Five men meet at the Cracker Barrel one morning for an increasingly boisterous breakfast before heading off to the "Blast From the Past at Thunder Valley" car show in Bristol. Once they hit the road, their ragtag convoy of rat rods keeps a steady speed of about 60 mph, but the more speed-hungry drivers have a hard time restraining their gas pedals. A blue-and-black 1963 Ford Econoline van with a lime-green skull spray-painted just behind the side door holds the rear and mostly keeps pace, though as the group ventures further into the hilly Smokies, the van begins to lag.
"I feel like the little van that could," says driver Cody, or "Crew" ("As in, ‘Wrecking'"), whose pinstriped suit pants and dress shoes offset the stiff limp he got from recent surgeries after running his motorcycle through a guardrail. His older (and significantly bigger) brother Gus owns and drives a Lincoln that he's sliced apart and stretched into a limo. Meanwhile, two other friends pull off progressively daredevil tricks on their motorcycles while Justin Stover follows behind, occasionally speeding up to photograph his friends' antics from a decidedly uncool reporter's Hyundai.
Stover is a relative newcomer to the rat-rod world, and the car he's building, nicknamed "The T-Bucket," isn't making the trip this time around. It's sitting in his buddy Jeff "Jeffro" Feine's garage, still being pieced together. Just some of the parts he's using: a 1922 grill shell, a 1937 Ford front end, steering and brakes from a '55 Ford F100, a '60s Ford nine-inch rear end, an '85 Chevy transmission, and a 1980 motor. "Basically what I can beg, borrow, and steal," he says. And besides that, Stover plans to hand-build the chassis. Pristine looks are not a priority.
"We're building them to go! That's it—they've gotta go!" says Stover. "Some of the guys are into it because it's the cool thing to do and it's a cool look and they fit the image and all that stuff—well, fuck that! This thing's got to perform. It's gotta handle right, it's gotta stop right, and it's gotta go like a bat out of hell. This is a really inexpensive way to go out and have a cool car and have a good time."
IF YOU LIVE in East Tennessee, you've probably seen a rat rod, even if you didn't know the term for it. Rat rods are old and customized cars. They're odd but awesome-looking in their own right, usually driven by a car guy, arm out the window, beaming like a proud father. They're the black-, primer-, or just plain rust-colored vehicles you often hear before you see, and glimpse right before they roar past you.
"We're not worried about how they look or how shiny they are. We want them fast," says Stover, explaining the difference between a rat rod and a traditional hot rod. "The traditional stuff is just beauty in simplicity and function. Going back to the basics, just trying to have a good car that works but also makes people turn their heads and say, ‘Holy shit.'"
Not so with rat rods. The term "rat rod" started out as being derogatory, a way for guys with pricey hot rods to denigrate the more homespun, cobbled-together charms of the rat rods. Many of those in the scene still bristle slightly when their cars—which they prefer to call "traditional rods"—are labeled rat rods.
"A rat rod is anything and everything you've got laying around the garage that you can throw together to make one vehicle, from a street sign to a license plate to an old pickup truck Grandpa gave you to parts left over from a car you built two years ago, an engine from any make or model car. It's just a compilation of many parts from many different vehicles and different places," explains J.R. Coody, a salesman at Honest Charley's Speed Shop in Chattanooga. "A traditional rod is not as crudely built as a rat rod. Rat rods are rusty. They're trying to go for the look of a cobbled-up car sitting in a field, while the traditional look would be when a guy, here in 2008, builds a '53 Chevy car exactly how a hot rodder in his teens would have built it in 1956, going back to a traditional look and using parts of that era."
The rat rod/traditional rod scene has exploded nationwide, but particularly in places like Tennessee, California, and Texas. Major shows like the Rat Rod Rumble and the Drag Bash Nostalgia Event (both Knoxville shows), Shiloh Street Rod and Custom Show (Savannah, Tenn.), and the Redneck Rumble and Slammin' & Jammin' Car and Truck Show (both in Lebanon, Tenn.) are Tennessee-based, and the number of devotees to traditional cars in the area is more than evident at any show.
Stover looks like a guy who knows his way around a garage, with a bulldog-muscular frame, crew-cut hair, and devilish grin. Stover spent his whole life working on a wide variety of cars, but he yearned to build something with old parts and traditional techniques, like they would have in the golden age of hot rods. He never thought he had the money or know-how to construct the kind of old car he wanted to build, but a chance meeting with Feine at a car show last summer provided him with a mentor and a garage in which to work.
"I was really lucky that Jeffro took me on, because he is a walking, talking vintage-car bible," says Stover. "Call him up at a moment's notice and say, ‘Will this part work with this?' and he'll say, ‘Yeah, but you've got to use this bearing and that seal.' Jeff's done this for a million years. I mean, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have the knowledge that I need to put one of these together."
"Now Justin's car, he calls it ‘The T-Bucket,' but it's not a true T-bucket," explains Feine. "With a T-bucket, there's no top: never did, never will. His is actually what they call a roadster pickup. The front part of it is the roof off of a roadster, with the back end of a pickup."
Feine's garage is a shrine to custom cars. Out front sit at least three car carcasses, one of which he's mocking up for an upcoming project. Inside the garage, "Peggy Sue" plays on the oldies station. From the corner an old car movie from the '50s or '60s flickers quietly. Surrounding the television and plastering the walls from floor to ceiling are photos, movie posters, flyers from car shows and concerts, and other relics of a life lived loving cars. The name of his unattached garage—"Stovebolts 6=8"—comes from old Chevrolets. In the '20s and '30s, stovebolts were the standard bolts used, and these old cars became known as Stovebolts; 6=8 refers to getting the power of a V8 engine out of a V6.
As Feine puts it, he does "shiny [hot-rod] stuff to make a living," but what he loves is the traditional stuff—cars with original frames and bodies, original suspensions and steering, flat paint or primer, perhaps a chopped top and a body dropped low over the frame of the car.
"With a hot rod, anything you can replace other than the body has been changed to new modern stuff, while a rat-rod guy will take an original body and modify it, chop it," he says. "We don't always paint them, and if we do, it's usually flat black, flat red, flat green—something flat. We don't need a fancy interior. Some of 'em don't even have an interior. Some of them don't have floors!"
Feine once built a '34 Ford, drove it to Bonneville Speedway in Utah, broke a record there, and then drove it home.
One appeal of traditional cars and rat rods is their usability. These are not cars intended to sit in the garage and look pretty until the next car show rolls around—they are cars intended to be driven, and driven hard. To traditional rodders, primer is known as "suede" and the original paint with rust and blemishes intact is "patina." But the simple paint or primer on most rat rods and traditional cars is not just a design choice—it allows for easy repair for many of the hazards of the road.
"This is something you can take out and play with," explains Stover about The T-Bucket. "If I get a scratch on it, I've got a can of rattle paint in the truck—there, all better! That's why the scene got so big—these are vehicles that you can drive. I want something I can take out, that I can beat and abuse, don't have to worry about scratching it or putting a dent in it. ‘Heaven forbid, my paint!' Fuck that. Here's a Sharpie marker, and it's fixed!"
BACK IN BRISTOL, the whole crew piled into the stretch Lincoln. Within the month, Gus would install black upholstery, covering the driveshaft with plywood and black beanbag chairs, and getting ever closer to earning the "Sex Instructor" license plate hung optimistically on the front windshield. But that weekend in Bristol, the Lincoln proudly pulled up to the show with a hole in the floor and a back right door that had to be opened from the outside. Any passenger in the back right seat, after avoiding the rusty screws on the unfinished interior and the road rushing past through the hole in the floor, had to have the door opened for him. The rattiness was balanced with the delightful sense of being chauffeured throughout Bristol.
The car show itself held a wide variety of cars, from the tikiied, rusted rat-rod charm of the "Hillbilly Surf Shop" car from Jonesborough—complete with jars of moonshine labeled "Hillbilly Nitrous"—to traditional shiny hot rods and everything in between. The boys ran around, naming parts and makes and years so quickly that a car novice would be left befuddled in their wake. The group frequently dissolved as each man explored on his own, but the frequent exclamations of "Look at this one!" made the rest come running, eager to crouch down and poke at the motor like children at a zoo.
When the raindrops started, the boys continued their car ogling. But when the rain came streaming down in earnest, there was a mad rush for the Econoline van. The whole crew crammed into its unfinished back, hunched in shelter from the rain and talking excitedly about the cars they'd seen and the cars they had yet to see. As the rain slackened, they decided to take the van up to watch the drag races. The judging station was on the way out, so the van's rowdy occupants helpfully bellowed through the rain.
"You can save the ‘Best Van in Show' trophy until we get back."
"And the Best Limo in show as well!" someone yelled from the bowels of the van. They were the only van and limo in the show, but despite that, trophies were not forthcoming. These were rat rods, after all.