A “rat rod” is a name accredited to a hot rod that has been typically hand-built, and is commonly free of signature characteristics of street rods, namely billet components, high gloss, candied or metal flake paint. Rat rods are usually in “rough” condition, unfinished or purposefully incomplete. Because of their “ratty” condition, the name stuck. Since then, rat rod has been wholly accepted – although begrudgingly by some groups – in the hot rodding nomenclature.
Rat rods have been around since the early days of hot rodding and racing, but back then they were just considered hot rods. The term “rat rod” could have been coined by anyone.
Some sources say the term was started by a car club in Southern California called the Shifters in the mid 1990s, but the Late Gray Baskerville, Hot Rod Magazine’s venerable staffer is quoted as the first person in the magazine industry to popularize it about the same time period.
Some owners of cars described as rat rods don’t like the term, in fact some even despise it and prefer the term traditional hot rod. Many others embrace the term rat rod as an endearment in the same fashion “jalopy” has.
The roots of rat rodding can be traced as far back as the ‘20s when racers would chop parts off their cars to make them go faster with complete disregard for safety. It was a common sight to see cars show up at drag strips with hot rods that were turned away due to being unsafe. Most early hot rods were built on the cheap using whatever parts could be scrounged from tractors, salvaged aircraft parts, and wrecking yards.
When rat rods made their big comeback in the 90s it wasn’t necessarily to relive the past. It was more of an uprising against the street rods of the time that were being built as cookie-cutter cars with a sea of red or black paint with engines overly dressed with billet parts and surrounded by creepy little faceless dolls. When rat rods first started coming to hot rod shows and gatherings, the owners of nicely built street rods would throw a fit and move their cars as if the ugly would rub off on their car.
Even though there’s no real checklist to building a rat rod, they will typically look as though the body was pulled directly out of a field still adorning rust holes and what’s left of paint with patina, dropped on an equally distressed frame, powered by any engine other than a typical small-block Chevy or Ford. The more unique the powerplant, the better, like a Ford Flathead, Buick Nailhead, or 331 or 354ci Chrysler HEMI. Other more exotic plants have found their way into these machines like diesels and inline sixes and eights.
Simple leaf spring suspension, old style axles, drum brakes, vintage steel or aluminum wheels with “pie crust” tires, and sparse interior typically covered with flea market blankets total out the rest of the look.
Rat rods have typically been comprised of cars and trucks of ‘40s vintage and earlier basically a car that could be considered an unfinished street rod. Nowadays the term rat rod is getting diluted and being used to describe cars one wouldn’t even consider calling a street rod if it were finished with beautiful paint and bodywork.
We’ve heard people refer to distressed cars of 1980s vintage being called rat rods. Of course there are many variations of rat rods that irritate the traditional rat rodders when they are built using era-incorrect parts such as current power plants, modern suspension systems, as well as hideous spears, junk yard trash and weird decorations. Much like hot rods, rat rods will continue to evolve, that’s what hot rodding is all about.