Rat Rods: Long, Low, Loud

Photo of Steve Darnell originally from Billings, Mont., standing in front of his Rat Rod.

Advertisement

Area IV Agency on Aging

By DEBBIE BURKE

You hear them coming long before you see them. 

The roar of pipes and the deep burble of engines resonate in your chest. 

They are Rat Rods, vehicles cobbled together Frankenstein-style from recycled parts. Each is a unique creation, and no two are alike. Designs are limited only by the builder’s imagination and access to… well, junk. 

Junk Heap Gems

Rat Rods are the bad boys of custom car culture, the rugged individualists who rebel against convention and conformity. 

What’s the difference between hot rods and rat rods? 

Traditional hot rods are restorations of vehicles from the 1920s to the 1960s. They are generally correct for the period although they may have non-stock engines, custom wheels, tires, and other features that are not original. With high gloss finishes and gleaming chrome, they are the stars of collector car shows. Woe to anyone who dares to leave fingerprints on the enamel paint. 

In contrast, rat rods are down and dirty, rust and primer, a collection of odd junkyard parts that might even include the kitchen sink. 

A Bit of Ranch, A Bit of Big City

Steve Darnell recalls, as a boy, that his dad would take him to car shows where he wasn’t allowed to touch spotless, pristine hot rods. 

But a rat rod is like a playground on wheels that a kid can climb all over. That appealed to Steve. 

Although born in Las Vegas, Steve lived in Billings with his mom and stepdad. He also spent a lot of time on a ranch between Broadus and Ekalaka owned by his “cool” aunt and uncle, Sharon and Dorn Higgins. There, he pretended to drive broken-down farm equipment from the 1930s and 40s, he milked cows, and learned to repair machinery. He spent summers in Vegas with his dad, where he learned to weld. 

Steve bounced between Montana ranch life, with the only yard lamp for miles, to “bright lights, showgirls, and limousines.” He says growing up in the contrasting worlds was “interesting.” 

Never an enthusiastic student, Steve was encouraged by teacher Rich Malia, at Castle Rock Middle School and later Skyview High School in Billings, to attend metal and wood shop classes at the career center. Steve became a metal fabricator by trade, repairing agricultural equipment in Shepard, when the inspiration to build a rat rod hit him. 

He found a 1928 Dodge body in a yard in Laurel. He bought it for $200 and went to work. Three thousand hours of labor and many more dollars went into that project. 

His buddies hung around his shop, watching him and drinking beer, as he installed a 700-horsepower twin turbo diesel 5.9 Cummins engine. He used saw blades he broke during construction for the trim strips and visors. He harvested other parts from combines, swathers, and plows. 

A manure spreader, Caterpillar pistons, a rifle scabbard completed a vehicle that would look right at home in a Mad Max movie.

Steve doesn’t hold back when he’s racing his ride. 

“I hold it to the floor until stuff starts coming apart.” 

Steve blew everyone away when he powered up his rig at events—it disappeared behind clouds of diesel exhaust and smoking tires. 

His attention-grabbing design caused a sensation. Soon more of his creations were featured in car magazines. Gearheads contacted him to build custom models. 

A Sick Passion

He calls it “a sick passion” that he parlayed into his own shop, Welder Up, now located in Las Vegas. He works with his older sister Donalee, who handles the business end. 

“Half the time, she wants to kill me. The other half, she wants to see what I’ll do next,” he says.

His imaginative rat rods also caught the eye of reality TV producers. The show Vegas Rat Rods aired for four seasons on the Discovery Channel. Each episode followed start-to-finish construction of a custom rod. Clients who commissioned the cars were wowed by the final product. 

Steve also teaches an online welding course at www.welder101.com, passing on the tricks of the trade he picked up from more than three decades of hands-on experience. 

Not bad for a Montana boy who spent a fair part of his youth grounded in his room, where he built model cars and imagined how to fashion junk into rolling artwork. 

Busted Knuckle Mashups

Ask Glenn Jackman of Sagle, Idaho if he’s retired. His response: “No, just tired.” 

Not a surprising answer considering his schedule. Monday through Friday, he builds custom homes. After hours and weekends, you’ll find him at Jackman’s Busted Knuckle Rod Shop where he builds custom cars. 

If he has any time left over, he and his wife Nancy drive their Rat Rod to car shows throughout the northwest, including Spokane, Coeur d’Alene (“Car d’Alene”), Sandpoint, Bonner’s Ferry, Missoula, and as far as Red Lodge. 

Wherever it goes, Glenn’s rod turns heads. 

In June, he took first place in the Rat Rod category at the Big Shindig at the DeSoto Grille in Kalispell, Montana.

The rig is a mashup of parts collected at swap meets, starting with a 1948 Diamond T on a hand-built frame with a Ford drop axle in front. The engine is a 12-valve Dodge Cummins. The taillights are from a caboose, and the headlamps once belonged to a 1932 Rolls Royce.  

He built the rig more than three years ago because “we needed something to drive after selling our 1953 Cadillac.”

The Family Curse 

Building cars is a longstanding family tradition that started in Covina, Calif. Glenn’s dad caught his mom’s eye with a 1949 Mercury he’d customized. They married and raised six kids who all grew up working in the garage, surrounded by welding sockets and timing lights. 

Glenn’s starter project was a 1957 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. He branched out into other vehicles and gained a customer following. In 1993, the Jackmans moved to Sagle where he opened his own shop that also involves family. His daughter inherited a similar passion for automobiles—he calls it “The Curse.” They are currently working on a 1963 Lincoln with suicide doors for her. 

In addition, he’s building a rat rod for a woman from San Diego. 

The family tradition carries on, and Glenn’s not likely to run out of projects anytime soon. More examples of his work are on Facebook: facebook.com/JackmansBustedKnuckleRodShop

Rat rods may not be pretty but, when you look closer, you’ll find recycled pieces of history, large investments of time and love, plus a giant helping of crazy fun. MSN

Subscribe to the Montana Senior News

Sign up to recieve the Montana Senior News at home for just $15 per year.

You might want to take a look at these:

Illustration from the cover of the WPA Guide to 1930s Montana

WPA Guide Books

In their heyday, the WPA Guide Books were popular to take on countryside tours. Perhaps it is time to dust them off for touring your state.

Read More »
Arnie Malina, Founder of Second Story Cinema in Helena, Montana

Second Story Cinema

In 1976, Arnie Malina and a couple friends pooled $6k to start the independent movie house, Second Story Cinema in Helena. Today it’s the Myrna Loy Center, a vibrant performance venue & movie theatre with a $750k endowment. 

Read More »