published Sunday, June 9th, 2013

The rat that roared: Club rebuilds '31 Chevy for friend

What once was the empty shell of a 1931 four-door Chevrolet sedan is now a lean, mean racing machine.

Members of the Chattanooga Rat Rod Association spent the past year in sporadic fits of cutting, welding and fabricating the lifeless carcass of the old car into a unique and powerful rat rod. And today, the one-of-a-kind backyard-build will be presented to its owner, Fred Ledford.

"We've got a chance here to build a rat rod and fulfill this man's lifelong dream," said club member and event coordinator Mike Pleasant, a retired Chattanooga firefighter from Hixson.

Ledford's acreage on Mowbray Mountain is scattered with the bodies of old cars. He told his longtime friend, club member Denny Nash, that he'd always wanted to build a rat rod, but poor health and lack of the proper equipment held him back.

Nash relayed the news to the other club members, and they decided to jump into the project.

"We thought this would be a good opportunity for the club and a great way to help him out," said Sean Thomas, who's been a part of the association for about a year and a half. Thomas works as a technician at Safe Light, a local safety glass company that donated the glass for the build.

Rat rods are a unique breed of car. In contrast to sleek, polished hot rods with pristine paint jobs, rat rod owners relish the rust of an old and battered car. Like a fine wine or an aged cheese, the ravages of time only increase the value of the car for rat rod enthusiasts.

"To us, rust is beautiful. You can't duplicate it. To drive a car with 40, 50, 60 years of weathered patina, it's beautiful," Pleasant said.

Pleasant said the build was truly a labor of love. All 15 members donated their time, hard work and even materials to make the rusty racer a reality.

"Volunteers would show up as they could and they would work as their expertise allowed," he said.

After removing a tree that had grown through the rusted-out roof, the team hauled the '31 Chevy down from the mountain and into a club member's shop.

First they had to shorten the body to fit the signature style of a rat rod. Next came the engine block, followed by outfitting the interior with wiring, a gearshift and other equipment. Little by little, the car started taking shape.

"There's just been a lot of little setbacks and lot of little projects. You're taking a '31 Chevy and building a modern automatic V8 transmission," Pleasant said. "The whole interior had to be fabricated."

Pleasant said Ledford often would come and watch the progress of the build.

"We wanted him to take part," Pleasant said. "So he felt like he was instrumental in his own build."

"It's just something I've always wanted to build," Ledford said. "I've always liked old cars."

Ledford said he couldn't wait to get in the cab of the car.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "It's been a long time coming."

Because they're handmade, the cars are completely customizable. Pleasant fixed an antique brass kettle to the radiator of his. For Ledford, they customized the doors and interior to accommodate his back problems and allow him to enter easily and sit comfortably.

Because they're so individualized, all rat rods are different.

"No one ever builds the same," Pleasant said. "It's driveable art."

Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkholder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

about Lindsay Burkholder...

Lindsay Burkholder is originally from Winston-Salem, N.C. She graduated from Covenant College in May 2012 with a bachelor's degree in English. While at Covenant she spent time writing for and editing the news section of the school newspaper, The Bagpipe. Burkholder also attended the World Journalism Institute in New York City in 2011.

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