Show-stopping Rat Rods - flashback

By: Steve Nally, Photography by: Mark Bean

Presented by

rat rod 15 Rat Rod HQ, a treasure trove of junk. Darren Lappich’s ’38 Chev – or what’s left of it (foreground) and his mate Shane’s Chev, which will be registered soon. Rust never sleeps! rat rod 15
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A show stopper that was built for under $2000 (back in 2009). Welcome to the wild and wacky world of rat rods

 

Rat Rods - trimworm treasures

If this were a high-brow magazine devoted to the Arts, we’d probably refer to Darren Lappich’s rolling iron oxide sculpture as a fine example of ‘found object’ creativity. Or maybe an installation reflecting man’s quest to find his place in a cruel society run by machines – or some other high fallutin art-babble.

First published in Unique Cars #300, Jun/Jul 2009

The thing is, we wouldn’t be wrong because this scrap heap screamer, which started life as a ‘38 Chevrolet pickup, was constructed from bits and bobs Darren discovered lying around. It really is the sum of a pile of found objects.

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We first saw the Chev cruising around at knee-level at the last Street Machine Summernats and it was this writer’s favourite car there. No kidding. I just loved it’s purity and basic, threadbare functionality. Compared to the majority of shiny street machines and rods rumbling around the Nats it was like something from Mars and so cool.

Darren’s rat wasn’t destined for the Summernats and the deadline for entries had passed when he emailed a few happy snaps of the car hoping to get a guernsey. The rod’s uniqueness won a wild card entry with the blessing of promoter Chic Henry.

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"On the entry form it said no rust or bare metal or open pipes (it had all three) and I had to send some photos to find out if they’d let me enter but Chic said no worries," Darren recalls.

"Scrutineering was funny ‘cos of the pipes but I said, ‘Look, this is just a stock small block, you’ve got cars with 500 cubes and 12/71 blowers and they’re louder through the pipes than my car.

"Everyone loved it at the Summernats and I was surprised Unique Cars wanted to photograph it. I thought one of my mates was taking the piss because it’s basically just a billy cart."

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Rust lovers

While Rat Rod culture, which originated in the US, has become an international craze, most cars these days running under that umbrella term are usually well-engineered and finished and just made to look as, well, ratty as possible. You know, matt paint, faded or no chrome, and none of the usual glitter and spit and polish normally associated with hot rodding. To Darren they’re imposters; so what’s his definition of a rat rod?

rat-rod-19.jpgInterior is bare bones and hard on the bones

"Something rusty; original paint, not matt black, whatever is left of the original paint," stresses Darren, who works as a courier. "I don’t consider matt or flat black as rat because it’s new paint.

"Actually some people call cars like mine, rust rods. At the Nats some smart arse yelled out, ‘Who painted it mate?’ and I said, ‘I dunno, someone in the Chevy factory in 1938’."

rat-rod-3.jpgThis rat rod has probably the shortest exhaust pipes this side of a drag strip

Darren reckons he and fellow rust lover mate Shane Corr (he did all the welding and his is the other Chev pictured) are in the minority and they were disappointed by the number of slick cars at last year’s Rat Rod Day at Taren Point in Sydney.

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"We had the only two rusty cars there. I don’t know if many people are really into rat rods; they like to look at them but not many build them," he says. Darren has two "shiny cars", as he calls them; ’65 Impalas that he hasn’t messed with ("I just slammed them and put mags on them"). But inspired by a trip to the 2007 Rat Rod Day with Shane, he decided to knock up a car for last year’s show and with a backyard full of old cars and parts he didn’t have to go far to start. And it didn’t take him long to build it, just five days...

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Cheap transport

He found the truck in a paddock in Leura in the Blue Mountains five years ago and slung a bloke $200 for it. "He wanted more but it was too far gone to do anything else with, that’s why the cab was perfect for a rat," he says.

But first it had to be cut down to size. Eleven inches was chopped out of the roof and 10 inches off the bottom of the doors and cabin. But it wasn’t just hacked, there was method in Darren’s mangling. Notice how the windscreen and door openings have similar oval shapes; that was intentional grinding. The rest of the car came together quite quickly.

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"I’d had some of the bits for five or six years, like the front axle, which is off a ’38-40 Ford and had been sitting in the yard for four years. A bloke had it on a trailer taking it to the scrap metal yard and I pulled him over and grabbed it; I knew I’d use it one day. I got the wheels one at a time; one at a swap meet for 10 bucks, one at a wreckers for 15 bucks, found the other two…"

rat-rod-20.jpgNote the total disregard for safety eg. rear springs welded to the chassis and axle!

Building it did not require rocket science or even any real engineering skill, just a good eye. "If you can read a tape and work a grinder, you’re ‘right," Darren grins. "I bought an eight-metre length of 3 x 2 tube to make the chassis, measured how long the cab was and cut the steel to length. Then I notched the rails six inches (from the firewall to the front axle) to get the body on the ground, then stepped it up about two foot at the back (to clear the diff)." The pickup sides are just cut down from the original pickup tray.

rat-rod-18.jpgNo, it doesn’t start with a key

Darren made use of almost everything on the ’38 Chev and there are surprising styling details everywhere, like the bullet points at the end of the tray sides which are tips off an excavator cutter. The side mirror is off a Dragster pushbike.

"I just pick up anything that looks like it might be useful and chuck it on the shelf; it’s a juggling act to get shit parts to look good," grins Darren, who would probably be reincarnated as a magpie if he was Buddhist.

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The 350 Chev is a prime example of rat rod scrounging; most of it had been sitting under a bench for 12 years, gathering grime. "A mate had the bottom end, another bloke donated the heads and the valley and Powerglide gearbox. I scored the radiator out of a crashed ’32 Ford that a mate was repairing, that’s why the tank is bent.

"The dizzy came off the shelf at Shane’s, we didn’t even take the cap off but we had to change the plug leads for this shoot." An old Rochester carby sits on top and the rod has possibly the shortest exhaust pipes in the country. Mufflers? Who needs ‘em!

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The engine and ‘box cost around $1500 and Darren reckons the rest of the car owes him another – wait for it – $400. The diff is a Borg Warner from a "Falcon, or something" with drum brakes; there are no front stoppers.

"I didn’t even pull the drums off to have a look at how much shoe was left on them," he confesses, with a wink. "I like the look of it with no front brakes."

There’s one piece of modern suspension technology, though, a modified Watts linkage off an EB Falcon. The rear-end was originally rigid but a set of cut-down springs from a mate’s Pontiac welded (!!) straight onto the diff and the body give the rod a modicum of ride. I said modicum.

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LOW RIDER

Risking a bad case of tetanus, I accepted Darren’s invitation to go for a lap or two around the quiet industrial estate behind Shane’s workshop. At just 106 centimetres high, getting into the ‘car’ requires a contortionist’s flexibility.

The only creature comfort inside is a thinly padded bench seat that was sitting on the roof of a wreck at Shane’s workshop that Darren "scabbed" and cut in half with a grinder to fit around the tailshaft loop. Hell, it’s not even fixed to the floor. The floor on the passenger side, by the way, is an old 100km/h sign and there’s just a piece of packing crate on Darren’s side. The pedals are wooden blocks.

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Digging into my back is the sharp metal ribbing that a seat back would have been screwed onto when the Chev was new, and a knob on the bodged-up door handle is threatening to crack a rib.

The steering wheel centre is off a T-Model Ford and cost three bucks at a swap meet and left-over steel rod was cut in two, bent and welded to the spokes to form half-rims. "I wanted to form them into devil horns but didn’t have enough material so I just used what I had," he laughs.

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Surprisingly, there’s good headroom but with a narrow slot for a windscreen (no glass, of course) due to a radical top chop, all I can see is the air cleaner, rocker cover, fan, radiator and left wheel.

To start the engine Darren just pulls on the starter button and flicks a toggle switch. Apart from spark and distributor leads, that’s the only wiring on the car. When the Chev fires, the straight-out exhausts belch blue smoke directly into the cabin. I feel like I’m flying in a WWII fighter plane. Truly a unique motoring experience!

rat-rod-7.jpgWriter Nally risks tetanus and a slipped disc

The two-speed Powerglide has no shifter so Darren changes gears by reaching over and pulling on what’s left of a linkage on the left side of the ‘box. "In Canberra everyone kept saying I should run one of those long nostalgia gear sticks but to me that was a good reason not to have it, it’s been done."

Of course the car is not registered or roadworthy and if we hit anything we’re liable to be left sitting in a pile of rust but cruising up and down this back street, inhaling oil and exhaust fumes with Darren laughing his head off when the rod kicked sideways was a blast.

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Darren plans to tart his rod up a little by fitting the original grille and bonnet – appropriately resized – and moving the radiator to the rear of the car, which will make it look a little snazzier. But his is a hot rod in the true original sense of the word. Back when the craze started, kids desperate for wheels turned anything they could find into cheap transport and Darren’s no different.

Sure, it’ll never be registered or driven on the road but this car is all about having fun. In a strange way it’s also a very ‘green’ vehicle because all parts are recycled. And he doesn’t care if you don’t like rust, as he says, "I don’t build cars for other people to like, I build them ‘cos I like ’em." 

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CULTURE CLUB

­­­­­­­Rat Rods are the latest international craze in hot rods and are a part of a sub-culture of traditional hot rodding that also includes Kustoms and Lowriders. The genre has caught on quickly with younger rodders in particular and spawned a whole new car lifestyle that draws heavily on rockabilly and surf music, tattoos, and ’50s and ’60s fashion.

Fifty odd years ago at the dawn of hot rodding, Rat Rods would have been called jalopies, cars that were thrown together from whatever parts builders could afford or scrounge and today’s Rats echo that heritage. Cross-pollination of models and styles is a hallmark of rat rodding and there are basically no rules: think hot rodder and cartoonist Big Daddy Ed Roth’s hero creation, Rat Fink, and you get the drift.

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A trawl through some of the US Rat Rod websites, though, shows many cars that, while fitting the basic rat brief, are often quite well finished and detailed and just given the shabby chic treatment. Nevertheless, Rat Rods are probably the coolest cars in rodding today.

 

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