A Guide to Building a Rat Rod
What Is a Rat Rod?
You may have been looking into fiberglass hot rod kits and found that $5000 dollars won't buy much, especially if you want a customized car body style.
One option is to build a rat rod.
Although these one-of-a-kind autos may look like unfinished piles of junk yard parts and not be suitable for drag racing, they possess a primitive beauty with their gutted interiors and rusty, primered exterior. Without the any custom car paint jobs or chrome wheels, a rat rod can be built for not a lot of money.
Besides, that unfinished-rat-rod-rough-around-the-edges look adds character. It also mirrors what the first hot rods looked like, which were built by car buffs during the Depression. As you can guess, during the '20s and '30s, money was really scarce for people, but that didn't stop mechanically-handy enthusiasts from tinkering with their rides. The independent, do-it-yourself mindset is a defining feature of early hot rods and rat rods. These vehicles are forms of art, designed and built by their owner.
Compare that with the mindset of just buying a kit car, where you follow cookie-cutter instructions and realize that somebody else has the same fiberglass hot rod kit car as you.
Ideas to Get You Started
Old Car Barn Finds
Because you're not looking for collector cars, you can pretty much use any old barn find to get started building.
Finding an old body to use should not be too tough. The make and model of the find is irrelevant unless you have a very specific design in mind.
- In my area, Craigslist always has bodies—most of the time with frames—for less than $500 dollars. This is an inexpensive way to get started.
- Another solution is old car barn finds. If you live in a rural area, many times farmers or folks with a lot of property will have vintage autos parked in the back 40 or in their barns. Often, these folks haven't had the time to pull the rusting car out of the weeds or figure out what to do with it. These vintage autos are just waiting to be built into a custom machine.
The key is to keep your eyes open and talk to your neighbors, who may know where to find one.
Visit Local Scrap Yards
Salvage yards contain a plethora of used parts that are perfect for your rat rod.
If you're searching for a rat rod chassis for your body, you may be able to pick up an older channel chassis for cheap. Vehicles from the '60s, '70s, and '80s make good donor machines. This would keep you from building one, if you're not so inclined. The junkyard is also a good place to pick up engines, transmissions, and rear-ends for cheap.
Besides, if you find a wrecked luxury car, you can snag the leather seats and steering column and put them in your rat rod. There's nothing like riding in style.
Watch a Build Before Starting
Gut the Interior
Rat rods are simple vehicles—kind of like big go-karts. They ride rough, they are loud, they are ugly, and they don't have the creature comforts of heated seats, air conditioning, and the like.
But the "options" that may be in the body you bought—such as ratty bench seats, cracked or broken gauges, or ripped door panel upholstery—need to go.
This kind of stuff, which is ruined anyway, will catch fire once you start cutting and welding the body.
Chop the Top and Frame
Forget your everyday carry multitool. Get out your grinder and MIG welder. It's time to chop the top.
- Most rat rod trucks have a lowered top because the windows on the older trucks are humongous and look silly. You may like the look. If not, shorten the cab height.
- Many builders, also, don't like the cab to be very high on the frame, which means they will make rat rod frame plans to cut it in thirds. The middle portion will be lowered a few inches by welding in a cross brace that reconnects the other two-thirds of the frame. The truck cab would then fit in the lowered portion.
- If you don't have drive train parts, such as a rear-end or front axle, you should be able to pick one up for cheap at a junkyard. The only thing to keep in mind is that the lug pattern will need to match your rims.
- A cheap transmission and motor can be picked up as well. For reassurance, it might be a wise decision to rebuild these items, which is fairly inexpensive.
- If you're lazy, you could always opt for a crate motor or even consider using a compressed natural gas engine.
In either case, you have to have a way to open up the headers and let the exhaust breathe. A rat rod has gotta be LOUD!
Rat Rods Rule!
Building a rat rod does have its ups and downs, including the time required to complete the task. But overall this is a project car that will set you apart from the many fiberglass hot rod car kits—not to mention be a lot less expensive.
Besides, rat rods are works of art, which means they are never finished. That ding or scratch that will eventually mar a custom car paint job will look right at home on a rat rod.