Quickly it was figured out that by straightening and shortening the exhaust, removing the muffler, and a few other modifications that 160 horsepower could be attained, with speeds reaching 100 mph. The depression of the 1930’s slowed the hot rod scene down, but body parts and cars were still readily available, with many cheaper parts rusted and busted.

This is where the rat rod is derived from. It is unknown when the term was actually started, but an artist named Robert Williams in the 1970’s had a 1932 Ford Roadster painted in primer, which may be the beginning of the term. Much of Williams’ art is based on cars and other “Kustom” autos. The rat rod likely originated as a derogatory term, which it still is seen by some today, but overall it is now considered as a positive term.

The beauty of the rat rod is that they can be built and maintained by any novice mechanic or owner, as looks are not as important as other collector autos. Finding rat rods for sale is not difficult, as nearly any collector car classifieds site such as timelessHotRods.com and eBay have hundreds for sale at any one time, and it can be just as easy to find some sturdy frame for cheap, add a body from another source, and put them together.

Rat rods are generally built from older cars and trucks in bad conditions, as it won’t be a “show car”. This means finding a beater in poor condition and using the frame or chassis as the foundation of the build. Older cars with heavier sturdy frames or small pickup trucks such as a Chevy S10 or Ford Ranger are ideal candidates. A solid hardy chassis is preferred for the alterations that may be needed down the road during the build, and newer chassis such as a light pickup will give you the reliability of a newer vehicle.

The most common engine seen in a rat rod is the Flathead V8, as it is the iconic engine of the typical hot rod. Straight 6 and Straight 8 engines are also very popular, but there is no standard rule. I have seen older Hemi's and even diesel engines used.

Many car show attendees view a rat rod as a rust bucket, but some of us (myself included) see them as an art form of sorts. Beyond the simple looks, you can still have fun and be creative with the styling. One of the coolest rat rods I have seen had household door knobs for the car door handles, a pair of pliers for the gear shifter, an old wooden luggage trunk tied down as the actual trunk, and a beer bottle for the radiator overflow. Rat rods allow a car enthusiast to enjoy driving an old car, without having to worry about looks, but still leaves room for your own mark or style.

Here are some of my favorite rat rods I have seen over the years at auto shows.



Caterpillar Rat Rod


Here is a unique ratrod I saw at an auto show a few years back, and I haven't seen it since. I would love to see it again and get better photos, and figure out how it is actually driven. From the outside it looks like you need to lay down to drive, it's so low. The Caterpillar grille is a unique touch.


Mint Green Wheels


I see this car every year at the "Back to the 50's" auto show in St. Paul, MN every year and it is a favorite of mine. The large engine and light green wheels just make it cool. And yes I heard the engine, IT IS LOUD!


Volkswagen Bus Rat Rod


I can't tell you why, but Volkswagen rat rods are becoming popular. Rats mainly are American built, usually Ford and Chevy and sometimes they are so mixed with parts from manufacturers that you can't really tell, but you rarely see foreign rat rods.


Double Decker Rat Rod


This is another unique rod I saw years back at an auto show when my photography skills were lacking. they still aren't great, but at least I can get a a shot of the full car now unlike this photo. If I see this car again I will do a full writeup of it along with better pictures.


Stretched Rat Rod


Not sure if this stretched rat rod is an original model or some modification (I assume it is some modification), but I just liked the looks and the "Rat Rod" logo on the front.


Rat Rod Truck - Bullet in Windshield


Trucks also make great rat rods, and I liked this model because it actually has a REAL bullet hole in the windshield (at least it looks like a bullet hole). It's not one of those stupid fake stickers you see everywhere.


1939 Chevy Rat Rod Truck


Another example of a great Chevrolet Rat Rod truck.


Wind It Up


Here is another example of how fun and creative you can be with rat rods. Notice the "toy" wind up piece in the bed of the truck. Very cool.



Do you have a rat rod of your own? Have you seen a cool ratrod? Tell us about it.



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Daniel Fehn is a web designer, a huge classic car and truck fan, and a wannabe mechanic currently living in Minneapolis, MN. I designed and built timelessrides.com so I could share my enthusiasm for classic vehicles, and created the classified ads section for all to buy and sell their rides for FREE.


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