What Is a Rat Rod? A Closer Look at this Hot Rod Subgenre

The original title for this story was “What Is a Rat Rod and Other Common Hot Rod Questions.” However, after about two minutes, I decided the whole rat rod question deserved its own story. As with most of the terminology used throughout the hot rodding hobby, the definition of “rat rod” is not precise, and opinions about which cars are and aren’t rat rods are subject to long and passionate debate. It’s right up there with the likes of “Was the moon landing real?” and “Can Iron Man beat Captain America?”

Who invented the term rat rod?

The phrase is a spin-off of “rat bike,” which was in reference to custom motorcycles built on the cheap. The late Gray Baskerville, venerated hot rod writer, is said to have been the first to apply the word to hot rods.

When did rat rods first appear?

The earliest hot rods were homebuilt. These were rough, low-budget machines, and like rat rods, were sneered at by other automotive enthusiasts. The difference is that those cars weren’t intentionally built to cause a commotion. Rat rods, meanwhile, seem purpose-built to get a reaction.

David Freiburger pinpoints the birth of the modern rat rod trend to the early 1990s. At the time, the popular trend was toward high-end, high-tech rods with smoothed sheet metal, modern drivetrains, modern chassis, modern interiors, and lots of billet bits. Critics of this style objected to the fact that these cars obliterated everything that identified their heritage. The reaction was the resurgence of traditional-style hot rods, and the extreme wing of that reaction was the rat rod.

Scotty Gosson, author of the book Rat Rods: Rodding’s Imperfect Stepchildren, said, “As a response to the high-dollar billet-based street rod trend, budget-limited home-based rod builders looked to the past for inspiration and style, and rat rods were the result. These ‘imperfectly fine’ rods rarely sport paint jobs of any kind, and their owners aren’t scared to drive them. They represent a rebellious attitude, but never take anything too seriously either.”

Esteemed hot rod journalist, author, and historian Pat Ganahl looks at the rat rod trend positively, sharing with HOT ROD in 2010, “These are rods and customs built the way Ed Roth painted them on sweatshirts. They’re artistic, fun, and sensational reinterpretations of late ’40s/early ’50s hot rodding as a culture that includes music, clothing, hairstyles, and tattoos. The cars are low, loud, chopped, unpainted (or scalloped, flamed, or lettered), with giant rear tires, lots of carburetors, open pipes, and tall gearshifts. The customs can have slit windows and scrape the ground. Few cars in the ’50s looked like this, but today they can, in countless creative and fun ways.”

Does traditional styling make it a rat rod?

Rat rods tend to share a lot of the vintage details of traditional rods, such as solid front axles, chopped tops, and other retro components. Traditional rods are built (generally) to honor the style of a past era. Rat rods are the funhouse mirror version, built (generally) to take styling to the extreme.

Are rat rods safe?

Some are, some aren’t. The downside of rat rods—and the reason the term is often used derogatorily—is that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to build a rod from assorted parts without making any repairs or paying attention to things such as proper engineering and safety. Not every rat rod is built that way, but many are, which results in a bad reputation for any vintage hot rod with patina’d paint or worn-out seats.

Does patina and/or flat paint make it a rat rod?

Worn paint or a primer finish is one characteristic of rat rods, but that by itself doesn’t automatically make a hot rod a rat rod.

Does a watering can on top of a car make it a rat rod?

Who heard of a car with a watering can on top? Oh wait, there’s one right there in our rat rod photo gallery.

What isn’t a rat rod?

Front hairpins, rear split wishbones, chopped top, satin paint, piecrust bias-ply tires on painted steelies with center caps, suede paint, and a Flathead engine with Stromberg carbs and Lakester headers provide a dictionary of hot rod jargon and identify this Ford Model A coupe as a ’50s-style traditional hot rod, but not (in my inspiringly humble opinion) a rat rod.

It’s timeworn and raw, but please don’t confuse this 1928 Ford Model A roadster for a rat rod, either. Owner Matt Winter carefully researched how hot rods looked in the ’40s and built his roadster to look as as period-correct as possible; using all vintage genuine parts that early hot rodders would recognize.

Wow! This rough old roadster must be a rat right, right? Marion Bledsoe’s original 1933 Ford roadster is actually a low-mileage preserved hot rod survivor from the ’40s. It had been off the road for 62 years when he purchased it from the first owners.

In 1982, Pete Eastwood and Rick Barakat built this 1932 Ford Tudor sedan drag racer. Gray Baskerville called it “the world’s fastest rusto rod” and it was the first primer-painted car to appear on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. In 2006, automotive and hot rod influencers included the Eastwood and Barakat sedan on the famous list of “The 75 Most Significant ’32 Ford of All Time.” My friend thinks it’s a rat rod. I think it isn’t. Who’s right?

When this 1930 Ford Model A roadster pickup was a finalist for the 2009 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award, a few journalists used the term rat rod to describe the proportions of the car. The car includes a Brookville reproduction body, complete custom chassis, 392-inch Hemi engine, and a $200,000 price tag.

Logan Davis made no modifications to the sheet metal of his ’40s-style 1928 Ford Model A roadster, but he added a Deuce grille, vintage headlights and taillights, and other components that hot rodders would have used 75 years ago. Call this roadster a well-built, period-correct traditional hot rod.

Ed Iskenderian’s famous 1924 Ford Model T roadster is a very early hot rod. In this photo from the late ’30s, the roadster is running a Rajo engine, and the front frame horns haven’t been cut off yet. If you told that kid that his car would end up in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, he’d probably say, “Never heard of it.”

Another survivor from the ’40s is this 1929 Ford Model A roadster, which was purchased by a returning World War II soldier who took the car home to Texas and rodded it. After being neglected for decades, the “Waco Kid” was sold to an Austin hot rodder who’s kept it in preserved condition.

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