El Cheapo: Building A Rat Rod For $1,500 – It’s A Wrap!

Yeah, yeah, I know… It’s a Rat, and Rats grit on your last nerve. They’re junk and not put together well, but nay I say unto thee. Thou hast not done thy homework. Like everything else in the world, the object is subject to the master. What?? Yes, indeed some are junk and unsafe, but in this case let me bore you with details. It cost $1,500, not $15,000. It goes down the road  straight and true and runs like a scalded dog.

It gets 23 miles to the gallon and you never have to worry about a car door being slammed into it or an unsupervised 10 year old smearing ice cream all over it as he climbs all over it back to front while his clueless parents are dazed, not yet realizing the little monster needs taming. I digress. 

It’s not your SEMA rod, but it didn’t cost 80k either. For that reason alone you need one to run parts in and just relax while you do so. The history on this goes something like this. I have a hot rod shop and I was building a 53 Chevy for a client. At the end of the ride he still owed $300.00 which he didn’t have.

What he did have was a rust bucket 1948 3/4 ton truck which had been sitting in a field for many, many years.

The bottom 8 inches all the way around was completely rusted out. The windshield was out and the weather had rusted the dash completely in two. The top was too rusted to insert a windshield and dinged all over. The bed floor was gone and bed sipes were beyond repair.

The catch was, if I didn’t take it, I would never gain the last of my money, so off it went to the Ringrods Hot Rod Shop. After sitting in my way for a week, I realized I had to do something to make it work. At that point, I pulled the cab which was the only usable part.

The rest was parted out and then hauled to the scrapyard. The money earned from those transactions was $150. I know I had $150 invested in the cab and thought what do I have to lose. After bracing and tacking the doors together to keep them true, I began cutting. Eight inches came off the bottom all the way around, thus removing any rust on the bottom. The bottom hinges had to be moved up, which is no biggy if you watch closely to how they’re put together.

Next the 2-inch drip where side windows come up through was removed right after the top was also removed (remember the top was unusable). This left a gap to which a piece of 3/4-inch plywood was inserted, glued, and covered with fiberglass mesh and then bondoed. 

The windshield frame at this point looked way too tall. Six inches of the top section got lopped off and filled with 3/4 plywood as well. It also got the fiberglass mesh and bondo treatment. At this point it became obvious the cab was too wide. I cut 10 inches out of the center and welded it back together which helped two-fold. It made it the perfect T-Bucket width, and it also removed the rusted out part of the dash.

Don’t try any of this without cross-bracing and tacking the doors in place to keep everything looking true. Looking it over now made me know this was the look I was going for. Never be afraid to cut up a car. It’s just metal and can be worked and reworked over and over.

It’s not like wood where one wrong cut and you’re screwed. I built a bed from 18-gauge sheetmetal which was 43-inches wide, 36-inches long and 16-inches tall. I bent the tops out 45-degrees and welded a 1/2-inch gas pipe down both sides to give it that old-school pickup bed look. 

I made a decklid from the same material and hinged it with a piano hinge. It looked real cool sitting on the floor behind the cab and was the excitement needed to complete it. The frame was a no-brainer move to go 2 x 3 x ⅛-inch wall thickness which is plenty strong and super lightweight.

$65 bought all the steel and I was ready. I did a L kick-up in back to support the cab and Z-cut the front to step up 3 inches. Doesn’t sound like much, but saves oil pans for days. Staying in the cheap cycle came a 8.8 Ford truck rearend at $50, and a 1957 Ford truck front straight axle. I wanted that old-school rod look with no fenders, hood, etc., and a straight axle with a transverse spring which I made brackets for. A side note to those who fear straight axles would be to add a Panhard bar left to right and steering damper the same way.

With that combo a straight axle will handle as well as any other. The steering box was 1960 Ford — by the way, all of these old boxes can be rebuilt. The motor, which is a 350 came from a 1970 Nova yielding a whopping 255 horsepower. After some tinkering, that became 300-plus. In most cases that’s not a lot, but when it’s only having to pull less than 1,500 pounds, it becomes a different animal. The thrust will lay you back in the seat with little effort. The trans came from a 1979 Chevy truck and shortened very short which gives stability out the wazoo. The feet are shod with 275/75/15 rear and 195/65/15 up front.

The only splurge I couldn’t resist was a pair of 2 and 3-inch portawalls from Hawk Hardware in Manchester, Tennessee. At $20 each, the $80 spent was more than worth it. The seats came out of a boat, and the shifter is a swap meet special at $20. The gas tank is a Farmall tractor tank refitted to lay on its side complete with fuel gauge. The headers are galvanized fence pipe poles with a turn up piece on each.

Inside each tube is the inside piece from Harley Davidson pipes and serves well to somewhat hush the otherwise cop-attracting roar which would get you a ticket every time. This little Ford roadster truck is an absolute blast to drive and turns heads around Nashville, Tennessee, as much as any rod ever could.

I could have spent more than $1,500, but why? It’s all the fun I could hope for and thus the title, El Cheapo… Be sure to stay tuned to Rod Authority in the coming months for my next project. It will be titled Sham-Pain — Shop Truck on a Beer Budget. It will be the complete build of a 1942 Ford truck on the cheap and designed as the ultimate parts getter. 

Everyone loves shop trucks and you will love this one! Until next time, keep rodding alive and well! A very special thanks to Russ Harrington Studio for the photoshoot! Check us out at RingrodsHotrodShop or Tommy Lee Ring on Youtube and Facebook.

Go here for all episodes…

About the author

Tommy Ring

Tommy’s love for Hotrods was passed down from the elder Ring who wrenched on cars and welded. Tommy’s living came from music as a road musician in venues across America. Tommy also worked as a studio musician and wrote for a jingle company, yet always had a project Rod going on the side. In 2009 Tommy opened RingRods HotRod Shop and in 2012 began writing for RatRod Magazine. Tommy also has a Rod Building Video sold worldwide. Tommy has been featured on TV, Radio, Podcast, and in several magazines.
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