A new kind of hot rod is hitting its stride.
Whether you’ve been in the hot-rodding world for decades or are just beginning to explore the mechanical world, you’ve run into the term “rat rod” and seen examples described as such. Rat rods in their most basic form are pieces of automotive art, built predominantly by their owners from accessible donor cars and inexpensive used parts, and using simple skills. As can be expected, the gatekeepers of the hot-rodding community have weighed in about the rat rod’s authenticity, asking the question, are they the real thing, or are they just shabby and unsafe copies of the original hot rod item? For some, adding the diesel-power element to the rat rod concept further complicates the question of authenticity, but for others it provides a handy tool for demonstrating that hot rodding truly has no boundaries. Does either side of the diesel rat rod authenticity argument elicit a strong feeling in your gut?
Rat Rods on Trial
If so, your opinion on rat rods—and by extension, diesel rat rods—may be informed by whether you are already invested in traditional hot rod building (pre-1949 hot rods) and the long history of institutional street rodding, or alternately consider yourself a cultural iconoclast and a fan of new cultural phenomena. You may also find respect for traditional forms of hot rodding while also appreciating a newer generation of automotive art, and it is this middle ground that gives someone the best vantage point for appreciating the best of both hot rodding art forms. These days, that is increasingly inclusive of the diesel hot-rodding subculture. (For more on the rat rod subject, sans diesel, Tim Bernsau’s story on the history of the rat rod here is enthralling, and for the ultimate read on the rat rod subject, Scotty Gossen’s book, Rat Rods: Rodding’s Imperfect Stepchildren, can’t be beat.)
Diesel Rat Rods
At first glance, the diesel engine may seem like an unwanted intruder into the well-established curriculum of hot rodding, but when examined more closely, the diesel’s suitability for hot rod use couldn’t be more appropriate. Traditional hot rodding is all about doing something unique, and stuffing a torque-dominant diesel engine into a hot rod certainly qualifies on this basis alone. Beyond uniqueness, the diesel engine really shines in the attention department as few readily available power sources are as immediately identifiable. Diesel engines are brazenly unapologetic for their sound, their smell, and their appearance—both in terms of their static look and their billowing clouds of coal-colored smoke. Only a steam-powered locomotive or Top Fuel dragster has a more animated source of power. A diesel engine in a rat rod just can’t be beat for pure shock value, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen one or a thousand of them, you’ll be hooked each time.
“Good” Versus “Bad” Diesel Rat Rods
Insofar as the subset of diesel-savvy amateur car builders is a relatively small group, the diesel rat rodder enjoys a relatively critique-free environment. It’s hard to slam a topic you know nothing about, right? While the amateur rat rodder is frequently assailed by hot rod purists for mixing and matching ideas, cars, engines, and parts from different eras, or for having a skill set that’s less well developed (normally, that’s welding), diesel rat rodders usually fly beneath the radar of scrutiny. Until a previously unknown diesel-powered hot rod built by one of hot rodding’s icons is uncovered, there’s simply nothing historically valid to compare one to.
Without a well-established tradition of diesels in hot rodding (none are known further back than about two decades), there can be no “right way” to build a diesel rat rod. There is only to build, or not to build. One builder who has achieved a large degree of fame building diesel-powered rat rods is Steve Darnell from Discovery’s Vegas Rat Rods TV show. Darnell has ostensibly taken the lead in the field of diesel rat rods and has strongly influenced the direction of these builds in recent years (read Hot Rod’s story on his 4×4 diesel 1968 Charger here), but the matter of what makes a proper diesel rat rod is far from settled. The diesel rat rod is a rapidly evolving trend, and whether you’re watching from the sidelines or actively building a diesel rat rod of your own, this is clearly an exciting bunch of machines. Let’s look at six diesel-powered rat rods that stake out this newest form of hot rodding! (Make sure to check out all the extra photos of these six diesel rat rods plus more in the gallery.)
1931 Fordor Diesel Rat Rod
Few amateurs will ever possess the skills Jason Walters had amassed by age 13, which included both body shop metalworking and welding—both picked up at the family body shop in Bluffton, South Carolina. By the ripe old age of 35, Walters was ready to rip into his first rat rod diesel build, which was based on a 1931 Fordor body and a Cummins 5.9-liter diesel snatched from a 1993 Dodge Ram 2500 truck. Rather than attempt a doomed effort at using the Ford’s or the Dodge’s frame, Walters started fresh with 2×4 mild steel tubing, adding a rear four-link suspension of his own design and a 9.5-inch rearend from a Silverado. The stock suicide front end and transverse leaf spring is supplemented by Speedway Motors coilovers (the Cummins weighs in at over 1,100 pounds!) with steering handled by an S10 steering box. The body has been chopped 4 inches, then channeled another 4 inches over the frame for a radical in-the-weeds look. It’s all bagged for a practical ride height on the road, and Walters even has air conditioning. The look is perhaps a little deceiving as this rat rod diesel has over 4,000 rivets, all painstakingly crafted for a vintage aircraft bomber look. Dive deep into the story here.
1928 Dodge Diesel Rat Rod
The photos might be soft, and the details might be sparse, but most hot rodders today would be able to spot Steve Darnell’s nascent diesel rat rod style in this early web feature from 2009—way before he ever gained fame on Discovery’s hit TV show, Vegas Rat Rods. In the years before stardom, Darnell crafted this 1928 Dodge Brothers sedan to do everything from running down the quarter mile and driving the freeway around his home in Billings, Montana, to hammering it on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The 693-hp Cummins turbodiesel propelled the beast to a best quarter-mile time of 11.69 seconds at 118 mph while delivering 25 mpg on the highway. What Hot Rod and story author Jason Sands couldn’t have realized at the time was that the low-flying Dodge would turn out to be just the calling card Darnell needed to jump-start his successful WeldRUp shop and influence a generation of rat rod builders around the world through his Discovery TV show. For a bit of fun, see what Darnell’s 1928 Dodge sedan looks like today here.
1971 AMC Gremlin Diesel Rat Rod
Nike’s trademarked “just do it” catchphrase applies to Arizona’s Ben Wrasse if it applies to anyone. Other than having a job as a cement truck mechanic, nothing prepared Wrasse for turning a junkyard refugee 1971 AMC Gremlin into a diesel rat rod. It wouldn’t be an oversimplification to say Ben laid a Cummins 12-valve diesel, Dodge Ram trans and rear axle, a 1975 motorhome front axle, and the Gremlin body on the ground, then began welding them together with scrap tubing. An old beer case, some used Speedway Motors racing seats, the grille from a 1936 Pontiac, and some of his grandfather’s old steam locomotive tools found their way into the mix for a remarkably functional diesel rat rod that makes hot rodding purists furious for its ability to have an outsized influence on anyone with a working set of eyeballs. Read the fascinating full story of the “Grem-Peeper” here.
1966 Chevy Caprice Diesel Rat Rod
Mike Friel’s 1966 Chevy Caprice has been in the family since day one, first being purchased by Mike’s father Chris, then going to his grandmother before finally landing in Mike’s garage in 2006. For years, the original 327ci small-block was the engine of choice, until a 5.9-liter Cummins diesel and 46RH transmission came into the picture. This opened a new realm of possibilities, including burnouts for days, but not before a serious rethinking of the chassis. Mike cut out the floor and built an all-new perimeter frame out of 2×3 steel tubing, covering it with fresh sheets of steel on the floor, firewall, and tunnel. A mild steel cage further stiffens the fullsize B-body and Z06 C7-spec wheels, and tires now sit at the corners, making onlookers wonder if this isn’t some sort of post-apocalyptic road course warrior looking for its way back to the track. Naturally, the Cummins diesel has all the common hot rodder tweaks, like more aggressive fuel injector timing, swapping out the fuel pin, and using a higher-rpm governor spring for around 353 hp (3,000 rpm) and 798 lb-ft of torque.
1956 Desoto Fireflite Diesel Rat Rod
There are hot rodders, and then there’s Leon Ekery. His neighbors call his driveway “the land of misfit toys” for a reason, and on some days it’s because of the 200-mph Duramax-powered 1956 Desoto Fireflight sitting calmly, waiting to be booted into overdrive, tires frying. Ekery is no ordinary hot rodder. A penchant for the big number often takes him and his 1956 DeSoto to land speed races, open road races, One Lap of America, Hot Rod Power Tour, and Pikes Peak. Originally conceived as a simple diesel engine swap, the project quickly ballooned when it was discovered the classic Mopar’s frame wouldn’t be able to handle the massive Duramax or the twist it would provide. Once the decision to use the donor truck’s 2003 2500HD chassis was made, the truck’s rear axle was moved forward, the DeSoto’s floor was cut out, and four years later, the body and chassis were successfully mated with all the attendant bracing and roll cage necessary for competition. You’ll want to check out more interesting details and the wicked burnout video from the original story here.
1955 Ford F-100 Diesel Rat Rod
You may not immediately suspect the diesel proclivities of Drayton Hales’ 1955 Ford F-100 pickup right away, but once the weathered diesel rat rod truck puts fire in the hole, the oil-burning, coal-rolling status of this beast becomes crystal clear. Maybe the commercial-sized wheels from a 1957 Chevy dump truck give it away, but there’s lots of heavy-duty 2-ton truck equipment below including a dropped 2-ton front axle, 2-ton drum brakes, leaf springs, and a narrowed Ford 9-inch rear. Those Chevy dump-truck wheels have been cut and rewelded for the perfect offsets front and rear while the donor Cummins 4BT 3.9-liter diesel remains mostly stock. (Gear shifting is accomplished via a Turbo 400 three-speed automatic with a custom adapter.) The worn patina of the ’55 Ford didn’t come easy because much of the bodywork was too far gone to be saved. Drayton and his father James worked hard to repair the worst of the damage, saving the rest of the body in as-weathered form, then covering the whole truck with Axalta matte clear for a stunning presentation.