Cool and crude: Inside the garage, and mind, of a rat rod builder

Rebuilds honour vehicles’ histories while stretching the imagination

It sounds like it might be, but Matteo Medoro isn’t the name of some lesser known Renaissance painter. That said, the NAIT Auto Body Technician student could qualify as an artist of a kind – one that, when it comes to vehicle restoration, clearly breaks with tradition.

In this case, that tradition is the flawless erasing of the effects of time and circumstance. Rust removal; fender unbending; frame straightening. A return to former glory. Conventional auto body work is a highly skilled trade that takes place at the intersection of aesthetics and force.

But Medoro’s approach is to celebrate the state of whatever he finds, and reanimate it in unexpected ways. That's what rat rods are all about: a new, different glory.

Medoro, now 20, was turned on to the vehicles by Vegas Rat Rods. Between 2015 and 2018, the TV series (which once starred grad Cheyenne Ruether, Auto Body Technician ’11) focused on a shop that turned junkyard treasures into road warriors for customers keen on enhancing the gnarled exteriors of neglected classic vehicles.

That's what rat rods are all about: a new, different glory.

Medoro’s first project was a 1951 Ford. His dad, Angelo, who sometimes flips old cars, dangled the truck as incentive for his son to excel at provincial skills competitions. He won gold, then went to work on getting the truck into rustic but road-ready shape to celebrate finishing high school, where he’d started pursuing the auto body trade.

“That was the whole thing, just to drive it to graduation,” says Medoro.

But the truck ended up going further than that. Angelo suggested they enter the Ford into the SEMA show, one of North America’s premier automotive events. Soon, they were showing it off in Seattle, site of the event in 2019, where SEMA named the younger Medoro among the year’s top 40 builders. “It was something I didn't think would ever happen,” he says.

It has happened again. Medoro’s latest build, a Dodge mashup involving a 1947 cab found in Drumheller and the frame of a ’91 model sourced from near Morinville, is once again a top-40 hit at SEMA. It proves, as he’d hoped, that “I’m not just a one-time thing. I can do this.” At his dad’s shop in northeast Edmonton, Medoro gave us a look at a creative process that repositions the idea of beauty in a business usually focused on banishing every blemish.

rat rods by matteo medoro, mini bike

Medoro has been a tinkerer since his mid teens. Dad was always into cars (he occasionally drag races a ’66 Nova) and keeps a variety of tools. “My dad had an old welder, a really small one, and I was just using that to make tricycles and those kinds of things,” says Medoro.

A beat-up minibike may qualify as his earliest rat rod. He bought it used for $25 and did little more than “throw on” a new engine he grabbed at a parts store. “It’s a fun little thing to rip around on.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge front view

When he made the leap to the trucks, he moved into dad’s shop. “I kind of took it over,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a good hangout spot.”

Between December and July, Medoro spent nearly eight hours a day working here on his own, making use of extra time after being laid off from a body shop due to the pandemic. He’s still modifying some aspects of the truck today.

"It’s a kind of peace and quiet."

“It relieves stress for me. It’s a kind of peace and quiet,” he says, surrounded by grinders and welders and such. “Well, it’s not really quiet.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge front view, headlight

The ’47 Dodge had spent most of its life sheltered from the elements, except for maybe five years before Medoro bought it. “So it got that aging [effect]  to it,” he says. “It was basically in perfect shape but with that rust effect that I like.”

With rat rods, that “rust effect” can be the equivalent of a blank canvas. Maybe a vehicle is too far gone for body restoration, maybe it isn’t, but deterioration frees the creator from the trappings of common classic car renewal, in which antique vehicles are made to look as if they just rolled off the assembly line.

“This is just more of your own imagination,” says Medoro. “You can do whatever you want. And you don’t have to worry about people scratching it. It’s already rusty and old looking.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge, door exterior

Medoro named his creation “Old Coal” for the simple reason that “it’s diesel and blows black smoke.”

The sign on the door, like all the others on the vehicle, isn’t original, but Medoro hand-paints them to make them look as though they are.

“I feel it’s better than stickers. It’s more [like] how it would have been done back then.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge, door interior

While Medoro is forgiving of the outside of a rat rod, he pays close attention to the inside. “I like to see the inside of the cab [as] all nice, like a new vehicle almost.”

Old Coal’s door panels are custom made by a local leather maker, and intended to match the original upholstery of the seat.

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge, interior

Those kinds of features are conversation starters – which can be good for business. Currently, Old Coal is being used by Medoro and his dad, who has started a plasma cutting business.

"What the heck is that?"

“We show up at somebody’s house and they’re like, ‘What the heck is that?’” says Medoro.

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 dodge, interior, ceiling

For his previous project, the ’51 Ford, Medoro lined the interior with old jeans. He chose potato sacks for Old Coal. “I just thought it would be different.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1991 dodge engine

The motor, cleaned up and repainted, is from the ’91 Dodge. “They’re good diesel engines,” says Medoro.

Making it fit in the rat rod, however, required cutting out the front wall of the cab to expand the engine compartment. That almost no one will see the modification didn’t stop Medoro from meticulously colour matching the new material, making the depression seamlessly integrate with the original.

rat rods by matteo medoro, tool box

The truck’s flatbed deck is completely new; Medoro made it from steel sourced from metal yards. “Everything on this deck was built by me except for the latches.”

“Everything on this deck was built by me except for the latches.”

While the cab exterior is rough and rugged, the deck is a pristine and precise testament to Medoro’s dedication to detail. This tool compartment hosts a socket set, with individual pegs for each one. The rope woven through the chains links the design to the western theme established in the cab.

Or, as Medoro says, “It just looks cool.”

rat rods by matteo medoro, cooler

When Medoro goes to the next SEMA show – the 2020 winners have been invited to Las Vegas for the show in 2021, as well as being featured online this year – this may be one of the truck’s hit features. It’s a cooler built into the deck and waiting to be filled with ice and drinks.

rat rods by matteo medoro, 1947 rear front view

Medoro expects to be back at work in industry soon, when icy roads might keep local auto body shops busy and in need of skilled hands. In the meantime, he’s been content with experimenting and creating on his own, and gaining experience unlike most of what he would in a commercial shop.

“It’s always a good way to practice your skills and get better.”

It might also be good for inspiration. Though Medoro admits that the thought of half a year or more of steady labour for a new build is daunting, there’s at least one more rat rod passing through iterations in the back of his mind. Currently, he has a ’56 Chevy pickup stored at his grandpa’s house. It's his favourite body style from the era, with a front grill similar to the old Bel Airs.

“It’s the one I’ve been wanting to build for a long time,” says Medoro.

Is it the masterpiece in waiting? If so, he’s not about to rush it. There are final touches still to be applied to Old Coal, he says, and another term to finish at NAIT. Maybe after that he’ll be ready.

“I feel like I need a little more knowledge before I build the perfect vehicle for me.”

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