The Model A was built to last, sure. But the best intentions of history can only go so far when you’re up against a Ferrari 458 throwing off 550 horses of unadulterated Italian lust made of aluminum, steel and Continental scorn. But one man’s trash is another man’s blown-out, customized, Hemi-sporting terror on wheels. Enter the rat rod.
“This car makes 1,000 horsepower, it looks like shit and it will fuck your day up,” Steve Darnell says.
In a reality genre that already saw huge successes with extreme car-modding shows (Pimp My Ride) and a city that proved it was a killer location for that sort of thing (Counting Cars), Discovery Channel’s Vegas Rat Rods was inevitable.
Darnell, 42, has been making rat rods since ’06, when the economy crumbled and his welding production business took a downturn. He started working on a 1928 Dodge Bros. sedan, adding a hulking six-cylinder Cummins diesel engine.
His work takes the distressed aesthetic common to rat rods—patina plays better than polished chrome and buffed-out wax—and layers in a playful, punk ethos. Like the ’32 Ford truck he did that’s upholstered with cowboy boots and rope, with a shotgun barrel for a stick shift and toilet seats on the buckets. But the chassis is still dinged, and the driver’s-side door creaks when you open it. It’s satisfying. It makes you feel like your grandfather outran Johnny Law in this thing.
“I’m a native of Las Vegas. I grew up in the construction world, but I spent time in Montana around farm equipment, ranches. You walk around and see all the old cars and shit people are throwing away. You mix it up with hot rods and machinery, and it just kind of makes sense,” Darnell says.
That Darnell wound up where he did was damn near genetic: His father owned a steel company, and his mother was an interior decorator. Those in-the-blood rat rod instincts were strong enough that multiple production companies were sniffing around the shop before he agreed to do the show with Canadian outfit Proper Television, which also handles the we-should-probably-apologize-for-it export Storage Wars Canada.
They started shooting in March 2013, running six months full of 18-hour days to get eight cars done while the guys in the garage tried to navigate around a camera crew. The results were solid, if not Pawn Stars levels: No. 29 overall the night of its May 19 premiere with about 877,000 viewers. (Just behind ESPN’s broadcast of the Indians-Tigers game, but well ahead of the critically acclaimed Louie on FX.)
The template for these work-related reality shows feels well lived-in at this point: the shop segments, the talking-head segments, the customer segments, the wacky adventure segments. Rat Rods does a decent job of offering something different in the latter, with Darnell going to “pick sites” in places like Pahrump, where he combs through junkyards for parts and gets stared down by you-ain’t-from-’round-here central-casting locals.
“I thought we were going to see more of the builds. I wasn’t disappointed, but I wish they showed a little more of what we were doing on the detail side,” Welderup fabricator and artist Travis Deeter says.
Which is fair—seeing the cars up close in Darnell’s garage is a world apart from the quick looks you get on the show. The Electric Rod especially—a ’28 Buick that looks like it was built by Al Capone’s personal mad scientist—is stunning up close. The padded-wall upholstery could’ve come out of a Prohibition-era asylum, and the electric-chair seats are Alice Cooper’s wet dream. That Eli Roth didn’t drive a car like that to the Goretorium every day may explain why it closed. But the point is, if you’re tuning in for pure car porn, you might be disappointed.
Then there’s Rat Rods’ other curveball, Twiggy Tallant, the twenty-something Torontonian who already had a sizeable social media following as the Nerdy Stripper. She was brought on the show as an apprentice, but the show films her entrance to the garage like she’s parading in front of a room full of Looney Tunes wolves, with the ahhh-yooga eyes and the drop-jawed red-carpet tongues. It’s rather vague how pure Proper’s intentions were when they cast her on the show, but it wouldn’t be surprising if whatever reality Svengalis were paying attention tried to one day set her up as the Kat Von D of cars.
“In the middle of building these cars, I was training her. It was crazy,” Deeter says. “The hard part is, what we’re doing, there’s nothing repetitive about it. It’s this particular car that has this chassis. Everything on it was made from here to here.”
Discovery only aired the first five of eight episodes that Proper Television filmed in the United States, though the entire first season was broadcast in Canada (as Strip ’n’ Rip), the United Kingdom (as Sin City Motors) and in Australia.
It led to some confusion among fans, but Darnell thinks that Discovery might be holding back the last three episodes to tack onto another eight-episode order for a second season. Nothing is definite for another run yet, but he’s hopeful.
“We’re in negotiation. I’m pretty confident it’s going to happen. We want to do another year. I think it’s going to take me another year before I start seeing any money,” he says. “We’ve had lots of good reviews. Of course you get haters, but haters are watching. I’m OK with that.”
Vegas Rat Rods
Various times on Discovery channel, Discovery.com/tv-shows/vegas-rat-rods.