My Car Quest

April 14, 2024

Are Rat Rods The Dadaists Of The New Century?

by Wallace Wyss –

Way back in time, in the ‘20s I think it was there was this movement in art called the Dadaists and basically they made fun of the other fine artists, holding fake exhibitions that would lead you to a bathroom and so forth.

Wikipedia says,

Dada or Dadaism was an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century, with early centers in Zürich, Switzerland, at the Cabaret Voltaire; New York Dada began circa 1915, and after 1920 Dada flourished in Paris.

So I am contending that the rat rod builders and fans are in effect the Dadaists of the old car hobby. They are in the custom car world but an outlaw faction that shows how much they detest all the fads that come and go.

Rat Rod

I think he has a bit of a visibility problem…

Why? Because collectively the rat rodders for the most part eschew:

-fancy paint



They do like engines. Now here’s where I, self appointed free floating concours judge in a class that doesn’t exist, will lay down a purist rule to a group that basically rebels against rules. I say a 1937 Ford rat rod should have nothing on it not available in that year or say. If I wanted to be generous, I’d expand it from a specific year of the chassis to its era. That means Rajo axles, Edelbrock heads, Ardun OHC conversions and so forth.

Truck rat rod

Truck rat rods are a subspecies

Now why no paint? Well the rat rods of my youth in Michigan were unpainted because when they got the car up and running, there was no money left for paint. So it’s a homage to home builders. But also I am sure they feel that once you give in in to paint, it never stops. It has to be shiny, so spend thousands taking out every dimple in the body. It has to be lustrous. Those who judge paintwork will never be happy so ya know what I say? I say take a hike Jake, no paint. How do ya’ like them apples?

Same with chrome. I mean a little chrome here and there is nice, but it’s mostly for highlighting the shape of a car and a lot of rat rods have dispensed with the frilly accent marks of chrome.

Rat Rod

There’s more creative work with metal at a rat rod shop than a restoration shop I’d say.

Same with upholstery. You do button tufting and someone will say “that came along later” and you can never make the critics happy. So how about no upholstery? The ultimate ones use WWII bomber seats, with just a temporary cushion put in place. Or some even use some kind of pillow and Mexican blankets. You know where they discovered the bomber seats, some rat rodders came back from WWII. They weren’t scared to ride in these thin shell buckets, after all some of them rode them all the way into Berlin in B24’s.

Now wheels is where I get a little waffleley. I like the strength exuded by some modern mags so I might go for those if the rest of the car is still properly trashed looking. But still I applaud those who go to some go to great effort to use a period (or at least ‘50s) wheel cover, all as rusty as the body.

My favorite rat rod show is the Bo Huff Rockabilly Car Show, which has been held in Riverside and Ontario, in the Inland Empire (one in fact is scheduled for Nov. 24, 2018 at Riverside Airport). The girls, at least the Latina ones, go to great lengths to replicate the hair styles of their moms back then and the clothing as well.

Rat Rod Girls

The girls at a Bo Huff shop harken back in style to the ’40s.

Oh, there’s guys that roll in driving lowered (slammed) Chevys and Olds, all painted up, but I don’t think those are rat roddish enough. They’ve sold out, gone the paint and chrome route. Next thing y’know, they’ll want upholstery.

You want it to look like it was pieced together out of junkyard parts and that, if it hits a railroad track at speed, it will totally disintegrate into a million component parts.

I think rat rods, in order to be photographed well, have to be shot against a desolate Western background, the bleaker, the better. (Like the setting of the classic movie The Last Picture Show). It has to be the kind of territory that you drive through pedal to the metal because you don’t want to be stuck out there at night.

Now as far as engines, I can give a little bit there, too, if you aren’t going full on retro, I find a Chevy 327 with a four Weber manifold interesting, or anything supercharged. I’d like one of the superchargers like in Mad Max that stops and starts while you’re driving, (do they always do that?).

Now the cool thing about rat rods is that you don’t have to update them as trends change. Remember when hot rodders went from fat whitewalls to skinnies? Or Olds Fiesta hubcaps to bullet-pointed lug nuts on chrome wheels? You don’t have to do anything to keep up with the Joneses if you are a rat rodder. You are oblivious to all trends.

On the ones that were commercial vehicles once, that strikes a special note of nostalgia if you can still see the faded lettering from whatever that business was, so long, long ago.

In sum, a rat rod has to be disreputable enough that a fine lady would refuse to drive in it. Or her father would chase the driver away with a 12-gauge.

But I love them….

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

Wallace Wyss

THE AUTHOR Fine artist Wallace Wyss is debuting some new fine art at the Concorso Italiano Aug. 15th in the Art & Books booth.




The Last Picture Show 1

Are Rat Rods The Dadaists Of The New Century?
Article Name
Are Rat Rods The Dadaists Of The New Century?
The cool thing about rat rods is that you don’t have to update them as trends change.


  1. Reuse, recycle, preserve. For an Italian car guy, I LOVE rat rods. Minimalist and purity of purpose. Rat rods should be untaxed for two reasons, Recycling old parts in a green world, Free entertainment for the public, or at least for anyone with a gram of petrol head in their veins

  2. Fun article. I see it from a slightly different aspect. The original hot rodders were rebels. Many hot rods today are built to that exact post war formula. The rat rodders are rebels too in the finest tradition, rebelling against the established rebel tradition. And so it goes.

    I get two things out of this natural evolution: 1. There continue to be outstanding craftsmen who are satisfyingly creative and the results are so appealing. 2. Doing the opposite in protest only goes so far and a new trend will emerge that will be just as cool.

  3. SKIP EVERETT says


  4. Richard Bartholomew says

    Some of the more traditional hot rodders bring up the issue of safety when it comes to rat rods. Old cars weren’t known for providing a safe interior as it is now these guys want to incorporate more rusty hard metal surfaces and sharp objects? They look cool but as a useful conveyance I think they don’t pass muster.

  5. I think the hot rodders have snuck their way in to the rat rod community. All this stuff about “oh, you can’t use anything that wasn’t available after this year for this car,” or “keep it unpainted as a homage to the home builders,” or even “well I’m using WWII bomber seats because it’s TRADITIONAL!” All this stuff is hot rodder beliefs. They’re the kind of people who will spend $50,000 to make a classic car look rusty, and then trailer it from show to show. That’s not what a rat rod’s about. It’s about passing the old man in his $60,000 Ram pickup trailering his $50,000 fake ratrod on the freeway, driving the same car he’s trailering, with maybe $5,000 invested, and giving him the look as you blast past at 75 mph, the more smoke he gets on his trailer queen the better. Because a true rat rod isn’t about tradition, or parts from a certain year, or any of that stuff. It’s about getting a cheap car, putting in enough work to make it run, and simultaneously pissing off the purists. THAT is automotive Dadaism in its purest form.

  6. Van Schipper says

    Ahh, the endless banter. As I build my 40 Chevy truck from garage sale and thrift store treasures (even a love seat from the side of the road!) , I was flabbergasted when my wife agreed with it in the first place. The prenuptial agreement was all the money had to come from side hustle. It may be a year until it actually sees the asphalt but I am an artist and this thing will turn heads. And as an artist, if I like it, who cares! Yes I will paint it, with pinstripes over the rusty fenders Enjoy the ride, most critics haven’t built anything anyway so smile, and enjoy the ride!

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