One of the difficulties with rat rods is that they are built to be driven. They don't get to car shows on a trailer, and no one is ever overly concerned about someone scratching a rat rod's paint job. But a vehicle driven on public roads has to meet safety and emissions laws. So, how do rat rodders make sure their machines are on the right side of the law?
Some simply don't. They build their rats however they want, register the car using a somewhat liberal interpretation of what it actually is, and pass safety inspections because they happen to be friends with a licensed mechanic. However, these outlaw rat rodders are in the minority. Most rat rodders are on the level.
The rat rodder who chooses to comply with motor vehicle laws faces a tangle of state and county laws and regulations. Some states are very strict about vehicle inspections -- California has very strict emissions laws, for example. Some states have tough limits on noise levels, or require cars to have good visibility -- a real problem for cars with chopped roofs. The best way around this is usually to register the car as an antique. This exempts it from certain regulations, but it isn't a free pass. Anyone with a rat rod should probably call their local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to find out what they need to do to make their car legal.
Another problem involves serial numbers, vehicle identification numbers (VIN) and titles. Very few rat rodders ever held a title to the various parts of cars they found in fields or bought from a junkyard. Establishing ownership can be difficult -- some states may have laws allowing for the registration of scratch-built cars, while some rat rodders resort to having "fake" serial numbers stamped onto the frame, since VIN numbers weren't uniform prior to 1980, and didn't exist at all in the 1930s.
One workaround for rat rodders is to use a title company that operates in a state with no title requirements for old vehicles. Rat rodder Don Watenpaugh explained the process to us: "You obtain a notarized bill of sale turning your vehicle over to them. They register it [in a state with lax title laws] and sell it back to you, giving you a bill of sale and a current registration with a letter from their state DMV stating that vehicles of a certain age do not require titles. I then went to the Motor Vehicle Department in my home state with all the paper work and the cab [of my truck]. They did a VIN inspection on the cab and checked it against the paper work. Everything checked out and I got a title."
The best answer to the legality issue is to make some phone calls and find out what regulations will apply to your particular vehicle.
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