How Rat Rods Work

Classic Car Image Gallery Bruce Oliver's 1932 Willys Pickup. See more classic car pictures.
Courtesy of Bruce Oliver


Classic car enthusiasts love their buffed, shined, chromed beauties. Across the United States, pristine examples of automotive history roll off auction blocks with sales prices of five, six or even seven figures, each part lovingly restored to better-than-new condition, or replaced with flawless replica items cut from expensive billets of aluminum alloy. Go to any cruise night or car show and you'll find row upon row of these flashy cars from the '50s, '60s and '70s.

However, if you look around a little you might find a few rows of cars that look decidedly different. No chrome. Sometimes no paint, and if there is paint, it's usually primer black or gray. Bodies liberally marked by rust, mismatched parts, dents and dings or even bullet holes. Look closely and you won't find original dealer sheets or matching serial numbers -- instead, you might notice that the car was cobbled together from the corpses of half a dozen vehicles, and part of it might have been built entirely from scratch. These are the rat rods.

­Stan­ding next to the rat rods are the rat rodders, the guys and girls that love their tarnished treasures, and they even have a certain amount of disdain for the "trailer queens" gleaming in the next row. Rat rodders build their cars to be fast and loud and cool, and while they're a diverse bunch, you're likely to see most of them sporting slicked-­down hair, blue jeans and black leather jackets. As you'll learn over the next few pages, rat rodding is about more than just the cars and trucks -- it's also a lifestyle.

In this article, we're going to scrape away the primer and rust and find out what makes these machines (and their proud owners) tick.

Rat Rod Characteristics

Don Watenpaugh's 1951 Ford F1 rat truck.
Don Watenpaugh's 1951 Ford F1 rat truck.
Courtesy of Don Watenpaugh

What exactly is a rat rod? Ask five different rat rodders and you might get five different answers. At the most basic level, a rat is a classic car that has not been restored. Those are the two key elements. The "newest" rat rods are from the early '70s, and most rodders would say a true rat rod comes from the '60s or '50s. Some are even built using various components from the 1930s. Unrestored means you don't replace that dented fender; you simply hammer it out or just leave the dent. If it's rusted, well, that's all the better. Glossy, two-tone paint jobs are out of the question. If a rat rod is painted at all, the paint is typically a flat finish, and it's applied with spray cans. If a part absolutely needs to be replaced, don't worry about finding an aftermarket replica. Find a part from another old car and use that. If you have to weld, bend or machine the piece to make it fit, that's part of the fun. The best rat rodders just fabricate the part themselves if they need to.

When you get beyond "old and busted," there are some characteristics usually identified with rat rods. They're typically loud and usually made to go fast. Anything unnecessary is stripped away, including, in many cases, mufflers and pollution control devices. Rat rods seem to come with a certain outlaw mentality. They're also usually heavily modified from their stock form. Lowered suspensions and chopped roofs are common, and some cars are shortened, lengthened or made with completely custom designs.

We spoke with Jim Marquez, a rat rod builder and enthusiast and member of the Junkyard Pirates car club. He felt the term rat rod itself was somewhat diluted. "I prefer the term hot rod," he said. "Now there are cars that are built specifically to be called a 'rat,' and most of them would be made to look rusty, weathered, beaten and shot up. I wanted a mean, fast, scary car, and that's what I built. Everyone who saw it said, "Cool rat," but to me it was just a hot rod. A car made for nothing but going fast."

Being a rat rodder is all about cars, then, right? Not to everyone. In the next section, we'll look at the fashion and music that some people feel are integral to the rat-rod scene.

Rat Rods and Rockabilly

The Rat City Rukkus is a car show that caters to the rust-and-primer crowd.
The Rat City Rukkus is a car show that caters to the rust-and-primer crowd.
Courtesy of James Marquez

­­If there's one word you'll hear a lot when you ask people about rat rods, it's "rockabilly." Rockabilly is a style of music that dates back to the early 1950s, with roots that reach back even farther. Original rockabilly was a blend of country and blues music with a driving rhythm and soulful vocals, and was a direct progenitor of rock and roll. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are among the better known purveyors of early rockabilly.

In the late 1970s, rockabilly enjoyed a revival that coincided with the explosion of punk rock. The sounds and styles blended somewhat, so that modern rockabilly has a bit of a harder edge to it. Some bands play a punk/rockabilly blend referred to as "psychobilly."

What does all this have to do with rat rods? Many rat rodders are fans of rockabilly music and style themselves after their rockabilly heroes. The basic rockabilly look comes from the '50s greaser -- white t-shirt, black leather jacket, hair slicked and combed back or up into a pompadour. Rockabilly girls favor '50s-style dresses and Bettie Page hairstyles. The rat rods themselves are sometimes given a rockabilly touch with a few stylistic flourishes, such as flames, skulls, devils or dice.

On the other hand, one of the things rat rodders take pride in is their diversity. Not everyone with a rat is into rockabilly. "I think most of us in this culture listen to a good mix of music," said Marquez. "As for style, a lot of the guys in this hobby dress in the style of '50s greasers not necessarily out of style but more out of necessity." It turns out slicked hair and leather jackets are very practical when you're cruising around in an open-top roadster, and jeans and t-shirts are standard garage wear for most gearheads.

One thing all the rat rodders we spoke to emphasized was how accepting and easygoing the rat rod scene is. Whether you enjoy rockabilly or polka music, a shared love for rusting sheet metal and thundering engines is all you really need.

Ok, so rat rods sound real cool, right? But where do you find cars and parts to make one? Find out on the next page.

Rat Rod Parts


One of the major draws of rat rodding is the low cost. Compared to the street-rod scene, where enthusiasts can spend thousands of dollars on individual chromed billet parts, very few rat rods cost more than $5,000 total. A lot of rat rodders build cars for much less because they are able to use junk parts that they fabricate into something useful.

Bruce Oliver started out with a few body parts from a 1932 Willys truck that he found in a junkyard. Over the years, he collected parts from a Plymouth, a Ford, a Chevy, a semi truck, an Oliver tractor and even an airplane. "The front axle is 1931 Ford, with '49-'54 Chevy spindles, Mustang II rotors, GM calipers and topped off with Plymouth wheels," Oliver said. "Many other parts were freebies. There was a lot of buying, selling and swapping involved in this to keep the costs down. The final cost, roughly, was around $2,300."

While you can find suitable frames and bodies for a rat rod almost anywhere, most come from the southwestern region of the U.S. There, the dry air and mild winters preserve metal parts far longer than in the north. Wet weather and road salt leave cars rusted and rotting -- you won't find many abandoned or wrecked cars that can be salvaged from much earlier than the 1950s in the northern states. Indeed, this is probably why the rat rodding scene is much bigger in the southwest than it is up north.

Like many rat rodders, Jim Marquez takes almost as much pleasure in the hunt for the car as he does in building and driving it. "The body of my 1929 Dodge was in a field in Texas. I had been searching everywhere to find a four-door body. I made many trips around the west coast searching anywhere an old body might be laying that I could get," he said. "There are hundreds of cars scattered around the Nevada deserts. I come across them all the time, but to find one that some kids haven't thrown rocks at and busted up or has not had rednecks shooting holes in it is pretty rare. I know of a spot in northern Nevada where there are literally hundreds of car bodies used as ground fill to divert irrigation water."

Finding the car is only half the battle. Next, find out what skills you'll need to put together your rat rod.

Putting Together a Rat Rod

This rat rod has parts from a little bit of everything, including the grill from an old Oliver tractor.
This rat rod has parts from a little bit of everything, including the grill from an old Oliver tractor.
Courtesy of Bruce Oliver

Putting together a rat rod is a little different than restoring a classic car. With a restoration project, you're either installing original parts or replicas. Some of those parts might even come with instructions. Not so with rat rods. You will probably not be able to find an Internet FAQ that explains how to weld a 1929 Dodge body onto a 1952 Chevy pickup frame. You may find yourself combining parts that have never been combined in the history of the automobile. So you'd best know how to do some fabrication and welding or at least know someone who does. Bruce Oliver relied on his older brother's welding skills. "Without him, my rat rod would not have been possible."

A lot of mechanical skill and knowledge of car repair is vital. And it's important to remember that your rat rod will not be not showroom perfect, and it sure as heck won't be under warranty. Parts will break and you'll need to fix them yourself. Hopefully you won't have to fix them on the side of the road when you're far from home. Before you ever head out onto the open road, you'll likely have to rebuild a lot of older mechanical parts on your rat rod, too, such as the starter, alternator, carburetor or even the entire engine just to name a few.

But perhaps even more important than basic mechanical knowledge is the ability to improvise, solve problems and be creative. This is yet another factor that makes rat rods appealing -- they display the creative mechanical efforts of their owners. Very rarely does a part just fit into place. Oliver said, "In some ways a rat rod is a work of art if you take the time to look at the fine details involved in building them." He also said the owners "usually have some very ingenious methods to do things."

Let's say, for example, you rebuild an old engine to drop into your rat rod. It's obviously not an engine designed to fit that particular car, so you need to make your own engine mounts. You'll have to carefully measure the mounting points so the engine will link up to the transmission properly. Then you'll have to figure out how to connect the transmission to the junkyard rear-end assembly you found. As you can see, problem-solving skills are a necessity for rat rodders.

Building a cool, loud, beat-up car sounds great, but are these things legal? We'll find out in the next section.

Are rat rods legal?

Getting a title for your rat rod can be difficult -- but not impossible.
Getting a title for your rat rod can be difficult -- but not impossible.
Courtesy of Don Watenpaugh


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.

For more information about rat rods and other related topics, follow the cobbled-together links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Marquez, James. Personal correspondence. Jan. 23, 2009.
  • Oliver, Bruce. Personal correspondence. Jan. 29, 2009.
  • Rat Rod Stuff. "How to Build a Rat Rod." (Jan. 27, 2009)
  • Watenpaugh, Don. Personal correspondence. Feb. 3, 2009.