Rat rods built to go, not for show

Rat rods built to go, not for show

March 7th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

Sitting on flattened tires behind chicken coops or overgrown with kudzu in played-out fields, the Southern landscape is dotted with the rusty hulks of cars from years gone by.

While many consider those old Fords, Chevys and Plymouths worthless hunks of junk - eyesores and rusty reminders of times past - others consider them priceless gems.

This 1931 Ford two-door sedan rat rod was built by Wayne Oliver, of Harrison, Tenn., and sold to a buyer in South Carolina.

This 1931 Ford two-door sedan rat rod was...

Photo by Mike O'Neal

Those who see beauty in these beasts have formed a new club, the Chattanooga Rat Rod Association, that is headquartered in Ringgold.

David Rose said that he, Ben Langston and Les French formed the club Jan. 9 and a week later attracted 24 to their first meeting.

"We've only met for two months and are already the most advanced and most successful club sanctioned by the National Rat Rod Association," Rose said. "We already have members coming from all over the tri-state area - Dayton, Cleveland, LaFayette - who will travel more than 100 miles round-trip just to attend these meetings."

Rat rodders celebrate function, not form, and concentrate on making their cars go - fast - rather than restore them to showroom condition. Their cars show the rust, faded paint and wear that a car acquires when left sitting outside for decades.

"We leave the patina of age on our cars," Rose said. "This is usually a low-dollar project; something to drive rather than haul around in an enclosed trailer. Our motto is 'No chrome, no paint, no worries.'"

Walt Stansell, owner of Grumpy's Custom Rides, a hot rod shop in Rock Spring, said he works on everything from custom show cars to daily drivers.

"If someone wants a rat rod, we can help them," he said. "This can be a cheaper way of building a car that you don't mind driving on the road. They are made out of scraps - it could be four or five junk cars made into one - and mismatched parts. That's how they got the name; they look ratty."

Stansell said rat rods seen on the street might be unfinished do-it-yourself projects, but more likely they are made to look that way.

If a car's bodywork lacks an authentic patina of age, he said builders will put on a coat of red oxide primer, overspray with black or gray paint and then buff the paint until the primer shows through.

There will probably be a few examples on display when the "Cruise-In at the Park" series opens its 2012 season next Saturday, March 17, on LaFayette Road in Fort Oglethorpe.

Each car, whether truly old or only made to look that way, when finished is a unique piece of "found" art.

"That is what sets them apart," Rose said. "These are not cookie-cutter off-the-shelf hot rods."

Rose, 63, said he started building hot rods when he was 13 and rather than ordering from somewhere like Chattanooga-based Honest Charley Speedshop, he relied on the J.C. Whitney catalog for parts. It has been a lifelong hobby.

"I've built the $75,000 shiny rods and enjoyed them," he said. "Then I found an unfinished rod that someone was building, bought it and continued building it with the original 1929 paint job and no chrome.

"Some rat rodders have the reputation of driving junk, but this is going back to my roots," Rose said. "It is my daily driver; I'll even drive it in the rain, and wherever I go it attracts attention from spectators and rodders. People relate to them."

Club members will be attending cruise-ins, such as the monthly event in Fort Oglethorpe, and anyone interested in learning about rat rods is welcome to attend the club's monthly meeting, he said.