When Eric Edens’ 1940 Plymouth springs to life you hear it. With the flip of a switch and a puff of smoke, the big block 413 engine roars to life through a set of cut-off headers. The sound is both deafening and awe inspiring.
To some folks, a car is an appliance. It gets you from point A to point B with minimal drama but is as forgettable as a toaster or a washing machine. But some folks treat automobiles as a passion, and Eric Edens is one of those people. Eric has spent the last two years grinding, welding, and building his own dream car using scavenged parts and scrap metal. His creation is named “Rusty.”
Rusty is what motor-heads like to call a rat rod. A portmanteau of hot rod and rat bike, the term originated in the 90s to describe a new wave of builders who were making relatively inexpensive hot rods out of long abandoned vehicles from the 30s and 40s.
This new style was a counter-reaction to high-priced “trailer queens” that dominated the custom car scene at the time. A trailer queen is a car built for show that is never driven for fear of damage. They have impeccable paint, chrome engines, and perfect interiors but are too nice to drive. A rat rod is built to be driven hard, drag raced, and is often driven to any car show.
Early rat rods were similar to the original custom roadsters and hot rods of the 50s but were often left primered or rusty in an “as found” condition. Imagine a car like those seen in the movie “Grease” but with less paint. Over the years, the term evolved to include a wide variety of machines with only a few common characteristics. The most important of these being rust. Eric says, “If it’s painted, it’s a hot rod. Rust is a must.”
Rusty, formally known as Russell Bigelow, began life as a 1940 Plymouth pickup truck. From the factory, Rusty likely had a small, 201 cubic inch, Chrysler flathead engine. It presumably spent its life on a farm before being sentenced to an eternity in the salvage yard. Over the years, useful parts were stripped from it and the automobile was left to rot. When Eric found the truck it was just a hollow shell with a locked up motor — the perfect candidate for a rat rod revival.
Eric built Rusty from the ground up. He created the frame with metal tubing then modified the truck frame to sit on top. He used an old hot rodder technique called channeling to remove a portion of the original body so it would rest closer to the ground for an aggressive look. The top has been “chopped,” removing strips of metal to lower the roofline. Eric cobbled together Rusty’s running gear from thirteen different machines including a hay baler and a boat. The front wheels are from a Ford Model A and the headlights are from a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom. “Nobody has been able to guess where the headlights came from,” Eric says. The steering gearbox is out of a ‘67 Chevy truck and the engine is a huge 413 big block from a 60s Chrysler Imperial. The steering column is from a mid-80s Chevy station wagon. It even has a tilt steering wheel.
Even more impressive are all the little details Eric added. The shifter is a wooden boat paddle and the shifter boot is an actual boot. A saw blade sets atop the air cleaner and the brake pedal is made from an old plowshare. The gas pedal is a boot sole. Around back, hollowed pistons are used for taillights.
The rat rod only has one gauge, which monitors oil pressure. He checks the fuel using a dipstick not unlike the one used to check oil.
Parts from this truck span eight decades and the whole thing fits together in a sort of organized chaos reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. In a way, Rusty is an exaggerated caricature of a hot rod, something Ed Roth would have drawn on a sweatshirt. If this isn’t functional art, I don’t know what is.
Eric estimates that he’s spent $8,000 in parts over the two years it took to build Rusty. The hours he’s spent fabricating are countless. Because of the variety of part sources, much of the build had to be created from scratch. He made his own brake system, steering system, suspension, and cooling system among other things.
Although Eric will be the first to admit that Rusty looks like a death-trap, Eric says he takes safety very seriously. He’s installed modern disk brakes for quick stopping and an air-ride suspension to smooth out the road. A modern axle prevents dangerous failures. Even with all of its amenities, it’s not the most comfortable ride. “This isn’t a long distance vehicle,” Eric says. “You wouldn’t want to drive it to California even though I guess you could.” A comfortable ride isn’t the point. Rusty is designed to burn rubber and look good doing it.
Eric is now the general manager of Phil Wright Toyota in Russellville but has been passionate about antique cars and hot rods since he was a kid. “I grew up around old cars as a kid. My dad was a junk car dealer,” Eric says. “When I was ten years old I was so enthralled with antique cars that I could tell you the difference between a ‘28 ‘29 and ‘30 Model A.” All of this attention to detail hasn’t been wasted. Eric spends long hours searching scrap yards and swap meets, looking for the perfect parts.
To begin a rat rod project, Eric recommends a car built in the 30’s or 40’s. They have graceful and sleek lines but simple sheet metal that is easy to work with. Common rat rods are built out of the Ford Model A and coupes. Chevy, Ford, and Dodge trucks also make great candidates.
The popularity of rat rods started growing exponentially around 2010 and the trend went viral as a new generation started building these custom vehicles. This surge of popularity has been met with mixed reviews by some of the more traditional hot rodders. They complain that rat rods are too low, too loud, and too ugly to be at car shows. That being said, the crowds love them. Eric says, “There are people who have spent 75 or 80 thousand dollars on their restoration. They’re beautiful, but so nice that you can’t enjoy them. People will walk right past that car and start making circles around mine.”
In addition, Eric says that he has much more fun with this truck than he has had with other classic cars. “What fun is a car if you have to haul it on a trailer everywhere you go and you don’t want to put any miles on it? You might as well have a model car sitting on a shelf.” He goes on to say that he’s owned very nice classic cars in the past but didn’t get the same enjoyment out of them. “It’s not real fun because you’re always afraid of someone getting too close with a button or a snap. You can’t take them anywhere because you’re afraid of leaving them unattended. I had an old antique Corvette. It was a neat and fun car, but I didn’t have nearly as much fun with it. This has turned more heads than any other car I’ve ever had.”
These days, Eric doesn’t worry about dings or dirt. Kids routinely get to climb in and around Rusty at car shows. “There’s nothing they can break,” says Eric.
Eric was kind enough to give me a ride in his rat rod, and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. My first surprise was that the doors open backwards. Suicide doors are an homage to the early days of hot rodding.
As I was getting in Rusty, I noticed the cutoff headers and open cab and commented on how loud driving Rusty must be. Eric replied, “Nah, they aren’t too bad.” The old engine leaks a bit of oil, but started right up and I found out Eric was wrong. The sound inside the cab was loud. We’re talking uncomfortably loud. Rusty isn’t finished yet, but sound insulation was definitely not a priority. The ride, however, was surprisingly smooth. Eric’s custom built air-ride suspension is to thank for that. One trip up and down the driveway and I was already hooked.
Eric isn’t alone in his hobby. His friend Dale Holt has his own custom rat rod. It’s a 1946 Chevy truck with a 454 big block, a tunnel-ram intake and four-speed transmission. Dale’s truck is a rarity in the rat rod world with luxuries like roll up windows, windshield wipers and turn signals. He says it’s perfectly drivable as long as you don’t mind getting six miles to the gallon.
A project like Eric’s doesn’t evolve on its own. He’s had plenty of help from friends and the support of his wife. Eric is thinking about starting a rad rod club called River Valley Rat Rods in the near future.
For some people, a car is more than just an appliance.