Rat Rod Building: Everything You Need To Know

couple riding orange car

Rat rod building is about creating unique hot rods inspired by classic cars from the 1940s to the 1960s. These custom builds are about having fun, finding creative solutions to problems, and creating a hot rod that looks unique. The cars aren’t meant to be historically accurate, and hobbyists often focus on performance and appearance. Here are some tips to help you get started with a rat rod project.

A Long-Term Project

yellow automobile

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Most rat rods are long-term projects. Part of the fun is that you get to find a frame and an engine that runs before moving on to making a wide range of small tweaks to create a custom hot rod.

You can add more parts to the project, explore different looks, and shape every detail of the car. There is no end to all the small modifications you can make to your project. Most rat rodding enthusiasts never truly finish a project since it’s always possible to improve a custom build.

We recommend establishing a budget for your project. Your budget should include all the major parts you will need, but don’t assume that you will feel that the project is over once you have assembled all the main parts of the car.

Building a rat rod takes time. You will have to invest time and money into looking for parts and rebuilding them. You will probably run into unforeseen problems and should be prepared to look for creative solutions.

Skills And Mechanical Knowledge

adult on welding

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Building a rat rod is about combining parts that were never meant to fit together. Think of it as assembling Frankenstein’s monster, but with a lot of welding.

Mechanical knowledge and solid welding skills are two crucial things you will need for your rat rod project. We recommend taking a welding class if it’s not something you are familiar with.

You will have to research classic cars and old engines, find creative ways to assemble your parts and invest in a wide range of tools. The great thing about building a rat rod is that you will learn a lot about cars.

You will also need a place to work. It’s common to get two or three cars from junkyards and pull them apart to get the parts you need for your project. Make sure you have enough room to work and store some junk cars.

Finding A Source Of Inspiration

restored classic car

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Rat rodding enthusiasts often use vehicles from the 40s, 50s, or 60s as a source of inspiration. Remember that the goal isn’t to reproduce old vehicles but rather to create a fun build that emphasizes some of the characteristics of those old vehicles.

It’s good to look at older vehicles and pick a design you want to use as a source of inspiration. Having an idea board will give you some direction for your project. You can decide to use parts from a specific older car or use the design of the car as a source of inspiration.

Pre-1960s pickup trucks are a popular base for these projects. The Ford Model A manufactured between 1927 and 1931 is another popular source of inspiration for rat rods.

Rebuilding An Engine

classic car engine

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The engine is one of the most important components of a rat rod. Performance is important for a lot of rat rodding enthusiasts.

Finding an engine you can rebuild is one of the first steps toward getting your project off the ground. The Ford Flathead V8 engine is a popular option. Ford used this engine between 1932 and 1953. It’s performing for this time frame, and it’s one of the first affordable eight-cylinder engines.

The Chevrolet small-block engine introduced in 1955 is another common choice for rat rods. If you want to improve the performance of your custom car, you can look into boosting the compression of these old engines.

I love a vintage look that’s also a bit rock n’ roll. Cara Delevingne

You can also choose to use a more modern engine for your project. Finding an older engine that runs isn’t very likely, and you should be prepared to rebuild most of the engine if you want to use one of the two models mentioned above. 

You need to acquire as much mechanical knowledge as possible because you have to rebuild an old engine from scratch. You will also have to combine this engine with other parts. There are plenty of small adjustments to make to get the engine to fit and to connect it with the transmission. You will also have to build custom engine mounts for your project.

Finding A Sturdy Frame

Another key part of your rat rodding project is the frame. A lot of rat rodding enthusiasts embrace rusted panels and other parts in various states of decay. We like this look for the exterior of the vehicle, but keep in mind that you need a sturdy frame with no signs of damage.

If you decide to use original body parts from a vehicle from the 50s or 60s, you need a frame that can withstand the weight of those parts. We recommend purchasing brand new frame rails or getting parts from a junkyard as long as they are in good shape.

The frame is a part that you won’t see. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look retro. Focus on finding a sturdy and reliable frame that will support your build and make your rat rod safe to drive.

I have eclectic taste, and I love vintage style mixed with glamour and old world charm. Sonam Kapoor

You should also look for modern shocks and suspension. You will need axles and coil springs for your build. You can purchase brand new parts or visit different junkyards to find parts from recent vehicles.

A popular look is to have your rat rod sit very close to the ground. You can also find off-road builds that emphasize the shocks and oversized wheels.

If you want to reproduce the popular close to the ground look, use a leaf spring rear axle and a straight axle in the front. Again, you need to find axles that are in good shape since rusted parts won’t safely support the weight of a Chevy pickup cab from the 60s!

You can move on to finding wheels for your rat rod once you have assembled the frame. It’s easy to create a retro look by finding original hub caps and covers or by shopping for new parts with a retro look. We recommend using modern tires on your rat rod for performance and safety purposes.

Customize The Body Of Your Rat Rod

automobile in a repair shop

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The best part of rat rod building is customizing the body of your vehicle. You can use a classic car or truck as a reference, or do something more creative.

You can either use body parts from an old vehicle or use fiberglass to build a body from scratch. If you can find the cab of an old car or truck, consider cutting the top so you can reattach it lower on the body. This technique is popular among rat rod builders since it helps you achieve the classic close to the ground look.

Fiberglass is an excellent alternative to using original body parts for your project. It’s a lightweight material, and it’s easy to cut and shape. It’s also very resistant and durable.

You can cut the different parts and shape them to create a unique build. With some time and skills, you can recreate the look of a hot rod from the 1950s without using any original parts. Fiberglass is a lot more affordable to work with compared to purchasing original parts.

Using this lightweight material can also improve the performance of the rat rod since it will lower its weight.

If you want to embrace the rusted and decaying look that is popular for rat rods, look into using special paints and finishes to create the illusion of rust and decay instead of using damaged body parts. It’s very easy to create a rusted finish for fiberglass parts.

Safety Considerations

Once you have assembled some basic elements and can get your rat rod to start, you should look into adding some safety features. Safety might not be a priority for your rat rod building project, but keep in mind that your vehicle has to pass a safety inspection if you want it to be street legal.

Here are some of the parts you should focus on once you have a vehicle that runs:

  • Brakes
  • Radiator
  • Wiring
  • Lights
  • Airbags
  • Seats
  • Exhaust

You can focus on safety later on in your project, but it’s a good idea to keep these different parts in mind when you look for frame elements or rebuild your engine. You might come across some of the parts you need to improve the safety and comfort of your build as you visit different junkyards.

Rat rods make for fun projects if you enjoy working on cars. There are no limits to what you can do with some creativity and mechanical skills. You will also need a good dose of luck to find some original parts for your project!

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