Ugly is Beautiful

Oct 15, 2010

If you base your opinion on the value of a hot rod by how shiny and clean it is, then welcome to the revolution.

Welcome to rat rods.

Ugly is now beautiful, as what used to be the domain of shade-tree mechanics, greasers, junkyard bad boys and other social misfits and rebels have earned some respect. Now admired (maybe from afar, but still-¦) by the wine-and-cheese crowd, rat rods steal the spotlight at industry trade shows and cruise nights.

They bring a smile to kids, adults, cops, priests and used car salesmen wherever they go.

Rust is in. Bullet holes are in. Flat black, primer red and primer gray are in. Faded pinstripes and scuffed lettering are in.

And, safety is in: new suspension, steering, brakes-all in.

Back in the day, nobody built a rat rod to sell. People built them because they didn’t have any money. Now they are having them built. So for some, rat rods are not just respectable; rat rods are good business.

Rat rod building does involve a certain level of boldness, but only to the extent that many types of creative endeavors often break away from traditions and molds. Beyond that, it’s not unlike other businesses-success depends on service, dependability and some common sense.

What is a Rat Rod?

It’s a challenge to label a phenomenon that resists labels and refuses to fit neatly into categories, so defining just what a rat rod really is can be elusive. Like most art forms, it depends on who you ask.

Joe Azhderian owns Weld County Customs in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and has built several rat rods for personal use, company use and for customers.

“A rat rod is an old-school hot rod,” he says. “You use what you have. It could be a conglomeration of 20 different cars. It could be a Chevy. It could be a Ford.”

Then he adds, “A traditional, ‘politically correct’ rat rod is from the 1920s and ’30s.” (Though, can you really be politically correct with something as cheek as a rat rod?)

“I’ve taken ’46 Ford pickups and Chevys and made them into rat rods,” says Azhderian. “It’s not just 1930 Model As or Chevys. There’s a wide variance, and that’s what’s cool about it. It’s creativity, artwork and fabrication all in one. You don’t have to be politically correct, but my personal preference is to go earlier.”

Jody Bombardier’s assessment of a rat rod is similar: “An older car; something that was a hot rod back in the day.”

He’s built and sold a number of them over the years. He builds them in the winter, drives them in the spring and summer, and then sells them in the fall to make room for the next one.

There is a ’32 Model A body in the woods next to his shop near Providence, R.I. He says it’s there just because it looks cool, like a rat rod that was driven into the dirt.

“It’s a mindset,” says Bombardier. “You’re freed up and you can do anything you want. With rat rods, you can get away with putting a ’55 steering column in with a ’60 Chevy steering wheel. You can put a Hemi in a Camaro. That turns it into a rat rod because it’s not original. A rat rod nowadays, even with air conditioning, is still considered a rat rod as long as it looks like it was an older hot rod. That’s what a lot of people are buying now.”

Dick Sundhagen owns Dick’s Auto in Minot, N.D., a custom automotive shop he established in the mid-1970s.

“Rat rods are like a magnet,” he says, “which is not saying you like or want it, but that you’re intrigued by it. A lot of people would consider the ones that we build to be rat rods because they’re not painted. I don’t label them as rat rods, but probably most everyone else does. They’re done tastefully. They look old and patinated, but you can hop in them and drive them down the road at 80 mph and feel comfortable.”

Customers & The Look

Bombardier says it’s all about how a rat rod looks and sounds.

“If you’re really going for the track then that’s where it has to go, but you’ll sell a car really fast if it looks good,” he says.

Rust is desirable on some rat rods, as is original paint that’s all scratched up. Some have been painted and then washed down with pumice hand soap to get that worn-in look.

Are you into customizing? You can put whatever wheels you want on a rat rod. And, you can add a flying rat or a rat tail, or maybe use a double-barrel shotgun for a shifter and an army helmet for the air filter cover.

Some customers want all sorts of added “trinkets.” They get a taillight off a school bus that says “STOP” and it’s all rusty, and they mount it on the back.

Azhderian says one customer added rusty barbwire around the grille; another mounted a chrome rat tail to the back of his rat rod. The list goes on and on.

“Trinkets to me are like putting a belt on or a watch,” says Azhderian. “It’s a statement. You want it to look like it’s you. That’s what’s so cool about it.”

Rat rods are often built with used motors that are purposefully left dirty, oily and grimy because a bright chrome motor with a ratty-tatty body doesn’t always look right.

Chevy S-10 chassis and drive trains work out well and are popular because they happen to be reasonably close on wheelbase, length and width, and they’re readily available.

Sundhagen says he sometimes tries to match-up boxes and caps so they are consistent in color and looks, but usually doesn’t intentionally add to the rusty and ratty elements.

However, he says a recent customer wanted him to shoot a few bullet holes in the back end of his new rat rod.

“So I just said, ‘Consider it done. Just tell me how many holes.'”

Building Business

Sundhagen says since he’s been in business he’s seen the market for rat rods change and grow, to the point that these days he sells vehicles on a regular basis that are used for rat rods. His top sellers are Mdoel A sedans.

“We’re working on two right now,” he says. “They’ll sell and we’ll do a couple more. But if we would have had them done, we could’ve sold 10 this summer.”

The economics of it is pretty simple: there are a lot more people who can afford a rat rod nowadays than something like a vintage ’63 Corvette. But the irony is in their popularity, even among those of means.

“A paint job on a car now is going to cost from $5,000 to $20,000 and you go to a car show and you worry about people leaning on it,” Sundhagen says. “Meanwhile, two-thirds of the people are looking at the rat rods, not your car.”

“I usually build what I find,” Bombardier says. That includes a number of Chevys, a few Fords and an odd Hillman here and there. “But I try to stay away from Fords because people give me crap about putting Chevy motors in them. But you gotta do it.”

Bombardier is partial to convertibles and one of his favorite projects, which was recently sold, is a ’52 Ford convertible painted flat black, low on chrome, with painted steel wheels.

“That’s my idea of a rat rod,” he says.

The Ford has a Chevy motor and is built on an S-10 chassis. “You’ve got to make the motor look like it belongs in there.”

Bombardier says a lot of people who looked at the engine in this 1952 Ford had no idea what they were looking at. He had labeled it with the Ford numbers “289” and then listened to the reactions.

“I heard a guy walking around telling his wife, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a Ford motor! At least he put a Ford motor in it!'” says Bombardier. “And it wasn’t. It was a Chevy motor. It just had Ford numbers.”

From a client/business standpoint, there are plenty of opportunities to fill the demand for rat rods. Some customers want a complete, ready-to-drive ride and others work on projects as they have time and money.

Azhderian says a lot of his work involves building the chassis from scratch and mounting the body. Then the customer does the wiring, gauges, motor and tranny, and other things to dress it up how they like.

Other customers start out building something at home in their garage, but find out they can’t do it or don’t know if it’s right. And they’re worried. “And I’m like, yeah, you got a lot of reason to be worried. If this bolt breaks you’re going to fly apart.”

“If they want us to complete it, we will,” says Sundhagen. “Most want us to do different things. Some people are good at mechanical work, but not body work. I think when it comes to selling one, new suspension and things like that are going to make a big difference. I think the ones that are really thrown together won’t be worth a lot of money. But something done in good taste, not too far off the cuff, will bring decent money. I saw one sell for $1,200, and it was a $1,200 rat rod; I saw another one sell for $10,000 and you could drive it across the country. People are going to buy something for its value. They want to drive it and feel safe.”

Again, Tomorrow

While there may be an incongruous element in their approach to politically correct rat rods, most builders agree that safety is the serious part of the business. So Bombardier’s ’52, for example, has a ’55 Chevy front end in it, but all new bushings and ball joints.

“You can make it as old-looking as you want on the outside, but you’ve got to have a good chassis, good brakes and good steering,” says Azhderian. “If the motor and tranny break down, you might be stranded, but if the suspension, brakes or steering breaks down, you’re going to die. So do what you like but make it safe.”

Which is why he says he likes to use front disc brakes. “Yeah, it’s modern, but I want something good. I only want to be so cool; I want to get home and do it again tomorrow too.”

One way to ensure reliability, the builders note, is to have each rat rod subjected to a National Street Rod Association 23-point inspection.

“It’s a smart thing to have done,” says Bombardier, “because they look for anything that could be wrong-”gas hoses, brake lines, etc. It’s not ‘official’, but racecar people stand behind it. So if you have that sticker on your car, anyone would know.”

And then your customers can proudly drive off in their beautifully ugly new rat rod.