Up from the sewers

The rise of Rat Rods

Rat rodder Randy Miller’s ‘39 Chevrolet truck was chopped down by three inches.

Rat rodder Randy Miller’s ‘39 Chevrolet truck was chopped down by three inches.

Photo By David Robert

They are punk rock and primer; rockabilly and borrowed wrenches. Floorboards and fenders are strictly optional. Some are adorned with skulls and Maltese crosses for hood ornaments. Some don’t even have hoods.

Rat rods began as a cultural reactionary movement to the “trailer queens” in the world of show ‘n’ shines like Hot August Nights, where $30,000, 21-layer candy-apple paint jobs on Chevrolet Bel Airs and perfectly restored, heavily mascara-ed Shelby 427 Cobras have been painstakingly rebuilt to near-showroom quality but are often hardly, if actually, ever driven. If show cars are an evening at home watching Happy Days with the family, rat rods are a Pabst Blue Ribbon-fueled knife fight with some greasers at the fair. David Muskin, part owner of Davidson’s Distillery, noticed the rising popularity of rat rods and recently hosted One Hot Night, an event that focused on the grittier side of custom cars and hot rods, giving a little bit of a snub to the snobbery of some of the more mainstream four-wheeled beauty contests in town.

Year of the Rat
Take a little trip in the way-back machine to a bygone era of working-man ethos, cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of an oil-stained T-shirt, and a day when hot rods were meant to be driven and raced, not looked at. Hot rods were originally neighborhood projects, where everyone pitched in to help get a machine on the road. If one guy had a welding torch, then everyone came over to cut, weld and help out. These were cars built for speed, drag racing and leaving pitch-dark streaks of burnt rubber on the road behind them.

Today’s custom car shows have become an exercise in elitism, and often the bailiwick of those with money and a new taste for vehicular fashion. Beautiful and ungodly expensive, many of the cars featured in car shows, while plush and fast, are rarely driven for fear of paint getting scratched or the slightest nick on chromed steel. Go to one of those car shows, and it’s no surprise to see cordons separating the unwashed masses from the flamed hoods and white-walls of the yuppified wet dreams on wheels, not to mention signs that demand, “Please Don’t Touch!”

Rat rods are quite the opposite. They are throwbacks to the ’50s, when people sank every last nickel into their cars and actually did all the work themselves (with the help of friends).

One Hot Night featured about a half-dozen cars from the boys of Miller’s Custom Automotive and their crew. These cars beg to be touched, and their owners encourage it. Rick Miller, a slight man sporting a black T-shirt, dark blue jeans cuffed at the bottom, hair in a pompadour, and black Chuck Taylors—a character straight out of The Outsiders—explains that “those other guys” hate it when they show up for the Hot August Nights cruises. “People just aren’t interested in another Mustang,” explains Randy Miller, one of three brothers specializing in making some of the wildest rides ever likely to see the street. “People want to see something new, and when we drive up, the crowd just follows along.”

The Miller brothers want their cars to be enjoyed firsthand, not vicariously, and they often allow kids to climb in for pictures and a grip on the wheel.

Rat rods are often built from Ford coupes of the 1920s and ‘30s. Here, brothers Randy, left, and Robert Miller dig their ‘31 Ford Model A.

Photo By David Robert

The brothers Miller—Randy, Rick and Robert—have been building custom cars for as long as they can remember—it’s a family tradition started by their father. Their auto repair shop pays the bills, but it’s building rat rods that really starts their motors. They don’t have a formal business for their chop-shop efforts. It’s more of a club. There just isn’t enough demand for custom-built rat rods in Reno. Talking with the Miller brothers, you can see that their love for hot rods runs deep—and washes over the entire family. Nephew Josh, intrepid pinstripe artist, has found his services in high demand ever since his uncles talked him into taking up the brush.

Under the Hood
What hood? One of the trademarks of rat rods, in exaggeration of the hot rods of yesteryear, is that few of the cars have hoods. Or if they do, they only cover half the motor. Intakes protrude, headers jut from the sides, and the motors gleam and growl. Rat rods are often built from the Ford coupes of the ’20s and ’30s—Model A’s and T’s. These cars go through drastic modification and end up resembling nothing like the sleek black cars that rolled out of the factories nearly a century ago. They look more like something from a Third World cartoon show or from the imagination of the late Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a California cartoonist and car builder whose rat rods were often depicted as driven by dope-eyed, smack-addled vermin.

The Miller Brothers’ first car, “Blue,” is a perfect example of this Frankenstein style of custom-car building. Probably the cleanest looking of their cars, it sports a 1939 Ford cab, a front end from a ’41, the modified bed from a 1968 Ford pickup and the floorboards from a Chevy Nova. The cab was moved back 10 inches to make room for the motor. The fenders were removed, and the headlights that once lived on the fenders have been welded to the hood. There is no bumper, just the raw suspension glaring out from the front of the monster. Three inches have been chopped from the top, and it’s been channeled a monstrous eight inches. “Channeling” is when you raise the floor of the cab so that it can sit lower on the frame, giving it that “just floating above the road” look that makes these rat rods appear to be sledding down the road. The dashboard is from a ’50 Ford, and the motor is a Chevy 350. The motor mounts and brake mounts, among other parts, were hand-fabricated by the Miller brothers and their gang.

The Little Touches
With any great artistic endeavor, it’s the little details that make all the difference. Take a look under the hood of “Blue,” and you’ll see a 16-ounce Pabst Blue Ribbon can.

“That’s the radiator overflow can,” says Robert.

After all, why spend all this time on a work of art only to put a generic plastic overflow bucket under the hood?

Another rod, with a rusted over, faded patina that looks as though it’s just been rolled out of a barn from a 70-year nap, has an old pineapple grenade for a gear shift. The car is a medley of parts, and it sports the deck lid of a ’65 Thunderbird for a roof. A removable roof.

Rick Miller says it’s much more fun to keep the rust on the car. Primer gray, neon green paint on the frame, a skull on the firewall—all more fun. It’s pure outlaw burlesque. For cars that bleed real American blood (and sometimes leak real American beer), cars with soul that cry out for the rush of fuel to carburetor, there’s nothing like the charm and wit of the working man’s hot rod.