A Guide to Building a Rat Rod

Rat rods are low-buck, custom-built machines, which is evident by the Jack Daniels coolant overflow tank on this auto.
Rat rods are low-buck, custom-built machines, which is evident by the Jack Daniels coolant overflow tank on this auto. | Source

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

Junk yard parts and ingenuity are the staples of rat rods. If you look close, you can see the suspension on this vehicle is composed of an inverted leaf spring bolted to the chassis by a square plate—hardly high tech!
Junk yard parts and ingenuity are the staples of rat rods. If you look close, you can see the suspension on this vehicle is composed of an inverted leaf spring bolted to the chassis by a square plate—hardly high tech! | Source

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.


The cheap moon roof option.
The cheap moon roof option. | Source
Big rear tires are essential on these high horsepower cars.
Big rear tires are essential on these high horsepower cars. | Source
This Ford had a lot of chopping done to the front end to clear the headers.
This Ford had a lot of chopping done to the front end to clear the headers. | Source

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Comments 22 comments

Big T 2 months ago

hey guys i have a 1974 toyota corolla and was wondering what would be the best frame to use for this car...

roadster 4 months ago

Hoping to build a nice rod for my first car. Can't wait!

help 3 years ago

i need to know the angles and where you cut the frame from front to back. That video was helpful

bucktrak profile image

bucktrak 4 years ago from Midwest

I doubt I'll be building any rat rods soon, but just wanted to get into the rat rod world for a little while. Thanks for an entertaining hub!

pocono foothills profile image

pocono foothills 4 years ago from Easton, Pennsylvania

Very cool article. I go to car shows when I can, and occasionally I see an old beater for sale that would probably make a great rat rod. I need to get a hobby when I retire (not to long from now), so maybe buidling a rat rod would be a good thing to occupy some of my time.

Hui (蕙) profile image

Hui (蕙) 4 years ago

Unique topic reminds people something old but beautiful and important rooting into human life, and will never be really gone...

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

Congratulations on Hub of the Day! A very well done and thoroughly explained piece.

Loved the photos and the video slideshow was well done, also. Voted up, interesting and awesome.

timmathisen profile image

timmathisen 4 years ago from the Land of Lincoln Author

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this article, folks.

JD Bo Dean and JP993: Your comments about "designer" and "immaculate" are spot on. To see overworked older cars taken to the extreme (in my eyes), check out "The Derelicts" short film at

dobo700 profile image

dobo700 4 years ago from Australia

Great hub, I really wish I had the time to get into something like this.

JD Bo Dean 4 years ago

Some people build cars that are immaculate and then try to make them look like Rat Rods. They are missing the point

kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Great interesting and informative hub and so well written and explained .

Vote up and more !!!

tsmog profile image

tsmog 4 years ago from Escondido, CA

I'm with you on the theme and the philosophy while thanking you for the historical tidbits. A fan of the Del Mar Good Guys Show I have always secretly admired these rides. My partner doesn't like them, I do.

I am enamored with the costumes, or historical dress those sharing their rides wear too. Too be honest those 'honeys and dames' in a historical vernacular are downright sexy dishes. Scrumptious could be said how they adorn the ride offering a glimpse of liberty and freedom like the pin-ups girls painted on WWII bombers.

I'm wandering, which is a good thing. An inspiring article and the proof in the pudn' is when I get the opportunity a 'Rat Rod' it will be! I can't wait to pull on a T-shirt shorter than most, roll up a pack of cigarettes in the sleeve, hug my gal and give her a smooch while leaning up against that rig.

Old fighter pilot pals will drop by, prying into my motor, wondering just what lay within, little do they know! I'll squeak a metaphor like closer to a P38 can opener than P51, then mumble want to test her out. Yeah, I'll go a saw buck a gear from here to there. Ifn' you have a girlie automatic I'll spot you the difference, those darn powerglides. Sneaky devils they are.

Well, I did wander and it was fun remembering. The old drag racer saying of "All show and no go" comes into play, maybe. I smile remembering the '67 v-dub I had, stock pretty much on the outside, but that ticket booth at the end kept feeding me those 12's . . .

byshea profile image

byshea 4 years ago

I was building up 1965 Mustangs and Falcons in the 80's before they became so popular and expensive to build up like all the other older cars have become today. I think it's awesome that you can put something together fairly inexpensively from old parts, have an ugly look about it, and still be cool! Great article.

JP993 profile image

JP993 4 years ago from England

There are some very "designer" rat rods these day which misses the point of a rat rod. I love the simplicity of them.

I love the Mad Max 2 Rat Bikes.

v1p3r 4 years ago

great hub

GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 4 years ago from The High Seas

Love it. I wouldn't trade in my boat, mind you, but I do very much like what I see here.

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

Yep, I'm in love with this hub. Awesome HUB OF THE DAY...something unique and interesting...different from the usual hubs of the day. Great job. I am a total sucker for hot rods and rat rods, my friend.

Ashwinkumar99 profile image

Ashwinkumar99 4 years ago

Very interesting hub...

newusedcarssacram profile image

newusedcarssacram 4 years ago from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A

Interesting hub...with useful information!

MJ Miller profile image

MJ Miller 4 years ago from East Tennessee

Cool hub! It gives me ideas...

gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

Great hub and lots of great information. Awesome pictures!

JD Bo Dean 4 years ago

I like that! I don't have the skills needed to do it now but maybe I'll learn!

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