HomeCar CultureCommentaryRat rod culture: Breaking all the rules, traditionally

Rat rod culture: Breaking all the rules, traditionally


Rat rod, or are they art rods, rolling down the road | Photos courtesy Aaron Hagar
Rat rod, or is it an art rod, rolling down the road | Photos courtesy Aaron Hagar

Rat Rods are quite possibly the most misunderstood, under-appreciated and under-estimated segment of American car culture.  That’s no surprise; so it goes with most things new and different.

In a culture dominated by shiny muscle cars and gleaming chrome, Rat Rods present a fusion of history, art and evolution. They serve as the canvas for forward thinking artists and designers linking past and present.

Aaron Hagar at work
Aaron Hagar at work

Rat Rod designer and artist Aaron Hagar suggests that simply switching two letters provides a better description. He’d call them Art Rods.

He and others like him utilize steel frames, vintage bodies and painstakingly selected re-purposed materials to create works of rolling art that also are truly functional automobiles. Some classic car traditionalists may see Rat Rods as a collage of vintage parts, but one of the genre’s leading artists says his goal is to preserve old metal and to keep it on the road, artfully.

“We are all car people,”said Hagar. “The tattoos are just a look. This culture is about accessibility and being unique. Breaking all the rules, traditionally of course.”

“I think street rods cover up much of the craftsmanship,”he added. “You see crazy motors with intense paint that are not really driven around. Rat Rods are a driving culture.”

Hagar said he grew up with cars. His father, rock star Sammy Hagar is a car enthusiast and has every man’s dream car collection, including the highly anticipated La Ferrari, and Aaron’s uncle Bucky was a very skilled mechanic.

“Let’s think about travel,”Aaron said, “the art of going to and fro.”

Preserving old sheetmvetal, though not the tires
Preserving old sheetmvetal, though not the tires

“Dad always liked getting there in something interesting and I picked that up from him. Dad was a collector with impeccable taste. My uncle Bucky, my mom’s brother, was a mechanic. They were best friends and that is how my dad met my mom. With that, that’s how I learned both sides. My dad liked to collect European cars with fine metal while my uncle Bucky would take anything he could, at any budget, modify it, and do anything he could to make it run.”

Between such influences, Aaron Hagar found Rat Rods and specializes in creating what he considers Art Rods at his Rat Runners Garage in South Lake Tahoe, California. His shop is an art-based hot rod and custom facility that creates outrageous rat rods and also does restorations, motorcycles, and original artwork.

Hagar says Rat Rod culture is focused on innovation, preservation, and “we are looking forward as well as looking backward.”

“I love preserving and resurrecting old metal,”he continued. “Rat rods were accessible to me because they were budget cars, and edgy.”

Over time, he learned and honed his vision and his mechanical skills to become not only one of the leading designers and artists of the culture but a spokesperson for and advocate of the preservation of old metal.

Hagar’s art involves taking a combination of old things and combining them into new themes.

“I repurpose because the parts are interesting,”he said. “They all tell stories. I am very proud to say I build rat rods.

Projects require planning
Projects require planning

“I like to theme things heavily. It shows the depth of my builds and shows my passion. Re-purposing is great. When you find something neat that can’t be re-built for what it was originally intended, you repurpose it. It becomes part of a vision that you showcase because it’s beautiful. That’s the preservation part.”

When it comes to finding these unique and interesting parts and pieces for his cars, Hagar notes ”Tahoe is a fertile land of abandoned artifacts from the early part of the century.  You have the logging and mining industries from the early settlers that left behind large artifacts as well as small ones.  Dry in the desert.  Wet in the forest.  There is so much to choose from.  The pickings are endless!“

Hagar continued,“You always get great stories with the different artifacts you find.”

Hagar loves the appeal of the search, the adventure.

“I don’t disrupt the original condition.  Instead of sanding it down in preparation to clearcoat, I feel that the patina is three dimensional and deserves to be left alone ”he said. “I like to preserve it the best I can to keep the depth and bring out the life and details.”

Hagar said he seeks a balance between horsepower, and drivability in his rat rods.

“Rat Rods are really a simplified version of hot rods.,”he said. “They are still hot rods, we just don’t spend a lot on paint, interior, or chrome.”

Red Voodoo is Hagar's signature work
Red Voodoo is Hagar’s signature work


Nicole James
Nicole Jameshttp://nicoleellanjames.com/
Nicole James has been involved in the automotive world her entire life. Her dream car is a 1965 Shelby Daytona Coupe. She currently drives a 2005 Mustang affectionately known as Marilyn and uses the car to participate in track events, car shows, and explore the world around her. Nicole joined the ClassicCars.com Content and Marketing team in 2014. Nicole is an automotive journalist and the creator of Pretty Driven - an online source for car culture and news for millennials, as well as a contributor for ClassicCars.com. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @Nicoleeellan
  1. I don’t care what part of the car culture you are in to
    If it keeps our love of cars alive
    That’s fine with me
    Get out and enjoy your cars and trucks

  2. Loved the Article! I own many sports and muscle cars including a BMW, Porsche, Mercedes and an Audi and my ’29 Ford Rat is the coolest one to drive. Of course my General Lee, Bandit Trans Am and Herbie also get the looks but none more in your face than my RAT!!!

  3. Excellent article!!! I’ve worked with all spectrums of the hot rod and motorcycle genres, but the rat rod style is my personal calling!

  4. Rat Rod? Tired overworked term that describes first attempts. Poorly made, painted with spray cans , unsafe mess. Art Rod sounds much better. The patina of 60 yr plus old fenders can be appreciated.

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