It’s difficult to sum-up the rat rod scene within a short, blog-styled article, but seeing as how I’m about to try, I’ll start with the bold statement that: rat rods are the hipsters of the car world. Think of what a hipster is, by definition. Not the hipster of late, but the hipster at its fundamental roots: someone who does what they want, how they want, with a little anarchy behind the mask. Rat rods and the people that drive them tend to come from that same belief. The belief that: there’s no rules; a classic, “nostalgic look” is only as important as the person reminiscing; and the more creative, the better.
Rat rods are classic vehicles, primarily dated between the 1920s and 1950s that are extremely customized. Generally, the vehicles are 2-door sedans or pickup trucks that look exotic and rustic in appearance. To the naked eye, these vehicles appear incomplete and shabby, but to a keen observer, they’re vintage and punkish.
“The ‘rat rod thing’ is so popular right now, and I know why; it’s because the cars are cartoony, fun, evil, and they just look like we wish hot rods really were,” said David Freiburger, Editor-in-chief of Hot Rod and Hot Rod Deluxe magazines, during one of his YouTube, Roadkill episodes.
The Editor has hit the proverbial nail on the head.. and he ought to. Hot Rod Deluxe magazine is known for having rejuvenated the original the rat rod trend, while resetting what’s expected of the modern “rat Rodder”. Within its early pages, the magazine laid the blueprint for anyone looking to get into the scene.
Though the original “rat rod” culture derives from the hot rodding culture of the 50s, the rat rad subculture really came into its own in the mid-80s and early 90s. It’s rumored that, in 1987, “Jim ‘Jake’ Jacobs gathered spare parts from his amassed personal stash and put together a ’28 Ford Phaeton” (via Wikipedia) that re-inspired the rat rod scene during a Goodguys’ car show in Pleasanton, CA, during the annual West Coast Nationals. The show, known for its stuffy, high class culture, would’ve been shocked to see Jacobs driving his punk-styled, classic Hot Rod to the show, and then proceeding to hand paint the car at the entrance of the show in order to qualify for registration. This act is believed to have started the modern rat rod movement.
Hot Rod Deluxe debuted in the late-90s, giving way to a trend that has been in the mainstream car culture for nearly 20 years.
“The truth is, [some rat rods aren’t] fast, [some aren’t] performance car[s], [some aren’t] fun to drive around in – unless all you want to do is get looked at.” said Freiburger. “[They’re] attention grabber[s]; [some can be] a lot of fun [to drive]; [some are like] a cartoon.. but not something that you want to drive every single day; even though you [could]…”
Many rat rods are so far removed from reality that it’s difficult to imagine anyone driving one. In fact, my very own brother used to own a rat rod for many years, and though I loved to photograph the car, taking a ride in it was a different story.
Rat rods are very low to the ground, generally have stiff suspensions and loud engines, they rattle and shake, and are sometimes troublesome when it comes to maintenance. Just like high fashion, it’s not always cool to be practical. Rat rods are just that – impractical. They’re nifty to look at, but they’re certainly nothing to get excited about.. unless you’re into the “rockabilly” culture.
“It’s a love/hate [relationship] for me. [Rat rods aren’t] really my style, I like a clean and modern look, but I totally understand the appeal,” said Eddie Olschansky, 26, of Kent, Ohio. He’s currently the proud owner of a 1968 Pontiac Firebird, which he’s modifying with a C4 Corvette frame. Olschansky has a bored, 454 ci. big-block, topped with dual Holly pumps, and aluminum heads. He plans to drop the setup between the late-model Vette’s fenders this upcoming year – once the street/strip suspension is complete.
“I have a lot of respect for guys who recycle parts from random classics for their ‘rats; or old tools [welded on]; or whatever cool looking old stuff they have laying around the barn.. [using things] as design element[s] ..I think I even saw a few rat rods with actual mail boxes for hood scoops, [that’s] perfection. It’s like ‘hillbilly’ design, more so than ‘hillbilly’ engineering.”
In the case of my brother’s rat rod, for many years (a video I took of my Dad and Brother returning home in the ’42 rat rod) ..I think he’d never really had any experience with the culture and the car seemed neat. Years later, the cumbersome work involved and impractical nature of the car became too much and, like many of his projects, he sold it to buy one more car for the collection.
I’ve always enjoyed looking at the rats from afar, but I’ve never really found the scene to resemble what I like (the music, clothing, and personalities). I’m not really into the punk or rockabilly culture, but I can respect it and I’m all about a diversity of classic and custom vehicles. When I think about it, I really like to see someone driving something that’s done well.
When rat rods resemble the classic vehicles in vintage photos of Salt Flat racing and mid-century hot rodding, they become a testament to good design, good taste and a devotion to the past while ignoring its unwritten rules.
The ADM is currently planning a Rat Rod event in April 2015. Stay Tuned.