The original hot rod culture was based upon a low budget build on a pre-war car or truck.


The typical project involved the removal of as much weight as possible on the vehicles.


The vehicles were stripped down to their skivvies to get the power to weight ratio improved for better speed.



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The four-bangers in the jalopies were yanked and replaced with a junkyard V-8, most often donated by a post-war sedan with a flattie or early OHV heart under the hood.


Money was a big object for the young builders and a tight budget meant the vehicles ran faster, but were not pretty in a traditional sense like cars with a new paint job.




The choice boiled down to beauty or the beast for hot-rodders on a shoestring budget and beast was easier than beauty for the average car guy-then and now.


The results were the stuff of legends for today’s car guys because they represented a stripped-down bygone era from a time when the hot rod hobby was as young as its pioneers.




Today these rides are known as rat rods in car guy folklore and these unique vehicles always draw a lot of attention at shows because they have a unique style with plenty of admirers.


However the official definition of a rat rod is not quite as clear these days.


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Personally I subscribe to the old school original definition which is true to the philosophy of the car guys from the 40s, 50s and early 60s who first set the parameters with their rides.


These days the rat rod category seems to include anything coated with primer or flat black paint and slammed with four inflated tires.


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Personally I don’t buy the newer and looser definition of rat rod. What these vehicles do represent is the beater category slammed lower to the ground.


They are poor imitations of the real thing, despite the failed efforts of the owner to project an authentic rat rod image on a completely ineligible vehicle.




A real rat rod is a pre-war dinosaur brought back to life as a Frankenstein creation. It will be ugly enough to be beautiful and uncomfortable enough to be life-altering on long trips.


It will have a spine-crushing buckboard ride and the rat rod seats will have as much cushion as the shotgun seat on top of a stagecoach headed to Dodge City in 1875.


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Clearly an authentic rat rod will have a seriously bad attitude and is not built for sissies by any means. The exhaust will be louder than the wind noise in a rat rod- but not by much if it is driven in properly rapid fashion.


The rat rod will be personalized by its owner and the net result will be a creature comfort free zone with a great shifter knob.


Terms like patina and provenance mean little to an authentic rat rod owner because they build their rides for themselves.


Their rat rods are their personal statement that cannot be found on a 70, 80s or 90s vehicle with a flat black paint job and air ride.




You have to start with a 20s or 30s vehicle to be the real deal as a rat rod.


Strip it down-then forget the air ride, air conditioning, killer stereo and even an AM radio, because less is more in a real rat rod- just like the original hot-rodders intended them to be back in the day.

Jim Sutherland

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