THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART X: End of the first chapter


Well, we’ve reached the end of our abbreviated history of the roots of the original Rat Rods. We wanted to make the point, if we’re only allowed one, that the early creators of the movement were revolting against show cars (and cars at shows) and the crowd that had lost their crucial connection with the human soul.

Sounds a little ginchy, right?

But you know what we mean: like, when you walk past a car and it just stops you dead in your tracks. Changes your life, man. Renowned automotive designer J Mays said, “They’re not writing songs about cars anymore.” And that’s basically what the early ratrodders were fed up with. Boyd Coddington changed the way hot rods were considered in the Eighties, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The love had been removed from the machine and a movement in southern California was finally going in the opposite direction of the Aluma-Coupe by the early Nineties.

So, we know what the original Rat Rod movement stood for. But what did it do for car culture at large? A few points, if we may…

X clubs

The idea of the car club was revived in the early Rat Rod movement as not only a means of support in scrounging vintage parts and building hot rods with real soul, but for the retro-inspired music and art and styles and shows and concerts and camaraderie that small groups of people who are doing something truly different need in order to do it. The Shifters, Road Rockets, Road Zombies, Choppers of Burbank and Swanx were examples. By the early to mid Nineties, most of the zillions of small car clubs running plaques on members’ cars had been gone for more than thirty years. These new (and re-chartered) clubs embraced the ideals of the original groups and started hosting new car shows, promoted the idea of the Rat Rod and fostered new project builds while reviving the aesthetics of the old clubs with their cast-aluminum plaques, club jackets, “You’ve just been assisted by…” business cards, etc.

X billy

Along with the vintage-inspired car builds, the early adherents also embraced the fashion of the mid-century hotrodders while mixing in the outsider tendencies of the Eighties Punk Rock movement. That conflagration manifested itself in pomade-shellacked pompadours, cuffed jeans, engineer boots, vintage shirts, vintage-cut wool car coats with chain-stitched logos, doo-rags, pedal-pushers, peggers, loafers, gingham, Pendletons, wallet chains and bowling shirts. And lots and lots of ‘Coleman School’ tattoos (or what the youngsters call ‘old school’). The subtrends in this scene have splintered since then into a few different identifiable strains, but these elements were certainly at the forefront of the movement.

X music

Rockabilly music has been around since Rock ‘N Roll came down out of the hills in the Southeastern U.S. And while there were a few spikes in popularity over the years (The Stray Kats in the early Eighties, for example), a full-on resurgence came about in a parallel to the Rat Rod movement. A ‘retro’ revival had been taking hold in Los Angeles around the same time with the Lounge movement and these two subsets certainly fed off each other. Lindy-hoppers and swing dancers got together for rockabilly nights at any bar with ample parking and a makeshift stage. Mixed with the fashion statements mentioned above, rockabilly, western swing, the punk-fueled psychobilly, surf, honky tonk and early country all gained a following that became a complete lifestyle. (Note: because of the median age of these adherents, Eighties-era Punk has made a nostalgic-tinged comeback in many ways since the beginning of the movement.)

X art

One of the most important contributions the Rat Rod movement has made to popular culture as a whole is the embrace of Low Brow art as a viable, sustainable, profitable, legitimate force in the larger art world. It’s accessibility is at the core of its strength. For the first time, artists, pinstripers, custom automotive paint, tattooists, tiki carvers, fashion accessory makers, graphic designers, illustrators, painters and photographers all had a rallying cry for work that didn’t necessarily have a category to fit comfortably in. Galleries and shows opened in spaces never before seen and it’s become one of the most prolific art movements in American history. Magazines like Juxtapoz, founded in part by Robert Williams himself, have become a profitable force on the newsstand as clear evidence and extendability. As well, magazines like The Rodder’s Journal have featured artists and photographers in its pages, alongside core car features.

X cars

We’ve spent the last nine parts of this series talking about specific examples of the cars of the Rat Rod movement. We’re not going to talk about what the Rat Rod has devolved into – there are way too many examples of that at your fingertips and we have too much respect for your valuable time. But those original rat rods were responsible for the resurrection of TONS of vintage tin, plucked from fields and riverbanks and barns, to be turned into real cars that needed parts and paint and glass and batteries and registration fees to be paid and license plates and fuel and coolant and oil and tires. An entire industry was sprung from these needs and it’s a force to be reckoned with in the arenas it influences (television, print, online, automotive aftermarket, auction houses, etc.). Rat rods are, in effect, an additive process: the car must be built from the ground up and they ensure that a vibrant aftermarket will be in place as long as their tenets are adhered to.

So, there you have it. Of course, the Rat Rod movement has become something much more than the original members probably ever considered. Surf culture, Punk Rock, skateboard culture and chopper culture have all been embraced by it. And the international scene has been heavily influenced by it, too, in amazing and wonderful ways. But, we think it’s important to have a working knowledge of where it all came from. Hell, we also encourage you to contribute to this body of work. Maybe you think we got some things wrong. You might think we forgot some stuff. Let us know and we’ll do this again sometime.

More than anything else, the Rat Rod movement is by us, for us, about us and because of us. We’re all invited to the party, you just have to know how get to it.

10 Responses to “THE HISTORY OF THE RAT ROD, PART X: End of the first chapter”

  1. j says:

    THANKS for this series!
    enjoyed them a LOT.

  2. STONER says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, J – hard to believe that there’s enough material to do a retrospective on the Rat Rod already, but we felt it was time. Especially since we don’t think the term ‘rat rod’ deserves to be turned into such a four-letter word…

  3. Reid says:

    I’ve been trying to find the answer to a question I have about the graphic art paint on the old style hot rods, rat rod, vintage racers.
    I understand the number on the door of the car and name of shops or clubs and even the drivers name but what does the “/” mean? (examples) “b/f” , or “l/cc” .

  4. Carlos says:

    I guess if you wernt there you’ll never get it right.The real history may never be published. Carlos, Royal Jokers Car Club. Y-Que

  5. Stoner says:

    We have a feeling it will be, Carlos…

  6. Anthony C. says:

    just remember history repeats it self.

  7. Galore Racing says:

    I remember the stoke of picking up the first issue of HR Deluxe, being at the second Viva and seeing the cars on the rooftop…it all made sense. Not sure when it turned into a contest to see who could build the shittiest pile of crap or sport the most neck tattoos, but thankfully there is still a solid group of folks building and driving vehicles, mags being put out and art and music being created with soul.

    remember, run your car, not your mouth!

  8. Dave Darby says:

    Hard to recall when exactly it was that the Rat Rod movement “jumped the shark” and became the new billet. When the shows that once paid homage to the great individualistic style of the old days became a side show of skulls, spiderweb grilles, tractor nosed abbreviated old pick-up cabbed monstrosities. I think that played a part in why Chrome Czars closed up shop on the Hunnert Car Pileup. Maybe when something gets too big, it loses focus, who knows. I think the song “Really Rockabilly” By Brian Setzer kinda says it all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my old iron, and I’ll continue to hit these shows, and burn up my digital film on ‘em. There are still plenty of folk out there who “get it.”

  9. Rooster says:

    @Reid it’s the racing class, AA/F = AA fueler and so on

  10. AmericanGothic1313 says:

    Sickabilly 4 Eva – Fuc All Posers
    Bakwardz Ball Caps & Iron Crosses
    will never Die!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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