Rat Rod: A Statement Made of Rust

HIGHLAND FALLS, N.Y. — The Storm King Highway, a twisting two-lane ribbon carved into a mountainside here nine decades ago, hardly seemed the place to test the roadworthiness of a hot rod that looked to have just escaped the junkyard.

Of greater concern, perhaps, was that Peter Duvaloois had never traveled this road, some 50 miles north of Manhattan, before bringing his 1946 Chevrolet “rat rod” truck here to meet a reporter. On the Storm King Highway — a four-mile stretch of Route 218 that snakes along 400-foot cliffs overlooking the Hudson River and passes the United States Military Academy at West Point — drivers must resist staring into the breathtaking vistas, even while keeping their distance from the low stone wall that serves as a guardrail.

To Mr. Duvaloois, 62, rat rods like his home-built pickup represent a return to the roots of hot-rodding. Rat rod builders embrace vehicles that display a rebellious attitude, along with loud manners and an intentionally distressed appearance, not necessarily the qualities needed to deal with a demanding road better suited to sports cars or motorcycles.

But Mr. Duvaloois seemed pleased, and possibly relieved, that his hot rod had taken the curves so competently.

“It handles well,” he said.

The hot rod movement that emerged after World War II drew young men — it was overwhelmingly a man’s pursuit — who bought the hulks of prewar cars out of scrapyards for a few dollars and modified them for more speed. Fords from 1932-40 were preferred, especially for their flathead V8 engines, which were readily tuned to increase power. The bodies were stripped of fenders and hoods for a leaner look.

By the late 1950s, hot rods were becoming elaborately customized vehicles, a trend that evolved to the point that pristine machines costing six figures and up became commonplace — the antitheses of the genre’s origins.

Mr. Duvaloois is no stranger to that kind of car. Several years ago, he built a show-quality hot rod — and then barely drove it.

“I was afraid to park it anywhere,” he said. “I wasn’t having any fun with it.”

He turned his skills to building rat rods, a growing branch of the hobby that is as dedicated to drivability as it is to individual expression.

“Rats are really back to basics,” he said. “You scrounge around or trade for parts, and what you can’t find you make yourself. That’s a big part of the fun.”

The scavenger-hunt and hand-building aspects come naturally to Mr. Duvaloois: With his wife, Cathy, he restored their 308-year-old house in Saugerties and built period-style furniture for it. The house had belonged to his father, who worked on it for many years before Alzheimer’s limited him.

“We finished it, and my father was able to see it completed before he died,” Mr. Duvaloois said. “That’s something I’m really proud of.”

From his father, he also picked up his affection for cars.

“As a kid, I’d be in the garage with my dad in middle of winter, working on engines,” he said. “He could build anything.”

Building a rat rod, Mr. Duvaloois said, begins with an inspiration, usually a favorite body style or even one part.

“It can be just a grille or a headlight shape or taillight design you really like,” he said. “You create your vision around that.”

Inspiration for the vehicle he was driving this day, one of four that he has built, came from the cab of a derelict 1946 Chevrolet truck that he bought locally for $200. The floors had rusted out and there was no chassis. That didn’t matter to Mr. Duvaloois, who builds his own steel frames.

“It’s much stronger than the original chassis ever was, and it allows me to set the vehicle stance and height to get the particular look I’m after,” he explained.

Mr. Duvaloois installed a 1937 Ford front suspension and built his own rear suspension. And he made just about everything else, always with an eye toward creating a certain vintage patina.

“If you do it correctly, people think you found it in a barn,” he said. “You make it look like it’s been around for 50 years.”

Mr. Duvaloois, who worked for many years as a mechanic in pharmaceutical packaging, lays out the chassis and body relationship using wood and paper forms.

In his workshop, he altered the cab considerably, slicing it lengthwise to take out 6 inches of width. He also narrowed the hood and metal dashboard and lowered the roof by 4 inches. The welded seams were left exposed. The bed was fabricated from sheet steel, then distressed to match the cab.

What little paint remains on the cab is original. Surface rust was left untouched, per the rat rodder’s credo conveyed on a windshield decal: “In rust we trust.”

Despite the truck’s deliberate lack of polish, the builder’s attentive touch is revealed in various details. The taillights, for instance, come from a utility trailer, but their intricate spider-web garnishment is Mr. Duvaloois’s own metalworking.

“I see rats as works of art, and there’s a cartoonish aspect I really like,” he said.

Mr. Duvaloois acknowledged that he and other rat rodders took inspiration from the exaggerated forms of the Rat Fink cartoons of Ed Roth, known best by his Big Daddy signature.

While many rat rodders install Chevrolet V8s for their affordability and vast availability of parts, Mr. Duvaloois prefers an engine noted mostly for its brawn: Chrysler’s Hemi V8 of the 1950s. His truck uses a 241-cubic-inch Dodge version called a Red Ram.

“You really have to look for these things,” he said, reveling in the challenge of the hunt. “It’s harder to find parts.”

He also relishes the sound of old Hemis, a distinctive dialect among American V8s, one that’s especially memorable when blasted through his truck’s minimalist mufflers. On the road, the unruly rappatta, rappatta, rappatta at low speeds evened out to a baritone bellow at cruising speed, then escalated to a peculiar warbling snarl as speed increased. Mr. Duvaloois wears earplugs on long highway drives.

While the racket might connote 400 horsepower to passers-by, a more realistic figure would be more like 150, less than even the typical 4-cylinder family sedan has today. That suits Mr. Duvaloois: His truck weighs just 2,500 pounds, and he feels it is quick enough.

He did add a later-model four-barrel carburetor for a bit more power. The electric choke it came with helps the engine start quicker in cold weather. Inside the original air cleaner housing, a low-maintenance paper cartridge filter from a 1980s Mazda diesel pickup replaces the original’s oil-bath filter.

“I don’t care much about speed,” he said. “I’m more interested in reliability and gas mileage, because I drive a lot. My ’46 gets 23 miles per gallon.”

Grinning, he added: “And if you’re going too fast, people can’t see how cool you look.”

For reliability, Mr. Duvaloois replaced the old-style generator and weak 6-volt electrical system with a more modern alternator and 12-volt setup. The upgrades made it possible for him to install a later-model Chrysler electronic ignition and an electric windshield wiper, which covers only the driver’s side.

A key to the car’s relative frugality is the 5-speed manual transmission Mr. Duvaloois adapted from a 1980s-vintage Chevrolet Camaro. Its overdrive top-gear ratio reduces engine speed on the highway. A brief test drive also revealed it to be easy-shifting.

Ease of driving is important to Mr. Duvaloois. He has put more than 35,000 miles on his pickup in recent years, much of that traveling to car shows, where he encourages people to enjoy his truck up close.

“Some cars have ‘Look but don’t touch’ signs, but I tell people, ‘Get in, start it up, rev the engine,’ ” he said.

His participation at car shows is not always appreciated.

“Kids love the rats, and so do grandmas,” he said. “But I’ve overheard comments like ‘Why would someone bring a piece of junk to a car show?’ ”

Nothing like that is heard at the Rat’s Nest Run-In, a show he started four years ago. Word-of-mouth and Mr. Duvaloois’s recruiting helped bring 400 vehicles to last year’s show, one third of them rat rods.

“I drive my rats all over, from Virginia to Vermont, to invite cars to the show,” he said. “I’m looking for the hand-built cars, the old racecars, the jalopies, things people put their heart and soul into.”

On such long drives, Mr. Duvaloois occasionally runs into rainstorms, something old-car owners typically try to avoid, not wanting to incur rust damage on unprotected metal parts.

Mr. Duvaloois is not deterred by rain.

“I rustproofed the whole underside,” said the man whose windshield sticker, ironically enough, declares his devotion to rust.

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