Born out of rebellion against the polished and pristine hot rods of yesteryear, rat rods are a unique emblem of individuality, raw creativity, and a defiant desire to buck the trend.
In this article, we’ll drive into the intriguing world of these radical rides, exploring the history of rat rods, their growing popularity, and their unique place in the motoring landscape.
We’ll take a closer look at what defines them, who makes rat rods, and how they encapsulate a movement that values the unconventional, the raw, and the irreverently creative.
A Short History of Rat Rods
The hot rod culture that exploded in popularity in the United States after World War II was all about transforming older, run-down pre-war cars into sleek, fast, and aesthetically beautiful machines. The aim was to make these vehicles perform better, go faster, and look more appealing.
Over time, hot rods evolved into incredibly expensive, meticulously crafted show cars, covered in gleaming chrome and glossy paintwork, not to be driven but to be displayed. Some enthusiasts believed they lost the original spirit of innovation and accessibility.
In response, the rat rod movement emerged as a sort of backlash to the increasingly commercialised hot rod scene. Rat rodders returned to the roots of hot rodding, focusing less on glossy, concourse-style appearances and more on individuality, creativity, and hardcore performance.
As time progressed, this back-to-basics approach gave birth to a distinctive style that would later be termed ‘rat rod.’ Combining rusted panels, mix ‘n’ match or cast-off parts, and a rugged, worn look, these contraptions were a far cry from the polished aesthetic of traditional hot rods. They embodied a raw, rebellious attitude that challenged the prevailing norms.
The mainstream didn’t tend to like them – from the rat rod car, the rat rod bike and even the rat rod truck – and that was exactly why they were built.
In this way, rat rods represented a rebellious subculture that turned against the hot rod trend, harking back to a simpler, grittier time in automotive modification and customisation.
While both hot rods and rat rods have their unique appeals and dedicated fan bases, the two are different sides of the same coin, representing alternative philosophies in car culture.
A Rod for your Own Back
There appears to be no single answer to the question ‘what is a rat rod?’ Even if you look at who makes rat rods, there isn’t a definition that everyone on the scene can agree on.
The term ‘rat rod’ itself has also been credited to a couple of people over the years. It may have been Hot Rod Magazine editor Gray Baskerville in the late 1980s or early 1990s, or well-known Southern California hot-rodder Anthony Castaneda who was interviewed in Rod & Custom magazine around the same time. Whoever it was, they started a movement that shows no signs of slowing down.
At its most simplistic, a rat rod is a hot rod that looks unfinished, shabby or incomplete. They look like they’re assembled against the clock at a scrapyard. It’s about making do with what you have.
There are no rules or standards where rat rods are concerned. They’re made on the cheap and while many do resemble traditional hot rods – solid front axles, chopped tops, retro components and huge tyres – many rat rods are left with open panels and casual relationships with proper engineering and safety features like seat belts.
Famous hot rod journalist and historian Pat Ganahl described rat rods as ‘artistic, fun, and sensational reinterpretations of late ’40s/early ’50s hot rodding as a culture that includes music, clothing, hairstyles, and tattoos. The cars are low, loud, chopped, unpainted, with giant rear tires, lots of carburetors, open pipes, and tall gearshifts.’
The First Rat Rod
Of course there’s no way of knowing who built the first rat rod, indeed it’s likely that these lowbrow hot rods were a dime a dozen in the 1950s, but the car that kickstarted the movement as we know it today was a modded 1932 Ford roadster.
It was owned and built by 80s/90s pop artist Robert Williams, most famous for painting album artwork for the Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction. He was part of California’s hot rod scene and painted his car with a rust-red primer and the words ‘Eights & Aces’ with a graphic of what is known in poker circles as Dead Man’s Hand. The pair of black aces and a pair of black eights were the cards believed to be in the hand of Old West gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok when he was killed.
The narrative goes that he showed this car to Gray Baskerville who called it a rat rod, from the term rat bike – motorcycles thrown together on the cheap. He thought the car fitted the description of a rat bike and the name stuck.
From around 1992, the rat rod movement was alive and kicking.
Rat Rods - Art, Cars or a Social Movement?
Today, rat rods are seen not just as unconventional vehicles but as moving pieces of art, each one telling a unique story.
They’re less about the pristine perfection of traditional car restoration and modification and more about the charm of character, history, and the ability to run well despite their dishevelled appearance.
Rat rods proudly flaunt their imperfections, embracing a kind of gritty, raw beauty that appeals to a growing group of car enthusiasts who appreciate authenticity over polish.