DECATUR (AP) – America’s enveloping automobile culture is full of gleaming hot-rodded cars, resplendent in shiny chrome and with paintwork so perfect, it looks 3 feet deep.
Well, if you’re sick of all that and the jacked-up prices that roar along with it, Decatur couple Mike and Sharon Foran have got the antidote: It’s called a “Rat Rod.”
Don’t fret over questions such as, ‘How will I recognize a Rat Rod if it rumbles down my street?” If you see it, your biggest problem will be trying to take your eyes off it.
The Foran version is based loosely on what’s left of a ‘55 International pickup truck body that looks like it was dragged out of a junkyard yesterday afternoon after half a century of being ridden hard and put away wet. There’s not much paint to speak of, and there are rusty holes here and there; the back window sports a genuine bullet hole.
The rear pickup bed has been reformed out of raw sheet steel, and the bed interior is built out of antique wood salvaged from the barn of Bob Foran, Mike’s brother. A chrome metal skull with red glittery eyes, donated by the couple’s granddaughter, Savannah Williamson, 13, was originally sold as a gearshift knob. It’s now the handle used to lift up a lid exposing the fuel tank. There is no fuel gauge; you figure out you’re running out of gas by dipping in a section of marked broom handle, conveniently attached to the tailgate. The lid of a storage area built behind the gas tank has a handle fashioned from a genuine grenade, painted red, that was a defused gift from the couple’s son-in-law, Todd Williamson, Savannah’s dad.
The interior of the cab is brutally spartan. A collection of license plates acquired at car shows form the inside door panels, while part of the transmission tunnel was fashioned from a section of steel trash can. The twin seats were salvaged from an extinct Decatur theater, and the Forans clearly having a thing for skulls: The gear shift knob is another one, plastic this time but with the capacity to have its red eyes light up if Mike Foran gets around to wiring it.
“Got that down in Charleston, S.C., from a novelty shop,” he says proudly. “It’s a pirate skull.” He estimates, including the pirate skull, that he’s sunk about $4,500 into his hot rod.
And then he’s off again, walking around the outside, continuing the Rat Rod tour: The exposed 350-cubic-inch engine does have a suitably grungy hood, but the Forans don’t like using it much. They usually run around hoodless, so people can appreciate fully the other eclectic horsepower touches like the air intake scoop fashioned out of a Herald & Review bright blue plastic newspaper box, the kind of thing you attach to the mailbox post to receive all the news fit to print.
“I found it in the garbage, cut a hole in it, and it works perfect,” explains Foran, 65. “I am a Decatur man, and I love my hometown; I feel like I am sponsoring you guys.”
But wait, there’s even more. The overflow reservoir for the radiator is a Jack Daniels bottle held in place by cut-down cowboy belts with silver buckles. The dipstick handle is a Busch-brand tap off a beer keg and, well, you get the picture: Driving a Rat Rod is the antimatter version of the cars they feature in glossy gearhead magazines.
The Forans explain that it pays tribute to the origins of the hot rodding hobby when GIs just back from World War II embraced freedom by building fast cars out of whatever odds and ends they could cobble together.
“They call ‘em ‘Rat Rods’ because, well, they look ratty,” says Mike Foran. “You don’t fix them up; you don’t make them pretty; you just make them reliable and fast.”
He swapped a motorcycle for the bare body and engine of his machine, which had been a project started by his good friend, Dwayne Underwood. And then the veteran Teamster got down to an intensive 2 months of work, borrowing, swapping and adding on pieces here, there and everywhere until he had a working Rat Rod, complete with the giant rubber rat he stuffs in the Herald & Review air intake when the vehicle is parked.
Which isn’t often. The couple love to cruise Eldorado, just like Sharon Foran did when she was a teenager.
“I put 300 miles one night on my uncle’s car,” she recalls with a fond smile. “That is what we did when we were kids; we cruised.”
They’ve had people stop and shoot video of them as they cruise by these days, and although they don’t much look like any of the characters in “American Graffiti” anymore, their motors are still runnin’: “You’ve got to stay young,” explains Sharon Foran, 67.
“But I think that is what a lot of old people do: They just kind of let themselves get old. And we will never do that.”