How Bare Metal Hot Rods Work


A bare metal Buick Series 50
A bare metal Buick Series 50
(Creative Commons/Flickr/mike)

Leaving a car bare isn't a new idea, but the trend is enjoying a resurgence. Can't picture it? Think of the 1980s classic gull-wing DeLorean (aka the time machine in "Back to the Future"). It's not quite the same, but it'll give you an idea of the metal's overall look. There's a lot more to building and maintaining a bare metal ride than meets the eye, even if it seems like it would be a low-maintenance way to start hanging out with the hot rod crowd. After all, it's not just a car that someone started to put together and then ran out of money to complete. A bare metal finish is definitely a conscious choice, not an accident, and it requires a lot of upkeep. Find that hard to believe? Well, think about why cars are painted in the first place. It's for protection as much as aesthetics. And since most bare metal cars aren't stainless steel, although they might look a little bit like it, rust is almost always a concern.

A typical production car goes through a process in which several coats of primer, paint, and then clear coat are baked onto the car, and this finish normally works pretty well to protect the car's exterior surfaces from minor damage. Aside from looking nice, the objective of a paint finish is to keep the body metal from making contact with the elements. Once that happens, the metal's structural integrity can begin to break down. Think about how quickly a rust patch can spread from a simple, minor scratch in the paint. An average car owner might not dwell on such a problem, but to the show-car crowd, it's a disaster. And, if left unchecked, exposed metal and rust spots can spread quickly, which is a problem on any car -- show-worthy or not. The damage can even work its way underneath the protective paint surface, eating away at the car's metal that remains unseen.

If a quality paint job is so important, you may ask: Why is a group of people that are obsessed with their cars' appearance deliberately making life more difficult by opting to bare it all? Well, to some people, the additional challenge is exactly what makes it worthwhile, resulting in a unique, eye-catching vehicle.

A Nudist Camp (of sorts)

A quick search of Google Images will reveal that bare metal cars run the gamut from gritty to glamorous.
A quick search of Google Images will reveal that bare metal cars run the gamut from gritty to glamorous.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/JOHN LLOYD)

Hot rodding attracts a diverse following, so there's always friendly debate about styles, approaches, technique and even an individual car's purpose (such as whether it's raced, rolled out for shows only, or kept as a toy for sunny days). Bare metal cars make up a relatively small subculture of hot rodding, but even so, there's still a lot to of possible paths to take. A quick search of Google Images will reveal that bare metal cars run the gamut from gritty to glamorous. Some embrace the rat rod approach, allowing the car to showcase the bad along with the good, while others are polished and pristine.

That decision is often (but not always) influenced by the builder's skill set. Restoring a hot rod takes a lot of time and effort, as well as metalworking skill. High quality metal work is always important, but in most cases, the welds and other evidence are covered by a few coats of primer and paint. Setting out to build a bare metal hot rod means that every step of the process will be open to scrutiny on the finished product, so clean, quality work is really important. Inexperienced fabricators and welders should probably practice before attempting such a project -- especially if perfection is high on the priority list.

The exterior of a bare metal car is the obvious attraction, but it's far from the only consideration. Hot rod culture also plays a role in other aspects of the build, such as the powerplant and the interior treatment. Original engines are a prized commodity in the hot rod community, yet it's rather rare to stumble on a project car with the mechanicals left totally intact, so upgrades and modifications are totally permissible. Some builders choose to take the "naked" theme as far as possible, eschewing almost all creature comforts and interior finishes [source: Nguyen]. In these extreme cases, even the shift mechanism and drivetrain components are left bare and exposed, although seat cushions are a common concession. If you get to the point where your bare metal hot rod is finally ready for the road, and you decide you want a comfortable interior to help make your drive more enjoyable, even the most hardcore rodders wouldn't fault you for it.

Stripping Down

Using an angle grinder to polish the bare metal surface can provide a unique, textured finish.
Using an angle grinder to polish the bare metal surface can provide a unique, textured finish.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/Dave Parker)

Before getting started, it's worth considering that not all hot rod project cars are a good candidate for this style, although it depends a lot on the owner's particular aesthetic preferences. But the car's structural integrity is important no matter what the desired result. A shell that's heavily damaged or caked with body filler isn't a good candidate to bare it all, and, of course, the car's body panels and other bolt-on parts (like door handles, bumpers and even body trim pieces) have to be actual metal. Composites, plastics and cheap aftermarket replacements just won't work. In fact, this is where some of the more talented metalworkers take the opportunity to show off their skills, designing and fabricating custom metal parts for items that need to be repaired or replaced.

After the specimen is chosen, stripping off its paint is just the first step. Sanding is crucial, and there are various approaches. Using tools such as angle grinders or rotary sanders will get the job done efficiently, although perhaps lacking the delicate touch that the most particular of builders prefer. The most finicky sometimes hand-sand the car, which is a long and arduous process, and can be accomplished with sandpaper or other abrasives, including steel wool. It takes a lot of arm and shoulder strength to penetrate and remove the layers of finish on a car, especially a vintage hot rod, which is likely to have had several coats of paint applied over the decades. A combination of approaches, using power tools for large areas and manual sanding for smaller and more intricate areas, is a solid strategy. Another option is to blast the car's shell clean with a media blaster, using the appropriate abrasive for the specific job -- sand, plastic or glass beads, even bits of walnut shells are among the many possible options. This might require transporting the car to a well-equipped body shop or custom-build shop, or you might opt to purchase an affordable kit that can make the job possible right in your own garage (though it will be messy). Chemical strippers are also available. Whatever the approach, it's important to not cut corners with the paint removal. Getting the metal as smooth and as rust-free as possible will make the rest of the process much easier, although it's still just the beginning.

The newly naked car is likely to reveal some flaws that weren't visible under the paint. A skilled metalworker will enjoy the opportunity to show off his or her talents and make everything perfect once again; but others might decide to simply not bother with minor cosmetic repairs. Both avenues are totally acceptable and embraced within hot rod culture -- it's a matter of personal preference. Either way, if metal repairs are going to be made, now is the time to do it.

The Big Finish

A skilled metalworker will enjoy the opportunity to show off his or her talents; but others might decide to simply not bother with minor cosmetic repairs.
A skilled metalworker will enjoy the opportunity to show off his or her talents; but others might decide to simply not bother with minor cosmetic repairs.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/Howard Dickins)

Car enthusiasts, especially those with a show-worthy project, often put a lot of thought into the vehicle's color. Whether a car is finished in factory paint or a custom hue, it's often a difficult, but fun, decision to make. Opting to go the bare metal route takes away that potential, but there are other options to add interest to a car's panels. For example, using an angle grinder to polish the car can provide a unique, textured finish; and flash rusting has been used to create areas of contrast or even stencil-like designs.

In some climates, a bare metal car will begin to rust almost immediately -- as soon as the metal comes into contact with any kind of moisture, even just the stickiness in the air on a humid day. To maintain the proper bare metal look, it's necessary to prevent or minimize this effect. Some bare metal cars do have a clear coat, although that approach lacks a little in the authenticity department, and moisture can sometimes still get beneath the surface, allowing rust to become visible beneath the supposedly impenetrable finish. If this option is appealing, there are clear coat products designed specifically to cover bare metal, such as Eastwood's Diamond Clear Gloss.

Waxing works, too, but it's a semi-permanent solution. "Semi" because you'll need to redo it regularly for maintenance, and "permanent" because once you make this choice, you can never go back. Even though the wax coat needs to be maintained, that first application of wax-to-bare-metal adheres and absorbs in a way that can't be removed. If the owner of a bare metal hot rod waxes just once, that one coat is almost guaranteed to cause problems when it's time to go a different route, such as painting. The metal surface will never again be a clean slate.

Lubricants are also a possibility. WD-40 is perhaps one of the best known lubricant products on the market, and it's sometimes recommended for a bare metal car finish -- but it can cause the same problems as wax. Gibbs Brand, however, produces a penetrating oil that is known to be one of the most popular products for bare metal hot rods, and it applies easily with a paper towel. One of the reasons Gibbs Brand is so popular is because it immediately penetrates the smallest pores of the metal surface to prevent oxidation, and it even claims to remove rust. It protects bare metal surfaces like a lubricant, but it can also be painted over, so using Gibbs Brand isn't a point-of-no-return scenario. It's also reported to prevent fingerprints and other such surface stains, which any owner of a stainless steel refrigerator can easily appreciate. Some Gibbs Brand loyalists suggest applying the product immediately to any area of the car that's been freshly stripped of paint; in other words, don't wait until the whole car is bare to start protecting it.

Like any major project, it's important to make wise decisions during the entire process of building a bare metal hot rod, and there are many more in-depth resources available that you can consult along the way. Getting involved in the culture is definitely a good way to learn more about your new project -- and it'll make the end result more enjoyable, too.

Author's Note: How Bare Metal Hot Rods Work

The amount of upkeep required for this look is a bit much for me, but I do admire the resilience of everyone who can pull it off. These bare metal street rods have an appeal similar to that of an Airstream trailer -- there's just something appealing about that much gleaming metal. Perhaps it's because they give off a kind of warmth, even though metal is inherently cold and unforgiving. It's honest. The visible seams and hardware of the body panels is another plus; although, I'm surprised that (at least to my knowledge) no one has ever buffed one of these perfectly smooth -- sort of like the Cloud Gate "bean" sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park. The car would barely look like a hot rod at that point, but it would be a rather impressive feat.

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Sources

  • Courter, Josh. "What Exactly Is A Rat Rod and Where Did It All Begin?" RodAuthority. Nov. 27, 2012. (May 31, 2014) http://www.rodauthority.com/features/car-features/what-exactly-is-a-rat-rod-and-where-did-it-all-begin/
  • Eastwood. "Eastwood Diamond Clear Gloss for Bare Metal." (May 31, 2014) http://www.eastwood.com/diamond-clear-gloss-set.html
  • Gibbs. "Gibbs Brand: The Amazing Bare Metal Car." (May 27, 2014) http://www.gibbsbrand.info/bare_metal_car.html
  • Nguyen, Linhbergh. "A Littleboy's Rat Rod Dream." Speedhunters. Aug. 30, 2009. (May 28, 2014) http://www.speedhunters.com/2009/08/car_feature_gt_gt_a_littleboy_s_rat_rod_dreamin/
  • Roadsters.com. "Gibbs Brand penetrant." (May 31, 2014) http://www.roadsters.com/gibbs/