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.)