Even now, more than 24 hours later, my ears are ringing. But at least I'm starting to understand. I needed a personal experience. Otherwise I would hardly get why someone spends so much time and money building a car that, on the first glance, looks like something that's just been hauled off the scrapyard. And doesn't look much better on the second. Not to mention the fact that the junkyard-sourced scrap won't be actively trying to kill you. Mostly because it won't even start...
I always understood the traditional hotrodders, even though their hobby is not the pinnacle of rationality either. They spend vast sums of money to acquire cars and parts that were popular in post-war America mostly because they used to cost next to nothing. But America in 1950s and 1960s is a mythical time and place for many people all over the world. In many ways, it forms the roots of the whole today's Western culture. Revered and reminisced for decades in films, music and comic books. If you love James Dean, wear grease in your hair and listen to rockabilly, it makes sense that you want to drive a '32 Ford or a '49 Mercury, because that just the right way to do it – no matter the costs, no matter that you could have much faster car from a more modern age. It's just the way it is.
But to want an old Ford with no paint, with rusty holes in the bodywork and without proper seats? Every true hotrodder of the 1950s would look down upon you, because you apparently can't even paint your own car.
And yet, most of the rat rod builders are perfectly capable of painting a car. If they wanted, they could buy much quicker and better handling sports car or muscle car. Their daily driver is quite possibly much faster than anything those old hotrods can dream of. So, why they are doing it?
Modified cars like this are not transportation devices any more. They're art. Expressions of one's personality. And to understand them, it may be helpful to check out what those people listen to. The right music for rat rod is not smooth, lively and cheery rockabilly, with slick greasy hari and striped shrits. No, the rats on wheels belong to the world of psychobilly, with its macabre themes and zombie looks. The psychobilly is the fusion of punk and rockabilly. And ratrods are fusion of punk and hotrods. Punk was created to protest against the over-complicated, overtly sleek music of its days, and, in some way, even the world itself. And ratrods are just the same. Just in form of cars.
Driving a modern car is simple. Safe. And it requires no balls. There are electronic nannies constantly looking after you. The engine is so quiet you don't even hear it. The suspension glides over ruts and bumps in the road. The radio plays MP3s of your liking and through Bluetooth handsfree, you can talk business or chat with your girlfriend. And suddenly, you realize that you're not really sure whether you're still driving a car or playing a computer game. The division between your life and virtual reality is getting murky.
So you need something to remind you that you're really alive. And a modern car can't provide that. Yes, a Corvette ZR-1 flying sideways through the corner may provide an adrenaline rush, but it still isolates you from the action at least in some way. Your commands are translated from your right foot to the throttle by a bunch of electronic gremlins, not by means of a simple cable. Everything is perfectly tuned, perfectly ballanced, perfectly damped...
And one day, you get pissed. Much like the musicians in 1970s, who got fed up with over-complicated rock operas and virtuoso performances, so they put on a ragged jeans, a jacket made of British flag and started shouting „God Save the Queen“ into the mic, in a distorted, deviant way. Or those who, some years later, took sleek, old-school rockabilly, ripped it apart, half-buried it and started freakishly dancing on its grave to the rhythm of the new style, the psychobilly.
You won’t find this motel in any atlas. Full of rough company, music louder than cargo train and the guitar devil on the stage who just put his joint out and turned the volume on his Marshall up. T-shirt "Hellbilly Heaven" is ready for you in our DixieGear eshop.
And you, instead of all this, také an old car. A popular old car, which somebody else would restore and turn into a gleaming, polished antique. Or, in the hands of yet another type of guy, it would end up being a shiny, cool street rod with metallic paint and chrome wheels. And what will you do with it? You let it rust. Maybe grind the worst cancer here and there, or spray it with some clearcoat, just to keep bits from falling off. But you're not into slight patina, so admired by classic car collectors. You want a car-zombie. Something that's already dead, but keeps on running, driven by the desire to kill someone.
So you take the sawzall and you do all the nasty things to it that a hotrodder would do. You chop it and channel it, cut it and section it. You throw away all the unnecessary stuff, like fenders or hood. You take a car that provided ample space for a man in a top hat, sitting on a high seat, and turn it into something that requires you to place your ass basically on the floor, just with a pillow underneath. You just get some airplane backrests and weld them into place. The kind of seats that would cost maybe a buck a piece in 1950s scrap yard, but you go to immense lengths to find them, and end up paying a ton of money for them.
Then, you do a heart transplant to your newborn Frankenstein. To make it proper rat road, you would of course like to use a rat engine. But maybe you couldn't find one, and have to settle for a tiny mouse of a Chevy small block instead. To make up for that, you at least slap the craziest manifold you could find on top of it, and top it off with a set of big-ass carbs. Are those two four-barrels on top of a tunnel ram too much for the poor little Chevy? Let Devil care about that. And the exhaust? A set of home-made tube headers will have to do. Loud pipes save lives, don't they?
To finish your build, you need just some controls. So you build them out of whatever's available. Like steering wheel from an old chain, or switches from hell knows what – but at least some of them have to have a flip top, like a jet fighter bomb switch.
That's how the rusty car you see on pictures came to existence. It's a corpse of an old Ford, and it's pretty evil and damned angry. It even bit me, when I was climbing inside – the door tried to ate my finger. And when you wake it up from its cadaverous sleep, it gets even worse. I didn't get to drive it, but just a few moments behid the wheel of stationary beast was enough to build up a huge respect, maybe even fear of that animated corpse.
The steering has a good four inches of play, which is quite scary when coupled with several hundred horsepower under the... well, in the space where a normal car would have the hood. And then there are the tires. Old, narrow and immensely cool, but probably also quite terrible when it comes to such minutiae like grip or traction.
But what you remember the most is the sound. Unbelievable racket, hissing, growling, angry grunting and barking... in short, all those unmistakable sounds of an old, carbureted V8 with a hot cam that's unwillingly waking up from sleep, slowly warming up and during all of this, it's letting you know that it would very much like to bite your head off for daring to interrupt its rest.
Usually, you hear all this filtered through long exhaust pipes and at least some kind of muflers. Here, you have it first hand. Those funny tubes and just a few feet in front of you – in front of the front windows that lack any kind of glass. It's like riding on a tail of a very grumpy dragon, gargling Napalm and spitting nitroglycerine.
All of that means that even an ordinary drive turns into an adventure. You feel that just the fact you survived waking the thing up is a great achievement. Driving along the road, roughly in the direction you decided, and being able to think that you control the beast, that's a massive win.
A wind is blowing in your face, you feel every rut and pothole, and hear every explosion of the gasoline in the cylinders. When it starts to rain, it will drip on you from above, the water spray will fly into your face through windows and its quite likely that the water will even find some way to get through the floor. Everything is so real.
Would I want a rat rod of my own? Hell no. Maybe it's just a matter of taste, maybe I'm just a pussy.
But at least I now totally understand why someone builds such a thing.
Words: Vojta Dobeš
Pictures: Petr Moško, Malvína Ministrová
RadioDixie.cz is a Czech online radio and magazine, covering topics ranging from American music and culture to cars and bikes, and even military history. It plays a unique selection of styles, ranging from outlaw country to blues on one side and rockabilly and psychobilly on the other.
Rusty Pistons is a Kustom Kulture, hot rod, rat rod, chopper, bobber and rockabilly/psychobilly lifestyle brand from Czech Republic. The Zombie Rat Rod was built by Rusty Pistons crew in their spare time.