How Rat Rods Work

Rat Rods and Rockabilly

Rat City Rukkus
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.