RAT RODS: Rusted Charm

RAT RODS: Rusted Charm

Hot rodding the inexpensive way

By Angie Mayes


At one time or another most men dream of owning a hot rod.  Whether it was like the 1948 Ford De Luxe named “Greased Lightning” in the movie “Grease” or Harrison Ford’s 1955 Chevy in the movie “American Graffiti”, many young men have dreamed of owning a hot rod.

They wanted something that was slick, fast and would attract the girls.  Those movies were set in the 1950’s when those cars were readily available.  Now, in 2015, it’s harder and harder to find a good body on a solid frame for many cars pre 1960’s.  In addition, costs to totally restore a car like that to a cherry original would take upwards of $75,000, which is a steep price for many a car lover.

There’s a style of car out there that’s a true American hot rod that can be built, and be up and running for around $1,500.  They’re called rat rods and they’re the hottest thing on the car circuit for those 35 and younger.  Still, those older than 35 will still give the car a good once over, because quite honestly, they’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

A rat rod is not pretty.  At least to the general population.  They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and to a young man who owns one, it may be the most beautiful car.  They are usually build using spare parts, Chevy engine components, lowered and narrowed bodies and finished with a patina (popular word for “rusted” or “aged”) or black satin primer finish.  Then they are sprayed with a dull-set lacquer.

Thompson’s Station resident, Tommy Ring, who spent years in the music industry as a pianist, first got into the art of building rat rods four years ago.  It seems that the late, legendary country singer Marty Robbins had a car a friend was going to turn into a hot rod in 1976 while Marty was on tour.

The car was a 1933 Plymouth and the friend cut the car in half and placed it on a Cadillac frame.  When Marty got home from the tour he was so mad about what had been done to the car, he took the car parts to a ravine with a hay fork and dumped them.  That was 1977.

Four years ago, when Ring was looking for a car to build, his best friend, and Marty’s son, Ronnie, told Ring about the Plymouth.  Ring and Ronnie went to the ravine and pulled the car out.  They brought it back to Ring’s shop and Ring began restoring it.

Three months later, it was complete and ready to roll down the Middle Tennessee roads.  He had gotten many of his parts from former University of Tennessee and NFL player, Bubba Miller’s recycling shop called B. Miller Recycling in Franklin, TN.  So, it was only fair Ring place a B. Miller Recycling logo on the car’s door.

Ring had wanted to get the word out to people that these cars can be built for $1,500 or less, were affordable and popular.  He found a writer who wrote a two or three page article for a magazine.  The editor didn’t really pay attention to the article and used it to fill pages.  Before it went to press, the editor was reading the story, presumably for the first time, and called Ring and told him “I made a mistake.  Your story should have been eight pages long and on the cover”.

Ring didn’t seem to mind.  What that started was a good relationship between Ring and Rat Rod Magazine.  “I told them I’d like to do a column for them,” Ring said.  “Kind of a tech tip for those wanting to build the cars.  That was three years ago.”

Rat Rod Magazine is a national publication that’s circulated in 14 countries outside the U.S.   It’s geared toward young people 35 and under, but still has a strong readership for those who love all things car.  They have three million readers each month.

“I wanted to show people that they could build these cars for $1,500.” Ring said.  “The first few issues, I got a lot of flack from people saying I was full of it and it couldn’t be done.  After a while, my emails began to be positive.  To build one of these cars, you need $60 worth of steel, a body that will cost around $500, an engine and transmission that will cost around $500 each and that’s about it.”

With the success of the column, he wanted to give more instruction to those interested.  He hired a film crew and made a DVD.  The problem was it is three and a half hours long.  “I sent it to the magazine owner and he said ‘this will never sell, it’s too long,” Ring said.  “The first month I sold $1,250 worth of them.  The second month, I sold $8,500 worth of them.  It caught on.  The DVD is now in nine countries and every state but two.”

He’s also working with a professional publicist to present a possible TV show to cable networks.  They’ve already filmed a teaser video that can be sent to the network executives for their perusal.

Ring is also an inventor.  On a 1927 Ford, you can only use a 1927 to 1929 Ford axle.  Ring made an adapter plate that makes it possible to run any axle from an older truck to a 1969 truck.  He uses them on his rat rods. As far as parts go, Ring said he prefers Chevy parts to any other.  The simple reason is cost.  “You can get a set of Chevy headers for $149 or ones for a Ford for $269.  Carburetors are the same.  Plus, the older Chevy alternators have one wire hookup, as does the distributor.  That makes it easier for the builder or owner to work on it.” Ring said.

He said the best thing about a rat rod is that it can be made out of bits and pieces of everything.  On the 1933 Plymouth, the exhaust was made out of “monkey bars” and the roll cage is from a jungle gym.  The headlights are off a tug boat and the shocks are from a motorcycle.  The seats are chairs from a Sunday school.  The dash board is from a 1964 Ford dump truck.  There’s no actual interior.  That’s part of the charm of a rat rod.

One thing he wants rat rod builders to know is that as time progresses, the cars from the 1920’s through 1950’s won’t be available much longer.  “I want them to know a rat rod can be made from anything,” he said, pointing to a roadster truck he’s making out of a 1968 VW Beetle.  He’s also making one for someone else that’s from a 1953 Jeep Willy.  He’s cut the top off it and adding a top with a moon roof off another vehicle.  He cut the second section of the Jeep out to shorten it, cut 6 inches off the height to bring the top down lower and cut nine inches out of the width to make it narrower.

He also wants rat rod builders to know they don’t have to have the most expensive tools or equipment. “I use a $100 used welder, a Skil Saw with an abrasive blade and that’s about it,” Ring said.  “I want to make these cars the way anyone can: with little money.  I want to be a purist with what I show them and how I do things.” He recommends builders use recycling yards that charge by the pound rather than salvage yards that charge by the piece. 

“You’ll spend a lot less money and a kid at a recycling yard with a good imagination can come up with a great car” he said.  Ring gets emails from around the world.  He said usually, that’s followed up by a phone call.

“I had one kid call me off and on for three months, asking me about building a car,” Ring said.  “Finally, he asked ‘can you come to Milwaukee?’ I asked ‘why?’ and the kid told me his Dad had left 10 years ago and I had been more of a father figure to him than his own Dad.  At that point in time, I knew I was onto something bigger than me.  I was doing more than just teaching people how to build hot rods.”


For more information on Ring or his Rat Rods, email him at ringrods@gmail.com.

1933 Plymouth Sedan

1933 Plymouth previously owned by Country Music Legend, Marty Robbins.

Tommy Ring and the 1933 Plymouth Sedan