THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART I: The Jakelopy

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Jakeopage 2

In our corner of the car world, the Rat Rod Movement has really bloomed. And by “bloomed,” we’re talking about that huge Corpse Flower that looks really neat, but when it fully opens, smells like shit.

What started out as a rejuvenating breath of fresh air in the stagnating culture of arena rods in the early Nineties has, somehow, become a cartoon version of itself: poorly-built heaps cobbled together by misguided “ratrodders” who revel in their rusty buckets, throwing their empties in the parking lot and yelling “goldchainer!” and “ol’ skool!” in the same sentence. Shame is, they don’t really have any idea what got them there in the first place.

So, we’re here to bring some perspective back. We’re staring down the second decade of the Rat Rod and we think it’s time to look back at its roots and maybe–just MAYBE–school some kids on what it originally meant to be a ratrodder. Hell, that term used to be something to be proud of. And we want it BACK, Slim. So, pay attention: this’ll do you some good…

Identifying the first rat rod is like pinning down the very first drag race: almost impossible to accurately pinpoint, but there are a few milestones worth mentioning. But before we can do that, the definition of the phrase needs to be understood before the first examples can be named. By the end of the Eighties, Boyd Coddington had redefined the street rod with his ultra-slick, six-digit, pro-built luxo-machines. The billet rod (named for the chunk of aluminum almost any mechanical part could be perfectly, soullessly machine-carved from) had taken over the magazines and the idea of a home-built hot rod had all but vanished from the American custom car lexicon. Sure, there were some amazing cars built in that era (our favorite being Billy Gibbons’ Cadzilla), but it took the heart out of hotrodding – that backyard, do-it-yourself, won’t-take-what-the-showroom-offers spirit that made it so accessible in the first place.

But in 1987, Jim “Jake” Jacobs – half of the Pete & Jakes hot rod empire – changed everything. Over many decades of building hot rods and customs, Jake pulled a bunch of spare parts from his amassed personal stash and put together a ’28 Ford Phaeton hot rod in just 28 days: no fenders, wide-white bias-plys, rusty Model A body on ’32 Ford frame rails, cut-down windshield and a shortened Deuce grille shell with a hogged-out small-block Chevy and a ’39 Ford 3-speed. With no bodywork, paint or finished interior, Jim drove the tub to Pleasanton, CA and the Goodguys’ annual West Coast Nationals that summer of ’87. He proudly parked that sucker smack-dab in the middle of the “Hi-Teck Territory” car corral and proceeded to change the hot rod world.

Jake unpacked a few quarts of red Ditzler automotive paint, some brushes, a few cases of beer and started to paint that tub by hand. Right there among the hi-buck show rods. Guys yawning in the sun as they walked by car after same-looking car stopped dead in their tracks and either grabbed a beer with one hand and a brush with the other or egged those who did on. By the end of the day, Jake had a freshly-painted red highboy tub, built and finished in the spirit of hot rods built forty years earlier. And people freakin’ LOVED IT. Slayed ‘em. Really. Tom Medley, who was officiating the award show that weekend, remembered the phenomenon for Rod & Custom magazine years later:

“I was distracted by a commotion. I was out looking around at the cars when I saw a big crowd on the grass. ‘What the hell’s going on here,’ I thought. Here was Jake, Pete Eastwood, and a bunch of guys, and they’re painting Jake’s rusty old tub with brushes. Those guys were having a ball. When I was ready to present the award to Jake, four or five beautiful cars had passed through to loud applause when here comes Jake driving the tub in front of the grandstands. He had his cowboy hat on; all of a sudden the place got silent-they were in shock! I began, ‘You missed the whole point folks. Here’s a guy that built a car in a couple of weeks. He came up here by himself, had a flat tire on the Ridge, and walked until he found a tire at a construction site. Not only that, he’s going to drive this thing to Bonneville. You don’t have to have a lot of money and spend a zillion dollars to have fun.’ After that, the crowd gave Jake a round of applause.”

That was 1987. Five years later, another name, reviving the art and culture and music and cars of the earliest days of hotrodding, would spring up with a traveling exhibit called “Kustom Kulture” (more on that with another installment of The History Of The Rat Rod) and that show had Jake to thank for its existence, too. And seven years after that, the venerable Hot Rod magazine would run a feature by Gray Baskerville on Jake’s tub, which, by this time, had been dubbed the “Jakeopage” because of the pages of old car magazines he had plastered all over its hand-slapped paint.

The point of Jake’s tub was to remind people that hot rods were supposed to be accessible. They were supposed to be a hoot to build and drive. You were allowed to touch a hot rod at a car show. Lean against it while you complimented its owner. Go out and rip a few smokey burnouts. Have FUN, for chrissakes. We had all been taking ourselves a little too seriously. But at the same time, build a car to the best of your ability. Scrounge parts, but do the best you can.

Gray Baskerville described the Jakelopy in the 11/’00 issue of Hot Rod as being “finished…two years before the first rat rods appeared.” We take issue with that simply because he implies a contradiction: he actually identifies Jake’s tub as the first rat rod by acknowledging it as the movement’s predecessor. Dig it? He said, “But his low-buck highboy is a throwback to a time when rods were owner-created from obsolete or cast-off passenger cars or light trucks. Maybe (Jake’s) Jakelopy will help illustrate what hot rodding should be all about – driving cars that were rebuilt for the sheer fun of it.”

To this day, the hotrodders who were either paying attention when the Rat Rod movement started or at least appreciate the original ideals behind it still cite Jim “Jake” Jacobs’ tub as the spark that started the fire. Stay with us, kids – more goodness to come…

(photos and quotes courtesy Hot Rod magazine, Rod & Custom magazine, Petersen Publishing, Inc. and emap usa, Inc.)

17 Responses to “THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART I: The Jakelopy”

  1. COOP says:

    Jake’s tub was probably the first real-live hot rod I saw after moving to California in ’88.( Robt. Williams’ then-primered roadster was parked behind it, so it was #2) I was blown away by its complete awesomeness, so much so that, twenty years later, I’m building my own version out of a ’29 phaeton body that i’ve been scrounging parts for over the last five years.

    Another reason Jake’s tub is so beloved is Jake himself – one of the nicest, friendliest guys you will ever meet, a hot rod bodhisattva if there ever was one.

  2. Stoner says:

    Coop, there are few guys as qualified as you to comment on this stuff. Can’t thank you enough for chiming in on this–matter of fact, it wouldn’t be complete without you.

    Can’t wait to see the car! REALLY can’t wait to take a ride!

  3. [...] but through the lens of history. Stoner over at Autoculture has started a series of such posts with Jim “Jake” Jacobs’ “Jakeopage” ‘29 tub, Robert Williams’ Eights and Aces and Mark Idzardi’s Purple People [...]

  4. [...] but through the lens of history. Stoner over at Autoculture has started a series of such posts with Jim “Jake” Jacobs’ “Jakeopage” ‘29 tub, Robert Williams’ Eights and Aces and Mark Idzardi’s Purple People [...]

  5. tfeverfred says:

    Finally. Someone finally got it right. Thank you.

  6. john fink says:

    i hav a 26 ford coupe built by stan vanamburg of temple city ca. in the early eightys. jake set up the suspension @ it still drives great today. i was able to talk to him a couple of months ago & he still remembered the car! he was very friendly and we had a good chat. the car was featured in the july issue of rod action magazine page 26. hope to meet jim someday i know i will enjoy the visit

  7. john fink says:

    that was the 1985 issue of rod action magazine (july)

  8. Fast Eddie says:

    Rat rods in the 1980`s ??? Boyz I was building them things in the 1960`s. They just finally picked up the rat rod handle in the 80`s & 90`s. In my neck of the woods we called um poor man hot rods, ugly but wicked quick for the time period.
    In 1968 I was tooling around in a 1937 chevy 2 dr coupe with a 57 chevy drive train, red primer paint job and 2 little bucket seats for an interior, Open headers, no hood and a glove box full of Ohio`s finest traffic tickets. This was my weekend warrior. I drove to work in a 1964 chevelle big block, gray primerd paint job, rear fender wells hacked out to resemble the 55 nomad so I could get the big meats under it and again a couple bucket seats fer me and ma lady. All the finances went into the drive lines, the gray primer paint was .35 cents a can at K mart. Oh ya we also removed anything and everything to reduce weight. None of my tri 5`s had front bumpers, heaters, inner fenders, back seats. and a couple even had thin plexi glass side windows. Some ppl talk rat rod and some lived it. My lady and I lived it. 1ea 37 chevy sml blk & muncie, 1- 51 chev -1 52 ford cov- 3-55 chevys all sml blks, 2 – 56 chevys, 2 57 chevys one w\348 ci one with 409ci, 2 58 chevys, 1- 59 chevy, 2 60 chevys, 1 63 chevy 409ci, 1 64 chevy big block 396, and too many more to list. This was just some of the stuff I built. I saw stuff on the roads in the early 60`s that was probably built in the late 50`s. Rat rods have been around for years, they just was not called rat rods. The names for these cars depending on geographical location that I have heard have been ” tin cans”, “street sweepers”, “saturday night specials”, “rust buckets”, “death traps”, “Hot rods”, ” street rods”, “Hammers” , Asphalt wrinklers” and yes rat rods. The magazines finally started publishing articles on “rat rods” and that particular name stuck. the cars have not changed just the name. The first rat rods were probably actuall built way back in the 1920`s when people looking for more speed started removing fenders and running boards so they could go faster. You could probably call um “egg beaters’, publish it in enough magazines, dream up and start some discussion and walaa egg beater would stick. Now I have noticed that since they have once again become poplar there are a lot of people going a little over board in the creativity department trying to one up the feller before him with crazier ideas. Been thar and done that may times over.

  9. Juan Tejeda says:

    Hello,
    I purchased a 1959 Thunderbird that was restored by Jim Jacobs, at least that is what I was told. The car was completed in or about 2000. It actually has a small brass plaque in the engine compartment with Jim’s name on it.
    The Thunderbird is Mint Green and was called “Misty” and is amild custom in that the interior is not original and the enugine was upgraded to a 390 with a .030 overbore to accomodate two Holly 750′s. It is pretty much a show car.
    Just though I would share. Photos can be seen at CarDomain http://www.cardomain.com/ride/833127/1959-ford-thunderbird-lompoc-ca-us
    Just thought I would share.

  10. Huck the Elder says:

    You fellas are all Johnny-come-latelies.

    With three classmates at South HS in Denver, in 1947, we built a street rod–used remants of a 32 Ford Roadster we found in junkyard, with straight 6 GMC truck engine–no fenders, 32 radiator/grill, bench seat, no seatbelts, the year before Colo passed a law requiring fenders and such (later held unconstitutional). It had amazing initial torque, could easily leave the Fords for the first 400 ft, until the flathead 85s of that time wound up and then would pass us. Of course we had twin Strombergs on a home-built manifold, as Edelbrock did not make stuff to fit GMC truck engines.

    No school student parking lots then, so got used only on weekends (oh, yes–it had head and tail lights AND a windshield wiper, to make it “street legal.”). It lived with the original black paint, what was left of it, and was a hit at our informal meets, as with straight pipe it sounded MUCH different than a Ford. It could burn a circle much better and faster than a Ford, and the tires of those days–bias ply–did not last very long when we were showing off. WE all got Hot Rod and Motor Trend in those days, and my mother threw away all my saved copies while I was gone to the AF for a year of active duty right out of HS. How I would like to have them now!

    Just got introduced to this site today, by my nephew in Butte. But I will be back!

  11. Matthew says:

    I don’t see how this is a contradiction. I don’t have the full article in front of me, but his making a statement about the throw-back to another time, when cars which were predecessors to rat rods existed is not a contradiction to his statement about the “first rat rods,” in which he probably means the first cars to officially be labeled as part of what is the modern rat rod scene. The reasons for throwing a rat rod together may be at times different than why they threw the original post-war hot rods together, but they are essentially the same thing: cars thrown together with a collaboration of old or discarded parts.

  12. Eye Bone says:

    I also remember a 47 ford 2 door, black primer w/flames & no window glass driven up to P-Town from Texas I believe. And that would have been around the same time as Jake’s tub but a little after. If my memory serves me right.

  13. Cyclone Kevin says:

    Hey Dan,
    Looking over this article, I happen to notice a 23yr old me in the background of the Tub’s “Color Me Red” scene. It’s funny,Anyone there could pick up a brush and a painters hat and fill in where it wasn’t already covered. The Burgundy underneath was the 1st coat, It was too dark and Eastwood had brought up some leftover Porsche Indian Red that he had left over from painting his own 32 rdstr a few years before, but I remember when Jake built that tub, he’d actually swapped Tony Piner his Mail Truck body for the tub.He blew that sucker together and took off for P-Town! That car wore Black walls it’s 1st 6 mos on the road.

    The burn out shot is at the Goodguys Ventura show, that same year, Herb Martinez striped the car there.
    I’d like to say that is the 1st non-conventionaly painted hot rod that I experienced, but Dick Wade’s 32 rdstr that was powered by a SCoT blown flatty get’s that honor.

    There were many cars that came out of garages here in the San Gabriel Valley throughout the 60′s-70′s & 80′s that could never garner a drip of ink in any rod magazine due to their stigma as being a non-completed hot rod. The late”Hippie” Paul Duarte of San Gabriel/Temple City comes to mind, in the 70′s he literally lived around the corner from P&J’s @ Rosemead & Hermosa. He drove a 20 something Overland Tub powered by a 289 ci Ford and was mounted on a A-chassis with early Ford running gear=The car still exists and is a private collection.

    Jake’s tub certainly made a splash! Not a whole lot of “Street Rodders” were building “beaters”,but true Hot Rodders still were. That car is seminal in it’s impact on the rodding world, because finally the BIG Ink
    guys were noticing what was really going in thousands of backyards around the world! I remember my 1st 34 coupe that I painted, I went to local parts store and on the shelf was a black called “Hot Rod Primer”.
    That would’ve been at the height of the hi-tech rod movement. I wish that I would’ve saved the can!

    Keep up the good work on the magazine!

  14. workin class says:

    Back in the 70s when I first really paid attention to HOT RODS most rods were built by the regular guy . Most of the cars would now be considered a rat rod. Most were simple fun and cheap. That was before 1-800 rods and the Investment crap crawled into the hobby . The cars got named beaters in the 80s they were still fun safe and driven daily. By the mid 80s a new group of rodders started into the hobby These guys were the competitive up tight non drivers there cars were never meant to be daily drivers they were the garage queens and trailer riders they showed up with $ and attitude. They were the ones that drove allot of regular guys out of the Hobby as parts and body’s started to get horded as they were became to valuable to build. If you didn’t build the way this group deemed correct you were chastised and talked down to they got the coverage of the magazine press for years with there pastel painted street rods and over done chrome and billet. There is a place for all in the hobby but at that time vary few old rods were left untouched as they got bought up by the highest bidder and turned into (high tech) rides. That brought us to the new world (rat rod) To some trad rods are part of the rat thing but the trad rod guys get mad if they get lumped into the term rat rod. We have no control what others say or think about our cars I have found that most people that use the rat rod term are new to the hobby and really dont know the difference. THEN WE HAVE THE SHOCK RODS please dont go there. Sorry for the rant.

  15. Keven Vaughan says:

    Working for SRM in the 90′s I was surrounded by the billet craze. Jake’s tub and the Jersey Suede ’34 set my mind racing and when I built my first car, all I wanted was to have a Hot Rod like those.

  16. Miracle Pie Co says:

    Of course Southern Californians, in their egocentricity, believe that rat rodding began in SoCal with a big-name builder like Jake Jacobs. This presumption blows the entire premise of this series.

    All the “street-rodders-suddenly-turned-rat-rodders” are frantically trying to improve the image of rat rods and in the process taking the RAT out of RAT ROD. They’re trying to re-invent the street rod. Trying to start the competitive building cycle all over again.

    Well I have news for you guys: the REAL rat rodders are still out here offending rich car snobs like you with our saw blades, brass knuckles and goober welds. We’re building cheap cars, ugly cars and unsafe cars. Intentionally. Does that piss you off? Good – you’ve just been exposed as a car snob.

  17. Rodger says:

    LOL, now that rat rods are proving more popular with the public than street rods, all of you are jumping on the bandwagon, eh? “I built the first rat rod!” “No, me!”

    As for me, I think “SHOCK ROD” is the wave of the future and I’m going to embrace that term. “Rat rod” is now an antiquated genre for old fuddy-duddies. Ha ha, in 10 years all you posers will be saying, “I built the first Shock Rod!” “No, me!”

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