It's called a “rat rod.” It looks more like a wreck than the wrecker it's tricked out to be.
The rusty old tow truck that's usually parked at Gin's Little Valley Auto Care in Alta Sierra is literally a poster child for this year's Roamin Angels Classic Car Show, said car club president and Alta Sierra resident Ron Cherry.
The rat rod is of three cars featured on the posters for the car show, Cherry added, pointing it out on a flyer for the show.
You can see the rat rod today at the Nevada County Fairgrounds (see box for details). Today is the last day of the show.
Excellent on the inside
The rat rod looks like a rusted-out junker of a 1950s tow truck — but it's got air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, cruise control and all-modern running gear.
The truck is totally street legal, though not for use as a tow truck.
“This thing works,” said Duke Klement, Gin's shop foreman and co-chairman of this year's Roamin Angels show.
“It's not beautiful,” agreed Cherry.
Those are the basic criteria of a rat rod: Not pretty but mechanically excellent.
Rat rods are popular with younger classic car hobbyists, Cherry and Klement said.
Restoring an old car to modified, mechanical precision is expensive enough; a flashy paint job can exceed the cost of the entire rod, they explained.
From the frame up
“It was nothing but a frame” when potential Nevada Union high-school dropout J.T. Smith first saw the truck a year ago.
Things turned completely around for him last year, when his 49er ROP (Regional Occupational Program) automotive teacher Joe Silva at NU recommended he become a protégé of Klement, Virginia “Gin” Van Fossen and the Roamin Angels, Smith said.
The rat rod became Smith's senior project. While his fellow ROP students mostly worked at NU's ROP automotive shop all week, Smith left school at noon and worked till 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday all year.
Under the exacting guidance of Klement, a fourth-generation mechanic, Smith learned arc and TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding, and how to cut glass and fabricate parts. Smith installed an engine and transmission, put a 1950 Mercury cab onto the frame, and built a flatbed with an 18,000-pound hand-cranked winch on the back — creating a rat rod out of scrounged, fabricated and donated materials.
ROP teacher Silva and the rat rod project kept Smith in school, Smith said.
“They gave me a reason to show up to school every day.”
Smith, 17, graduated from Nevada Union in June 2009 and is studying automotive technology at Universal Technical Institute in Sacramento, where he now lives.
He said the ROP and Roamin Angel training “has given me a leg up on the other students” at UTI.
“A family tradition”
Smith was hardly the first high school student to work and learn the automotive trade at Gin's Little Valley Auto Care.
“It's something my family has always done,” said Virginia Van Fossen, manager of the shop, which has been open since 1939.
“I truly believe in mentoring kids,” said Van Fossen who also is a member of the Roamin Angels.
While the rat rod tow truck will star at the car show today, it will be back at Gin's on Monday.
“We've got a long ways to go,” said Klement, who owns the truck and will mentor another student this year on further restoration work.
For one thing, the rat rod doesn't have a radio yet.
(Tom Durkin is a freelance writer based in Nevada City. For comments on this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4230.)