Story and photos by Brian Earnest
When it comes to rat rodding, Don Duchene and some of his car buddies are all about reaching new lows.
The lower, the better.
If it’s loud, crazy, cheap and can sneak in the garage when the garage door is only halfway up, chances are Duchene digs it. The Franken-rod he built a couple years back and dubbed “Slim” fits the bill on all counts.
“It was 42½ inches [high] when I originally built it. With spring sag it might be 42 now,” laughs Duchene, a resident of Harris, Minn. “It has a 150-inch wheelbase … so it’s long and lean.”
In recent years, Duchene and his rat rod brethren from Minnesota have been regular participants in a series of custom car build-offs for Rat Rod magazine. The rules of such contests generally follow the same formula: build ‘em cheap, build ‘em fast, and make ‘em the only one of their kind.
When it came to creating “Slim”, Duchene decided to start with an unlikely candidate for a build and just go where the spirit moved him. “I had another one that I built a couple years earlier and then I found some parts when I was retrieving another truck … It kind of sat around and we looked at it and looked at it and just started to think about what we could do with it.
“Then I just drew it and built it. I started out by finding parts and the whole cost of tin was I think under $250 for the whole car. I started with a ’35 International pickup truck cowl and doors, and then a ’92 Dodge extended cab full-size pickup for the roof and back section, and then a Model A pickup box.”
Duchene knew there would have to be a lot of fabrication, consternation and trial and error trying to get so many mismatched body parts to somehow meld together, but the challenge and difficulty are a big part of the appeal.
“If you don’t build something neat, people don’t look at ‘em. That’s all there is to it,” he says.
Duchene had to make his own door posts and figure out how to make the squarish IH doors fit the rounded Dodge roof and rear cab section. His original drawings never had exact measurements, so he just kept eyeballing everything until it fit his vision. “The height I didn’t really know, I just kept taking more off and more off and kept modifying it and chopping it. I made the window sections so the ’35 era fit the ‘90s era. I tried to make everything kind of flow for being 60 years apart.”
Slim has had a heart transplant since it was originally built, receiving an upgraded drivetrain. Originally, though, power came from whatever parts Duchene could scrape together for a few nickels. “It used to be kind of cheap built. I built it with a $100 rear axle, a couple hundred-dollar transmission and an engine I had. Then I decided I wanted a lot more out of it and I put a lot of money into it. Now it’s almost $9,000 in drivetrain, and that’s really the expense of the whole car. It’s a 383 stroked Chevrolet small-block; 700 R4 transmission and custom narrowed Ford 9-inch [rear], all disc brakes. It’s got all-new steering, all-new brakes, new gas tank.”
There are almost too many other miscellaneous and randomly matched pieces to name. Among them:
— “I put a Chevy emblem on it out of a mid-’30s Chevrolet pickup truck, due to the Chevrolet drive train. I’m big on Chevrolet drive trains.”
— “It’s a ’50-something Pontiac — ’56 Pontiac maybe — custom stainless steel numbered limited edition hood ornament.”
— “The pinstriping was done by a friend of ours, a 19-year-old kid. He works all over the country and he’s really good!”
— “It’s got Corvette door handles on the back of the cab. Two Oldsmobile tail lights. You have to do something real unique. It’s a ’48 Pontiac hood ornament — bought the thing for 5 bucks and not more than 5 minutes after I bought it a guy offered me 50 bucks for it!”
— There is a wooden box cover in back to hide the tank. “You can’t store anything. because the fame is all the way to the top of it… There is no room to store anythig in there.”
— “The steering wheel is homemade. The column is out of a ’72 Chevy Nova. It’s a custom dash, custom supports… the battery is mounted under the dash with a cover. The tunnel is run right through the car. It’s got 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse seats.”
— “There’s a authentic International tractor toolbox [inside] for some storage …"
— “It’s got some mid-‘30s aftermarket mirrors … I’m not sure for what make and model.”
Among the many questions Duchene knows he’ll field everything he shows up somewhere with Slim is the most obvious: “How do you drive that thing?”
He starts by getting on all fours on the ground, then using the steering wheel to help squeeze into the seat. From there, it’s just a matter of how long you can tolerate being hunched over. “You have to slouch to drive it, but when you your eyes down there, you can see pretty good," he says. "It’s hard to switch to the left lane in a two-lane because you can’t really see that, but that’s about the only bad thing.”
“Believe it or not, it’s very drivable. We drive ‘em on the highway. It drives real good. It steers great. The response is good. It rides real smooth.”
Speed bumps and other small elevation changes are clearly an issue, however. Slim is a pavement scraper, with just 4½ inches of clearance between car and Mother Earth.
Duchene has carted and driven Slim all around the country the past few years. Sometimes it’s on a trailer, sometimes it’s on the ground. It attracts plenty of attention either way. “We’ve had it down Duck Commander … Counts Customs in Vegas … Cajun Nationals… [rat rod icon] Steve Darnell’s shop… Coker Tire … This one’s been all over the country. It gets around because we are chasing build-offs that we do for the magazine. We’ll trailer it, but it’s just a luxury thing and we’ll drive it when we can. We have to get our build done and complete whatever journey we’re on and get to the judging.”
Duchene is also one of the chief organizers of his own grassroots Minnesota hot rod gathering — the Rat Rod Resurrection show in Harris. This August 20th will mark the show’s fourth year.
“Building these cars is what we focus on,” he says. “We’re just doing what we love.”
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