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A Primer on Rat Rods

Rat Rod DodgeWhat is a rat rod? The old phrase “you’ll know it when you see it” may apply. This style of hot rod has a definitive start and has developed some general subcategories over the years.

Originally, hot rodding was a matter of necessity. After WWII, people wanting performance had to build things on their own using whatever was available or building things themselves. Over time, the aftermarket stepped in, eventually supplanting old parts with new ones. By the 1980s, a whole roadster could be build using new parts and people like Boyd Coddington were creating custom cars that could cost upward of six figures. These “billet rods,” named after the billet aluminum parts used in them, were out of reach of ordinary enthusiasts. What was once rebellious was now a bunch of boring, identical cars driven by a bunch of boring rich guys.

In 1987, Jake Jacobs of Pete and Jake’s Hot Rod Parts shocked the hot rodding world with his “Jakelopy.” Wanting to get away from the billet rods, he showed up at the West Coast Nationals with a ’28 Ford Phaeton he’d spend less than a month building using spare parts from his shop. Painting was done at the show. He handed passers-by brushes to help him finish his masterpiece. This kicked off a movement to get hot rodding back into home garages.


Types of Rat Rods

Journalist Gray Baskerville is thought to have coined the name “rat rod,” taking the term from “rat bikes,” motorcycles built out of whatever was on hand for function and fun, not looks. Over time, rat rods have split into four distinct groups:

Traditional rods – Builders use period-correct design and parts try to emulate early hot rods as closely as possible.

Caricature rods – Modern techniques and materials let builders make cars that look like they came straight from an Ed Roth drawing down to the stacks of carburetors and absurdly long shifters.

Modern rods – As pre-war cars are becoming harder to find, builders are applying hot rod style to more modern, readily-available cars.

Crap rods – Sometimes called “schlock rods” after the Jan & Dean song, these are a collection of old parts cobbled together without any regard to performance or safety.

What category a given car falls in is strictly a matter of opinion. Owners may love or hate any given moniker, while many billet fans will put everything in the crap rod category or declare good cars “beaters,” thinking that they’re merely works in progress waiting for proper paint. Whatever you may think of these cars, there’s no denying that they’ve done a lot to revive hot rodding as a whole.

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