If you are into the car scene at all i’m sure you have seen them. Classic cars with he tops chopped and components that look like they were pulled from a junkyard, which they probably were. People call these homebrews rat rods and they are my kind of builds. I think the creativity is endless with the fact that you repurpose literally anything and use it as a functional piece or aesthetic enhancement, and it doesn’t have to look pretty. Paint Shops probably don’t care for these guys much. It takes a lot of ingenuity as well to pull off some of the builds I’ve seen. They may look like they are cobbled together but they go down the road and look cool at the same time. Patina body panels and white wall tires are the norm. A Rat Rod can be built or made from any car really but the scene has it’s favorites from old T buckets to 50’s pickup trucks and everything in between. One cool thing about building a rat rod is you can spend as much or as little as you want depending on your resourcefulness and creativity.
Many Rat rods have a cool sinister look about them, probably because most of them are dark colored, rusty, and built to look aggressive. It seems like the most popular cars to turn into rat rods are old 30s sedans and coupes but as I mentioned earlier, they run the gamut as far as makes, models, and eras. I think some of the old pickup trucks look the coolest and I like how many of them don’t rock any fendors over the wheels. I think what I like most about rat rods is that they really are obtainable and can built in a driveway. You may need a bit of metalworking skills and tools. Welding is another thing that would be pretty handy to know if you are going to take on such a project. You don’t have to be a good welder and make nice pretty food-grade welds, although if its a structural weld id ask for professional help. Access to a junkyard will also aid in your build if you want to do it authentically but your parts don’t have to be old and ratty, no pun intended!
One of my favorite rat rod builds i’ve seen is a creation from Welderup garage, the D-rod. All of their builds are sweet and they like to put diesel engines in their creations and I love me a good oil burner. I remember seeing the D-rod in an old Diesel Power magazine and it was one of the more memorable cover cars. The D-rod is based off of a 1928 Dodge brothers sedan that was chopped and channeled to fit on a custom frame. The frame was built to accept and support the weight of the mighty 12 valve cummins engine which has a 1,100 lb dry weight. Ingenuity and creativity is the name of the game and the old dodge features it in spades. The dash is made of old farm equipment, the front axle is from an old mining truck, and the rear bumper is fabbed out of used excavator pistons. The big Cummins has been massaged a bit to a tire destroying 600 plus hp and almost 1,300 ft lbs of torque. This motivates the 3800 lb rat rod to mid 11s in the quarter. More than fast enough in a little steel box with no safety aids. Welderup garage has built numerous rat rods with diesel engines and the Cummins seems to be their favorite option and for good reason. The engine is known for its strength, darability, and easy power potential. They are also relatively cheap to acquire, I think it’s a great choice!
You don’t have to build a fire breathing monster either. In fact, most aren’t. Most rat rads are pretty sparse and light so they don’t need that much motivation. A little 4 banger would work, actually a little truck with a 4G63 or SR20DET setup would be pretty sweet! Most are going to stay away from any electronic control though and an old carbureted small block is cheap with plenty of potential. A Ford 302, Cherysler 318, or the vulnerable Chevy 350 will do ya just fine. I’m no mechanic but i’ve worked on enough rusty stuff to know the cleaner the body the less you will throw tools and cuss at your project. The plus side of a rat rod build is a lot of time you can use a sawzall or 3” grinder to take care of the stubborn stuff. A good start would be a frame, cab, axles, and an engine. That should be the big stuff one should budget for. From there, most everything else can be built with repurposed parts from whatever you can find. Farm equipment, street signs, cowhides, anything you think would make your build personalized and custom, it’s all fair game.
The Ford Model A is a popular platform for rat rod builds. They are cheap and abundant. The model A was the successor to the Model T, which had been in production for 18 years. They were built from 1927 to March of 1932 and in that time Ford pumped out 4,858,644 cars in nine different body styles, yes nine. They ranged from a roadster which could be had for $385 all the way to a $1,400 Town Car. The main engine offered was a 201 cubic inch water cooled L-head inline four cylinder. The big 4 banger was good for 40 hp and powered the model A to a top speed of about 65 mph. The Model A was the first model to feature standard driver controls such as the gear shift, brake pedal, throttle and clutch. The Model A could be optioned with an aftermarket cast iron contraption that would sit on top of the exhaust manifold that would plumb heat into the cab for colder climates. It was also the first car to offer a safety glass windshield.
There are a wide variety of engine choices one could go with for a build, it just depends on how deep your pockets are. If you want cheap power with endless potential the small block chevy engine is pretty hard to beat. They are very popular for that reason but so is the Ford flathead, especially in rat rods. You won’t make the power as easily but they sure do look and sound cool. The first Flathead debuted in 1932 with a consrvative 5.5:1 compression ratio and were good for 65 hp. Just a few years later power was upgraded with a 2 barrel carb to 85 hp. By 1937 Ford buyers were offered a choice of cast iron heads or aluminum heads on their flathead V-8 engine. The cast iron heads offered a higher compression ratio and bumped power up to 94 hp. There wasn’t much development on the Flathead after America was heading into its second world war in the early 1940s but they had produced well over 6 million units by then. The Flathead was produced up until 1973 for world markets and over 10 million engines were produced. The mill was produced for 50 years in some fashion or another so they are pretty abundant. Parts for these engines are still easily found and a lightly messaged flathead would be a great candidate for a period correct rat rod build!
I thought I’d close this with a rough plan of what I would build if I had the welding and sheet metal skills that I wish I had. I think id start with a 1932 Ford roadster even though I think they are a bit played out in the rat rod / hot rod scene they offer a large range of possibilities cosmetically and look pretty sweet. Id go with an air suspension setup so I could put it on the ground once parked. As for motivation Id go with a junkyard 5.3L V8 and slap a single turbo setup on it for a bit more power and all the right sounds. I know its fuel injected and computer controlled but I think it would be fun and if done right you could hide that with a clean install. This setup would provide you with more than enough power to scare you with the turn of a dial or wastegate adjustment! Id back the engine with a 4l80e transmission and Ford 8.8 rear end. I’m not sure if my rat rod would be the most budget friendly but it’s what Id go with. Rat rods are a perfect testament to the fact that you don’t have to pour tens of thousands of dollars into a build and you can have just as much fun or more than the people who do. From all of us here at Gearbox have fun, be safe, and keep the shiny side up!