Beyond a patina, the rat rod is a statement written in rust

A 1946 Federal rat rod pickup truck belonging to George Canaday was on display at the Charleston Salutes! car show Sept. 14 in Ravenel. Canaday said just 183 of the Federal-brand pickups are left (Jim Parker/Staff 9-13-2013).

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 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 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 V-8 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.

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."

Building a rat rod, 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 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.

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."

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.

"I see rats as works of art, and there's a cartoonish aspect I really like," he said.

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 V-8s for their affordability and vast availability of parts, Duvaloois prefers an engine noted mostly for its brawn: Chrysler's Hemi V-8 of the 1950s. His truck uses a 241-cubic-inch Dodge version called a Red Ram.

He also relishes the sound of old Hemis, a distinctive dialect among American V-8s, one that's especially memorable when blasted through his truck's minimalist mufflers.

Ease of driving is important to 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.

"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 race cars, the jalopies, things people put their heart and soul into."