Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rat Rod Cruise-In -- A contribution from Ed Garten

The creation of Ed. "Big Daddy" Roth

Lakeview Drive-In Cruise-In


While driving to business meetings in Minnesota last week, this writer spent a wonderful day and evening in the Mississippi River town of Winona, Minnesota, where he happened upon an evening cruise-in at Lakeview Drive-in, an eatery that dates to 1938.  But the centerpiece of this particular cruise-in seemed to be a preponderance of  what are termed as "rat rods."

The "rat rod"  is a style of hot rod or custom car that, in most cases, imitates (or exaggerates) the early hot rods of the 1940s and 1950s. The style is not to be confused with the somewhat closely related "traditional" hot rod, which is an accurate re-creation or period-correct restoration of a hot rod from the same era. Most rat rods appear "unfinished", regardless of their status, as only the vehicle's bare essentials are driven.

Rat rods were originally a counter-reaction to the high-priced "customs" and typical hot rods, many of which were seldom driven and served only a decorative purpose. The rat rod's inception signified a throwback to the hot rods of the earlier days of hot-rod culture-built according to the owner's abilities and with the intention of being driven. Rat rods are meant to loosely imitate, in both form and function, the "traditional" hot rods of the era.

The typical rat rod is a late-1920s through to late-1950s coupe or roadster, but sometimes a truck or sedan. Many early pre-World War II vehicles were not built with fenders, hoods, running boards, and bumpers. The bodies are frequently channeled over the frame and sectioned, or the roofs were chopped, for a lower profile. Later-era post-war vehicles were rarely constructed without fenders and were often customized in the fashion of lead sleds or low riders. Maltese crosses, skulls, and other accessories were often added.  Note that the "rat" seen in Winona, Minnesota on cruise-in night has "fake" rats clamoring in the truck bed and one appearing to emerge from the vehicle's gas tank.

Recently, the term "rat rod" has been used to describe almost any vehicle that appears unfinished or is built simply to be driven.  Chopped tops, shaved trim, grills, tail lights, and other miscellaneous body parts continue to be swapped between makes and models.

Frames from older cars or light trucks are sometimes preferred for rat rod conversions due to the chassis that is used for these types of vehicles-the chassis type provides a sturdy base for subsequent alterations. Older cars in poor condition are often advertised as candidates for rat rod conversions and, in some cases, the owner will purchase a custom frame, or design and build it himself/herself. In other cases, a rat rodder may use a small pick-up chassis, such as a Chevy S-10, to insert into an older car body, in order to create a vehicle that features the look of a classic rat rod, while also maintaining the reliability of a modern vehicle.

Rat rods often appear unfinished and, at most, primer-only paint jobs are applied; satin, or matte, black and other flat colors are also common. "Natural patina" (the original paint job, with rust, blemishes, and sometimes bullet holes, left intact); a patchwork of original paint and primer; or bare metal, in rusty or oiled varieties, with no finish at all are some of the other finishes that may be used-such finishes honor the anti-restoration slogan that "it's only original once".  Contrary to the aesthetic of many car builders, rust is often acceptable and appreciated by rat rod owners.

Interiors of rat rods can range from fully finished, through to a spartan form. Mexican blankets and bomber seats form the basis of many rat rod interiors, and most are designed to be functional without many comforts; although, this will vary in accordance with the owner's taste.

Though a variety of engines may be used, the most common engine type that is used in rat rods are: Flathead V-8 Ford, early Chrysler Hemi engines, or more modern small block V8 engines from any manufacturer (Chevrolet is a common choice of small block engine). Straight 8's, straight 6's and straight 4's are also fairly commonly used in the construction of rat rods-these engines may exhibit varying displacements and modifications. While diesel engines are occasionally used, these engines are rarely fitted with emission controls, as such a feature was not part of the original construction, or the feature was not required under special license.

Most rat rods are rear wheel drive, with an open driveline. The rear endss and the transmissions are typically passenger vehicle pieces.

My interest in "rat rods" was renewed this past spring while attending the Auburn Spring car auction and swap meet where I met the son and daughter-in-law of the late "Big Daddy" Roth, one of the major customizers and artists associated with rat car culture.

"Rat Fink" is one of the severa hot rod characters created by Roth, one of the originators of Kustom Kulture of automobile enthusiasts. Roth conceived Rat Fink as an anti-hero answer to Mickey Mouse.  Rat Fink is green, depraved-looking with bulging, bloodshot eyes, an oversize mouth with yellowed, narrow teeth, and a red T-shirt with yellow "R.F." on it.  Yes, I bought an R. F. tee-shirt from Roth's son and plan to wear it to swap meets and car enthusiastic events (see attached photo).

Roth began airbrushing and selling "Weirdo" t-shirts at Car Shows and in the pages of Hot Rod publications such as Car Craft in the late 1950s. By the August 1959 issue of Car Craft, "Weirdo shirts" had become a full blown craze with Ed Roth at the forefront of the movement.

Nonetheless, "Rat Fink" and "Rat Cars" have been closely associated since the late 1950s.  But who would have thought that the nice clean town of Winona, Minnesota, would be a hot-bed of rat rod culture?  Rats!!!!!


  1. wow... cool design of your car . I love to redesign my car too.
    thank a lot for information about it.

    Loi =)
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  2. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
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