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What is a Rat Rod?

Mike Howells
Mike Howells

A rat rod is the nickname given to a customized type of classic car that is intentionally designed to look imperfect or unfinished. This is in contrast to the related style of cars known as hot rods, to which great attention to detail is paid to ensure as complete and flawless an appearance as possible. Both rat rods and hot rods are typically based, or modeled, on American coupes from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Though initially used in a deprecating manner, the term rat rod has grown in stature since it first originated in the 1960s. Whereas the first rat rods were typically rough in appearance simply due to a lack of money for repairs or improvements, new rat rods are purposely intended to be this way, in celebration of the originals. The founding hallmarks of a rat rod, including primer paint jobs, untreated rust spots, and exposed wheels and engines, remain essential and celebrated in the rat rod community.

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Woman posing

Another common characteristic of a rat rod is a chopped roof, which means a sizable portion of the A, B, and C pillars that attach the body to the roof are removed, thus lowering the roofline and giving a more aggressive stance. Purposely rudimentary interiors are also the norm, with leather seats and plush floor mats passed over in favor of plain bench seating and quilted or beaded padding. Working electronics, such as radios, are left out as well or disguised to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Since the 1960s, rat rods have garnered a community following of nearly equal size to hot rods and have moved out from under the shadow of their generally more expensive, less driven siblings. A common point of humorous contention between rat rod enthusiasts and hot rodders is that the latter spend a great deal more money putting together cars that wind up never being road-driven. Rat rodders by contrast pride themselves on having functional cars whose pristine form is a lesser priority.

The advent of the Internet has played an important role in the increasing popularity of rat rods. Where once the hobby was supported only by a relative few number of specialist publications, the ease of web-based communication has spurred a multitude of blogs, forums, and sites dedicated to rat-rodding. In addition to bringing enthusiasts together, such hubs have also served as a way to pair worldwide consumers of rat rod parts and accessories with suppliers who may not otherwise have the reach, or resources, to connect.

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