Backstory: No paint, no problem
In his autobody shop in Greenville, S.C., Greg Porter creates hot rods that are metallic works of movable art. They sell for as much as three times the price of the finest car to roll off the BMW line here in Greer.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Porter's square jaw, haystack hair, and classic white T-shirt evoke a rockabilly ethos and artistic oeuvre that have made him a legend among the high-rollers in the $4 billion hot-rod industry. But off-the-clock, Porter likes to leave the be- jeweled paint jobs behind and lay his broad bicep out the window of a grimier and arguably cooler ride: the rat rod.
In his case, it's a 1940 Ford sedan with scratches in the paint, a ding in the windshield, and worn suede seats. A Betty Boop air freshener dangles from the rearview mirror. "I won't lay any paint on this one," he says. "It's perfect just like it is." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the model year of the Ford sedan.]
Once disgraced, now embraced, rat rods are becoming one of the hottest trends among backyard mechanics since the tail fin. Also called the primer job, lowbuck, or rat-a-billy, rat rods are used cars with attitude. They are often Frankensteinian amalgams of old cars put together - the cheaper and dowdier, the better.
Rat rods represent, in part, a populist revolt against the platinum-priced world of hot rodding. Its devotees are a tattooed and grease-under-the-nails subculture driven, in essence, not by status, but by dreams of "on the road" adventures and escape from the metronome monotonies of everyday life.
"There's something much more romantic about [rat rods], getting on the road and driving 300 miles in this old car," says Kirk Jones, publisher of the Goodguys Goodtime Gazette, a hot-rod magazine in Pleasanton, Calif. "It's uncomfortable. There's a question of whether you're going to make it. And when in our world anymore do you get to have a real adventure?"
Rat rodding is popular enough that it's even angering some of its upscale brethren: At hot rod shows, fans often look past the pretty but arguably soulless high-end machines to gawk at cars that haven't been painted since the Hoover administration. Experts say rat-rod enthusiasts now number perhaps 30,000 nationwide, and are boosting interest in America's unique but finite inventory of old cars.
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Some hot-rod sociologists such as Mr. Jones describe the rat-rod trend as a desire for a return to the romance of post-World War II America, when soldiers came back looking for thrills that would rival their adventures overseas. Using mechanical skills learned in the Army, they turned to rusting Fords and Chevys - the Honda Civics of their day - to create horsepower-heavy "rods."
That attitude has morphed today into a punk-a-billy culture, in which old "ratty" cars help satisfy a longing for a time when life was more spontaneous - and dangerous. Unlike the ethos at the well-behaved hot-rod shows, where the Beach Boys eternally play and few people actually drive the cars, rat rodders like to go fast, in style, and perhaps not always to the letter of the law. "Hot rods are supposed to be dangerous, and the younger section of this market is very much into that rebellious side," says Ryan Cochran, founder of the Jalopy Journal message board in Austin, Texas.