Hot Rods vs. Rat Rods: What’s the Difference?

hot-rods-vs-rat-rodsTwo of the most popular types of custom cars on the road are hot rods and rat rods. To a non-car person these vehicles may look similar, but to the trained eye, there are some key differences between the two. The purpose of this article is to give you the knowledge to identify which type of car you are looking at.

Let’s start with the similarities: both hot rods and rat rods are NOT supposed to look like factory original, production cars.

Factors that Hot Rods and Rat Rods have in common:
* Built with 1920s to 1950s cars
* Built with parts that are traded, reclaimed, repurposed, or scavenged
* Chopped roofs, lowered bodies, and white wall tires
* Skinny front / fat rear tires
* Will often times not have A/C, radio, power steering, seat belts, or any emissions equipment or mufflers
* Emphasis on going fast above safety and driver comfort

Beyond that point, the two aesthetics start to differ.

Hot Rods:
* Tend to have a “finished” look with polished chrome and a professional paint job
* May incorporate modern engines with EFI
* Modern amenities such as cruise control, digital gauges, power steering
* Shaved door handles, smoothed body work
* Polished wheels and/or billet accessories
* Built with parts from makes/models of other cars (radiator, headlights, taillights, door handles, etc)

Rat Rods:
* Tend to have an “unfinished” or weathered look with surface rust “patina” on body panels or matte/flat colors
* Cars tend to look like a “work in progress”
* Car looks like something from The Grapes of Wrath
* EXTREME chopped roof
* Welds may not be ground down/smoothed
* Built using ANY available materials (not necessarily car parts)
* Interior with no carpet, seats with minimal or no padding
* Custom shift knob
* Very few or no shiny/polished parts
* Absence of new technology like LED taillamps

If you see any of the following:
* Steel wheels painted red
* A beer/soda bottle opener mounted to the exterior
* Fuel tank made from an old beer keg
* Door panels or floorpans made of old license plates/road signs

Then you are definitely looking at a rat rod!

There is a fair amount of backlash towards rat rod style cars in the custom car world, particularly from traditional hot rodders. Rat rod cars are frequently (but not always) decorated with unnecessary objects like skulls, grenades, bullets, and other “tough guy” objects. They may be artificially weathered or distressed in order to make them seem more authentic. The cars are criticized for their poor build quality and lack of respect for traditional hot rodding.

On the other hand, there is an equal amount of backlash towards traditional hot rodders from some rat rod builders. They criticize the cars for being built from catalog parts, as there are many aftermarket suppliers catering to the hot rod community. Critics of traditional hot rods say that with the bright colored paint jobs, chrome/billet accessories, and tweed interiors, that these “custom” cars end up looking very similar to each other.

There are a lot of strong opinions, and then there are people like myself who happen to find both types of vehicles appealing. I enjoy going to a car show and seeing a variety of custom cars built to the owner’s own tastes and preferences, and I’m glad that both types of cars exist.

What are your thoughts on rat rods vs hot rods? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below.

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About Trevor Freeman

Trevor is a real gearhead who loves everything from classic American muscle cars to high-performance exotics. When he's not reading about cars or taking photos at a car show, he's probably out cruising around. He is currently working on restoring a 1980 Chevrolet Monza hatchback.