Backstory: No paint, no problem
In his autobody shop in Greenville, S.C., Greg Porter creates hot rods that are metallic works of movable art. They sell for as much as three times the price of the finest car to roll off the BMW line here in Greer.
Mr. Porter's square jaw, haystack hair, and classic white T-shirt evoke a rockabilly ethos and artistic oeuvre that have made him a legend among the high-rollers in the $4 billion hot-rod industry. But off-the-clock, Porter likes to leave the be- jeweled paint jobs behind and lay his broad bicep out the window of a grimier and arguably cooler ride: the rat rod.
In his case, it's a 1940 Ford sedan with scratches in the paint, a ding in the windshield, and worn suede seats. A Betty Boop air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror. "I won't lay any paint on this one," he says. "It's perfect just like it is." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the model year of the Ford sedan.]
Once disgraced, now embraced, rat rods are becoming one of the hottest trends among backyard mechanics since the tail fin. Also called the primer job, lowbuck, or rat-a-billy, rat rods are used cars with attitude. They are often Frankensteinian amalgams of old cars put together - the cheaper and dowdier, the better.
Rat rods represent, in part, a populist revolt against the platinum-priced world of hot rodding. Its devotees are a tattooed and grease-under-the-nails subculture driven, in essence, not by status, but by dreams of "on the road" adventures and escape from the metronome monotonies of everyday life.
"There's something much more romantic about [rat rods], getting on the road and driving 300 miles in this old car," says Kirk Jones, publisher of the Goodguys Goodtime Gazette, a hot-rod magazine in Pleasanton, Calif. "It's uncomfortable. There's a question of whether you're going to make it. And when in our world anymore do you get to have a real adventure?"
Rat rodding is popular enough that it's even angering some of its upscale brethren: At hot rod shows, fans often look past the pretty but arguably soulless high-end machines to gawk at cars that haven't been painted since the Hoover administration. Experts say rat-rod enthusiasts now number perhaps 30,000 nationwide, and are boosting interest in America's unique but finite inventory of old cars.
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Some hot-rod sociologists such as Mr. Jones describe the rat-rod trend as a desire for a return to the romance of post-World War II America, when soldiers came back looking for thrills that would rival their adventures overseas. Using mechanical skills learned in the Army, they turned to rusting Fords and Chevys - the Honda Civics of their day - to create horsepower-heavy "rods."
That attitude has morphed today into a punk-a-billy culture, in which old "ratty" cars help satisfy a longing for a time when life was more spontaneous - and dangerous. Unlike the ethos at the well-behaved hot-rod shows, where the Beach Boys eternally play and few people actually drive the cars, rat rodders like to go fast, in style, and perhaps not always to the letter of the law. "Hot rods are supposed to be dangerous, and the younger section of this market is very much into that rebellious side," says Ryan Cochran, founder of the Jalopy Journal message board in Austin, Texas.
To some, "rat-rod" is a derogatory term, more attuned to fringe elements of the movement. It is epitomized by the washboard player for the Kings of Nuthin, a Boston-based rock-a-billy band, who has three classic rat rods in various states of running and rusting, none legal.
Yet no matter what their state of inelegance, rat rods are meant to be looked at - whether with reverie or disgust - and driven. "Some of the rat rods have no paint, exposed wells, no floors, and are kind of unsafe," says Shane Thomas, a Greer resident who just spent two years bringing a '32 Ford truck back to life. "Personally, I like to think of the rat rod as building your car out of spare parts with flat black paint, basic interior, whatever motor is laying around, just what you can get your hands on - beg, borrow, or steal."
His friend Ed Bradshaw, who wears a six-inch goatee and a T-shirt that says "Dixie Fried," has put thousands of miles on his dropped '31 Ford. "These are cars you can actually use, that you don't have to worry about getting dinged up if you take them out into a field for a few dirt donuts," he says.
Lowbucks are certainly the buzz of the industry. Several new magazines, often low-budget and not beholden to advertisers, are cropping up. With names like Old Skool Rods and Garage and Rod, the publications can be found on backyard tool chests, their pages greasy. Even established magazines like Street Rodder and Rod and Kustom are devoting space to "traditional" rods.
Car shows featuring only rat rods are springing up, too. They include the Hunnert Car Pileup and the Lone Star Roundup in Austin. Shows put on by the Goodguys Association, the largest street rodding group, used to feature one or two entries in what's called the "suede and chrome" category. Today, they regularly have 20. Significantly, this year's Autorama Show in Detroit for the first time handed out 18 awards in "traditional" categories.
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Still, not all hot rodders welcome the presence of their shabby cousins. When fans at car shows bypass some Tiffany quality vehicle to ogle a flat-painted truck with holes in the floorboard, it doesn't go unnoticed. "You definitely see guys with $100,000 in a car and the guy next to them at the show has $6,000 in his, and that's the car with the crowd around it," says Jones. "That is cause for some rivalry."
At the Southern Rods shop in Greer, Porter rhapsodizes about the tightness of the rat-rod fraternity. Gary and the Playboys are singing "This diamond ring doesn't shine for me anymore" on an AM radio. He tells how rat rodders are united by a sense of adventure - both behind a socket wrench and behind the wheel. His personal credo: "It ain't a party without donuts."
For Tom "Paintbucket" Painter, one of South Carolina's most avid rat rodders, age in a car is to be respected, even savored. It's an attitude typified in his envied flat black-and-red 1958 Chevy Nomad wagon. Mr. Painter won't even remove certain screws because he doesn't want the rust to chip. According to his friend Mr. Bradshaw, he believes that historical correctness, the wear and wisdom of the years, is sacrosanct. As Painter puts it: "If it's got a rusted look, I leave it alone."