What Exactly Is A Rat Rod And Where Did It All Begin?

In the last decade the largest craze in the hot rod world has been a very interesting trend known to many as “Rat Rods.” The hot rods that are built in this particular fashion are commonly known for being highly exaggerated versions of 1950’s style Jaloply hot rods. By highly exaggerated jalopies, we mean cars that are built to look poorly done on purpose, usually thrown together from old junk parts, and are usually poorly constructed as well as being built with little regard for safety. Ask the average gearhead what a “rat rod” is and they will tell you it is a pile of junk on wheels.

However, rat rods weren’t always these poorly built junkyards on wheels. Rat Rods have actually evolved over the years and have gone through several different changes and phases, and many of todays examples are both some of the best and some of the worst we’ve seen. When the rat rod movement began it started out being closer to the traditional hot rod movement that exists today.

But the question remains “If Rat Rods weren’t always how they were today, how did they become that way?” In order to find out why rat rods have become the exaggerated and thrown together cars they are today, we have to look back at the history and the beginning of rat rods.

The Proto Rat Rod

The history of “modern day” rat rodding really began back in the late 1980s. The late ’80s was a crazy time when Guns ‘N Roses, Hair Metal, U2, and Michael Jackson were playing on the radio, a time when Vin Scully was calling baseball games on Saturday nights, a time when John Elway, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana were dominating the NFL as the best quarterbacks in history while former quarterback Dan Pastorini was racing Top Fuel against Don Garlits. Yeah, there was a lot going on, and back in 1987 the hot rod world was dominated by a trend that was known as Pro Street.

Pro Street started out in the late ’70s, known as Street Machines, which were modified street and strip cars. However by the early ’80s it evolved into Pro Street which is when gearheads started building cars that were meant to look like a Pro Stock car for the road. However, par for the course, some took it too far and what started out as something cool, fun and unique ended up becoming a parody of itself by the late 1980s.

By 1987 most of the Pro Street cars were now trailered to shows, never driven on the street, had insanely unnecessary oversized rear tires, and lots of chrome and blowers on stock internal motors. The whole idea of having a Pro Stock car for the road turned into having an exaggerated looking wannabe drag car. The worst part of it was, besides for not being driven, none of these Pro Street cars were affordable to the average gearhead. Many owners were now spending 5- and 6-figures to turn their old ’68 Chevelles and Camaros into chromed out, trailer queen show cars with zero functionality.

All of these trailer queen, chromed, high-dollar cars that dominated the car shows inspired Jim “Jake” Jacobs from Pete & Jakes Hot Rods (the guys who built the California Kid Ford) to take a bunch of old parts such as a ’32 Ford Frame, a ’28 Ford two door sedan body and a few others to build a hot rod tub out of them.

Jake combined he Deuce frame and put the Model A Sedan body and he removed the roof. He then put a chopped windshield above the dashboard and a ’32 Ford grille on the front of the car. The tub was powered by a hopped up small-block Chevy that was hooked up to a 1939 Ford 3-speed transmission. For the interior he just threw in an old bench for a front seat (no back seat) and drove the tub unpainted to the 1987 Goodguys West Coast Nationals.

All of the high-dollar cars that dominated the car shows inspired Jake Jacobs from Pete & Jakes Hot Rods (the guys who built the California Kid Ford) to take a bunch of old parts such as a '32 Ford Frame, a '28 Ford two door sedan body and a few others to build a hot rod tub out of them.

When he arrived at Goodguys in his unpainted Ford tub, everyone at the show was starring in amazement with their jaws to the floor! They couldn’t believe that this unfinished hot rod had just driven up and entered a show full of chrome and high-dollar pro street cars. While this amazed the people in attendance, what Jake did next amazed the crowd even more.

After he parked, he pulled out a few cans of red car paint as well as a couple of brushes from the back of the car and began hand painting his car in broad daylight in the middle of the show. Soon a crowd began to form around Jake and his rod, people started grabbing brushes and started helping Jake paint his tub! People began talking, joking, bench racing while painting the Tub that was soon nicknamed the “Jakelopy.”

The Jakelopy was not the car first called a rat rod, but it was the car that inspired the rat rod movement all together. What Jake and his Ford Tub did was it showed the gearhead world what hot rodding was all about–having fun, enjoying yourself and building a car on a budget.

Jake showed veryone that hot rods didn’t all have to be the most expensive cars in the show (sure, we love those too, but there is room for all types and forms of customs), they could be built using affordable and older parts, exactly like how they were built back in the ’50s.The best part about the Jakelopy was that it was driven everywhere. Jake would drive it to town and even drove it to Bonneville to make a pass and then drove it home!

Some of you might be wondering how did hot rods like the Jakelopy, evolve into the rust bucket rat rods of today? Well to find this out we have to take a look at what the Jakelopy evolved into. As I mentioned earlier the Jakelopy wasn’t the first car to be called a rat rod, a car built by a well-known artist that was inspired by the Jakelopy was actually the first custom to be officially labeled “rat rod.”

The First True Rat

In the early 1990s an artist by the name of Robert Williams was known for his major contributions to Pop art and Low Brow art which included paintings such as the famous Hot Rod Race and Appetite for Destruction, the cover art for the Guns ‘N Roses album. Robert Williams had already made a name for himself on Juxtapoz magazine and also worked for many years as the art director for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and has continued to do pieces of famous art featuring hot rods and the kustom culture.

Robert Williams Eights And Aces – the first hot rod to be dubbed a rat.

Williams’ who owned several hot rods in the past, decided that he wanted to build a Ford hot rod similar to the hot rods that he remembered seeing around his neighborhood when he was young. He remembered that most of the cars had a simple color primer, proper stance (not lowered or channeled too much), clean body lines, and a motor that had minor modifications that was loud and would make enough noise to terrorize all of the houses on the block. Usually the hot rods were never finished but that was alright with their owners since they were built by teens on a budget.

To begin his build, Williams found a 1932 Ford roadster body to use as his platform. He left the car fully fendered as Williams remembered when he was young that most of the rods he was used to seeing were full fendered. He then painted it with red primer and added the famous “Dead Man’s Hand” graphics on the front panel that said “Eights & Aces” which is what he nicknamed the car.

When Williams took the car to show off at the car shows in Southern California, Hot Rod editor Gray Baskerville refered to the car as a “rat rod” when he first saw it at one of the shows. Baskerville said the term “rat rod” was a spin on the term “rat bike” which was a term used to describe a motorcycle thrown together on a cheap budget. Baskerville felt that Eights & Aces fit the description of a rat bike and it was one in hot rod form so the name stuck.

Soon more people saw Eights & Aces and began using the term rat rod and several people got inspired by the car and soon wanted to build one of their own. This also spurred the and inspired the younger generation to become interested in hot rods once again as it could be an affordable hobby.

Williams’ ride Eights & Aces was the next step in the beginning of the rat rod movement which Gary Baskerville believes officially began around 1992. After this car several more rat rods would be built but they were still not quite the rusty rods that we have today. Eights & Aces was pretty much a late 50’s era correct hot rod that was only painted with primer not so much a poorly welded junk rat, the weld jobs were professional, the mods were done right, and overall the rod looked clean. Williams’ hot rod would inspire a new style of rat rod that would begin in the mid to late 1990s.

Rat Fink Rat Rods

By the late 1990’s Grunge music had died off a bit and it had been replaced with the likes of Blink-182, Green Day and Gangster rap. A movie known as Saving Private Ryan forever changed the way younger generations viewed WWII, while Seinfeld and the Simpsons were the most watched shows on TV. Also during the late 1990’s Rat Rods had slowly caught on in the gearhead world and had become a common sight at car shows.

They would build cars that technically were period correct hot rods but not correct because they weren’t based off cars in real life, these cars were period correct because they were based off the hot rods in Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s artwork.

Most builders during this time were building their rats to be period correct similar to Robert Williams’ car. However, a few builders began taking a different approach with their rat rod builds. They would build cars that technically were period correct hot rods but not correct because they weren’t based off cars in real life, these cars were period correct because they were based off the hot rods in Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s artwork.

One of the best examples of this style of rat rod is the well-known Ford Hot Rod the “Sellers Seaweed Coupe.” Steve Sellers purchased a 1950 Ford business coupe as a project car and he turned it into one of the coolest and most memorable rat rods of all time! He wanted to build his coupe similar to the Shoebox hot rods of the late 60’s but with a bit of an Ed Roth influence to it.

Sellar lowered the rear of the car to the point where the tail would drag and he also dropped in a small-block Chevy 350 that has a top end done like the 1960’s – complete with an Edelbrock X-1 intake and 6 classic Stromberg carburetors. He then painted his car copper while covering it with green seaweed style flames as well as adding custom pinstriping on the rear, above the front bumper and in the engine bay of the car.

All of these made the final product of a car look like a 1950 Ford that Ed Roth would have drawn and Rat Fink would use as his daily driver. Steve debuted the car at the 1997 Billetproof car show where everyone in attendance starred in amazement at his ’50 Ford. They couldn’t believe that a car that looked this wild, and looked exactly like something Rat Fink would drive was sitting right in front of them. It looked like a car that wasn’t serious and was just pure fun to drive. Steve would drive the Seaweed Coupe everywhere as his daily driver over the next few years.

He wasn’t afraid to drive it hard either, one of his favorite things to do when he arrived at shows would be to fire off the flame throwers from his exhaust that made 10 foot fireballs (which was huge back then). He would do this as he exited his car when he arrived at shows, his flame throwers became so popular that a picture of him exiting the car with the fire balls shooting out of the exhaust became an iconic image in the hot rod world of the ’90s. Steve’s copper 1950 Ford showed the rat rod AND the hot rod world that you could build a creative, crazy looking car without spending a lot of money and be able to drive it every single day.

The Purple People Eater

During this same era another rat rod was also built as the leading example of an exaggerated Ed Roth style rat, this rod was known as the Purple People Eater. While Sellers Seaweed ’50 Ford may have been the car Rat Fink would have used as his daily driver, the Purple People Eater was the car he would definitely take to the drag races.

Marky Izadardi with the help of his brother Alex and their crew, the famous Shifters Car Club, got together and wanted to build an Ed Roth inspired early 1960’s drag car. Marky and Alex had worked on Muscle Cars for many years and they were huge fans of Pontiacs. While beginning this build they decided to look for an old Pontiac drag racing motor that could be used on the hot rod. Which is when they found a 1956 Pontiac 316 engine for sale at a swap meet that made the perfect donor motor.

The 316 had been bored and stroked out to 405 and the engine had some drag racing history behind it. It ran from 1959 to 1961 in an Altered and it even held the track record at the Riverside raceway for several years. When they tore the motor down they found that it was full of old vintage racing and performance parts, not only did Marky find a good Pontiac racing motor but an engine that would make his build an even more authentic 60’s drag car, the perfect score! They finished off the motor by putting eight Stromberg carbs and a supercharger on top of it and added zoomie headers for the exhaust and look they were after.

The next thing Marky and Alex did was, they took a Model A two door sedan body and chopped the roof way down Ed Roth style. Then they put the Model A body on a short wheel base frame and mounted the front engine high up in the air to help with weight transfer on launch just like in the 60’s.

To further add to the craziness an old-school style of the build they would use no front brakes on the car (which was also common at the time), have cheater slicks for the rear tires and they would run the car with no radiator. They would then paint the car deep purple and included old 60’s NHRA gas class style markings as well as pinstriping on the rear.

When Marky debuted the car at the West Coast Cruisin’ Nationals the crowd and the other rodders in attendance went crazy over it! When the car drove through the show people couldn’t believe their eyes that this monster on wheels actually existed and in real life and seemed to come right off the pages of the artwork everyone had day dreamed over for decades. No one could get over how loud it was, how cool and rugged the rod looked, and best of all – that it was REAL. Sure there were early space rods and 60s and 70s customs, but nothing this radical had ever actually been built to date.

Soon buzz was created around the Purple People Eater and it spread like wild fire. It became the car that everyone in the hot rod world was talking about at the time. In February of 2001 the Purple People Eater appeared on the cover of Rod & Custom and it made rat rodding explode throughout the world of hot rodding nationwide and spawned a world wide movement that was quite unexpected. Soon every gearhead wanted a car like the Marky and Alex’s Pontiac powered sedan. Every custom hot rod fanatic soon started building highly exaggerated rods of their own.

Jimmy Shine’s Bare Nekid

There is another car that was built at the same time as the Purple People Eater and Sellers Seaweed ’50 Ford that also became quite popular over the years. Jimmy Shine of So-Cal Speed shop’s 1934 Ford Pick Up simply known as “Bare Nekid.” While Jimmy and many others in the hot rod community consider the ’34 Ford truck to be just a traditional hot rod rather than a “rat rod” and despite it not being labeled as a rat it certainly served as another one of the major influences to the modern rat rod movement, bare metal, and traditional styled customs.


Jimmy built the truck back in 1997 when he found an old ’34 Ford cab and bed in a friend’s back yard. He took them home, put them on a frame and dropped in a Ford Flathead motor. He then made new wheels for the truck, did some custom metal work, and hand-made new steering arms. The final product was a homemade, clean, and bare metal Ford hot rod that was mean in every sense of the word.

Even though most ’30s Fords of that era get turned into street rods, Jimmy’s was a true daily driver. During his lunch breaks while working at the So-Cal Speed Shop he would take the ’34 Ford out into the dry lake beds and really push it to its limits. He built a hot rod on a budget to have fun with it and for it to be driven hard and fast, like they should be! Even featured in the latest ZZ Top Music Video, Bare Nekid is still driven to this day.

Even though cars like Jimmy Shines’ Truck, the Sellers Seaweed coupe and the Purple People Eater are cool and tasteful rat rods they inspired a movement that they themselves do not endorse. Creative and ground breaking hot rods are one thing, but unsafe, rust buckets are an entirely different thing all together.

Rat Rod Explosion 

Soon Rat Rodding took off and magazines such as Car Kulture Deluxe, Ol Skool Rodz, Hot Rod Deluxe, and a few others started featuring rat rods and they became a large part of those publications. Soon car shows for Rat Rods began with shows such as Kill Billet, Rat Rod Rumble and car shows such as Viva Las Vegas, Rockabilly Rumble and a few others started to become full of rat rods. However cool an “in-progress” or creative rat rod may be when properly built (like Mike Partyka’s insane creation featured here on RA) some of the “rat rods” at these shows are simply unsafe and not properly built or fit to see the road.

According Pat Ganahal, “Rat rods have evolved since early 2000 into shock rods or shot rods.” They are rat rods that are built using shoddy construction and thrown together without regard for saftey or vision. A lot of times the rodders who build these cars claim they want them to look like an Ed Roth inspired rod however the usually use poor construction and give the car an improper stance and they build these rods with little regard for safety or understanding of the actual cars they are trying to mimic. Some try to build rods that look similar to the ones we mentioned above however, they end up building tasteless or thrown together piles of junk that are unfit to see the road. We felt it was only right to adresss this issue a bit here, and hopefully get back to building cars that can actually be enjoyed.

Benefits of Modern Rat Rods

However, some good has come out of the new style of rat rods and builders of today. Many of us in the industry have noticed the popularity of rat rods has also created a revival in the general interest of 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s cars to being customized again by the younger generations. It has inspired a new generation to become interested in hot rods since most of the rust rods are more affordable. Perhaps some of these younger guys will develop their taste and styles and as they get older they will start building creative AND well put together hot rods.

We have seen several different styles of rat rods in their short live span over the past few years and only time will tell what is in store for the future of rat rodding and hot rodding in general, we just hope that the safety level remains an important factor to consider so that these rods can be driven and enjoyed. History is history and needs to be respected and maintained as we continue to pave the way and build new creations of our own – happy rodding!

About the author

Josh Courter

Josh Courter is a Power Automedia freelancer with a serious passion for anything custom. Rods, classics, sleds, and even motorcycles provide inspiration for Josh along with his passion for automotive history.
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