Hot Rods and Rat Rods: The Best Thing that ever Happened to the Car Hobby.

Even though they rolled off of the assembly line by the thousands, they still make you look everytime.  Corvettes, Tri-5 Chevies, Mustangs, classic T-Birds, and Camaros.  In a way, they’re like boobs, we’ve seen ‘em before, but we never pass up another chance to take a look.

In a way, there’s something comforting about looking at the most common of the collector cars.  We know exactly what to expect.  We know every detail.  Every time we see one, it reconfirms, that the images we have of them in our minds are 100 percent accurate.  It’s like watching your favorite movie, again, for the 100th time.

On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t pay ten bucks to go to a theater to watch “Road Warrior” or “The Great Escape” again, now would you?  But how about when you run across some movie that you never saw before, and it's right along the same lines as your favorite?  That’s an experience that you can truly enjoy, for the first time.

That’s why at car shows, I tend to gravitate towards the less common cars.  I’m a Chevy guy, but I almost always spend most of my time looking at Fords and Mopars, simply because there’s fewer of them.  I love the outrageous “performance first, everything else be damned” attitude of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s Plymouths and Dodges.  Fords from back in the day, always looked mean to me.  They give off an aura that is hard to replicate by simply bolting aftermarket parts onto a Chevy.  Growing up about 20 miles from Kenosha WI, I also have a soft in my heart for AMC’s.  They built some pretty impressive cars, given the resources they had.

After a while, even with these cars, you can’t help but start to get that “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all” type of feeling.  Cars are also like drugs.  Once you get hooked, you tend to start looking for more exotic stuff to get the same high.  That’s why I prefer cars with at least some modifications to bone stock ones.  I suppose that it’s a good thing that there are people out there, dedicated to preserving examples of what rolled off the assembly lines in years past, but there’s more than enough of these people out there to maintain an adequate supply of such cars.  As far as I’m concerned, a nice set of mag wheels, beats hubcaps, every time.

Even bolt on mods are not enough for some people with certain types of car addictions though.  Only serious upgrades, like engine and transmission swaps can satisfy them.  Now you’re getting into hot rod, custom, and race car territory.  Here’s where you can make the investment of time and money, that it takes to attend a car show, worth it.  The best thing that can to happen to me at a show, is when I see a great idea that someone came up, that leaves me thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”   These types of cars are not on the fringe of car culture however, not anymore.

Out there, on the edge, there’s rat rods.  I love ‘em, as long as they remain practical enough to drive at least three seasons out of the year, and are comfortable enough to have a passenger agree to ride with you some distance over ten miles.  I really admire the “no rules, use any part you want”, philosophy of rat rodders.  Anything that irritates purists, is a good thing.

I also like the fact that the rat rodding movement have made people start to use some types of vehicles as a starting platform, that no one would have even considered in years past.  Old, medium duty trucks are now fair game.  This increased use of less common vehicles by the hobbyist, has spilled over into other areas of car culture. Suddenly, a four door Chevelle with nice set of wheels, doesn’t look so bad.

The best thing about this is that now, a kid can go buy a less expensive car, and still be cool.  It gives a new generation of gear heads the chance to join, and participate in car culture at an affordable price.  Even though rat rodding has now been around for a decade, or more, I believe that it’s still in its infancy, and as long as our country doesn’t come to complete financial ruin, I believe that you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But of all the different types of genres seen at car shows, in magazines, or on the web, my favorite, by far is “Phantom Cars”.  Cars that were never built by the factory, but should have been.  They can range from something as simple as SS badges and trim on a Chevelle Wagon, to ‘57 Chevy with a four speed, to a early ‘60’s Corvette with a 409, to a major change in a car's body structure, as long as it looks like, to any casual observer, that the car is a factory built piece.

The best phantom cars will cause aficionados of similar cars to do a double take.  It’s even better when they don’t even notice at first, and come back to closer look, and even then, they’re hesitant to say that no such car ever rolled off of any assembly line.  Even if such people are purists, they will almost always give a “thumbs up.”  

A good phantom car doesn’t necessarily have to fool anyone, it doesn’t even have to be hard to make.  Some are nothing more than a bolt-on affair. The main factor that determines if one is good, is if they get a positive reaction.

Probably the most common example of a phantom, is a car that has options and/or trim that was never offered by the factory on that particular model.

Another common theme is the “non-Chevy El Camino”.  These can range from slam dunk bolt on projects... very difficult, expert auto body shop required modifications.

I also dig Chevy “non-factory El Caminos”, particularly ‘61 - ‘63’s.

I like classic Ford Broncos, but I would love to see someone make a full size ‘72 or earlier “Bronco” out of a half ton Ford 4X4 and a ‘78 or 9 Bronco rear roof.  I’d also like to see a ‘66 or earlier. Chevy “Blazer” or a ‘71 or earlier, Dodge “Ramcharger”.

I enjoy seeing any older pickup truck that was not originally available as a 4x4, but converted to four wheel drive, and, no matter what anyone says, I like 4x4 El Caminos, but I don’t think these can qualify as phantom cars.  We’re getting closer to rat rod territory here, but they’re not rat rods.  They’re closer to being "redneck rigs", not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

 What we need is a new term.  One that describes cars that are not necessarily very old, like rat rods, but their owners used the their imaginations to take a unusual car and modify it to their taste, or made some unusual  modifications to a more common type of car.  We need a term for this category of vehicles that does not imply some type of insult to them.  As long as modifications are well done, they’re just as legitimate as when Carroll Shelby thought that he might be able to improve the Mustang.

Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool, stock, factory original, purist, we all owe the rat rodders, and the hot rodders that came before them, a debt of gratitude for opening up countless possibilities of what types of cars can be built, admired and enjoyed.

P.S. I forgot to mention the "Nomad Treatment" (Any station wagon converted to a two door.) I always liked them too.

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