Taking a gamble on Vegas Rat Rods reality show

“Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” – Joseph Addison (1672-1719), English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician

These words written by old Joe Addison more than 300 years ago are relevant to my life in this age of reality television shows and instant celebrities. I have a passion for cars that goes deeper than merely driving them. I am intrigued by their engineering and I am in awe of those craftsmen who customize them. That is why my hope springs eternal with the news of a TV show that promises to feature interesting people doing amazing things with metal and motors.

But like any addiction, how many times will my heart be broken before I learn the hard lessons of the reality television world? This week I got word of a new eight-part original Canadian TV series on the Discovery Channel called Vegas Rat Rods. To quote the press release: “Steve Darnell and his band of oddballs and misfits are the Picassos of automotive fabricators. They work out of a sprawling garage on the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip – stripping and re-building one-of-a-kind Mad Max-style VEGAS RAT RODS for quirky customers out of hidden treasure.”

Rat rods are the naughty stepchildren of traditional hot rods and they have stirred up some controversy with their cartoon styling, rusty bodywork and loud exhausts. Just the kind of vehicle to attract attention on TV.

Besides the cars, automotive reality TV needs a cast of characters and Darnell has his share including Twiggy, a recent mechanics school graduate who has left her home in Toronto to apprentice under Darnell in Las Vegas. She sports lots of tattoos and a can-do attitude even though she lacks experience.

Twiggy, a recent mechanics school graduate, left her home in Toronto to apprentice under Darnell in Las Vegas for the reality show. She sports lots of tattoos and a can-do attitude even though she lacks experience.

Twiggy, a recent mechanics school graduate, left her home in Toronto to apprentice under Darnell in Las Vegas for the reality show. She sports lots of tattoos and a can-do attitude even though she lacks experience.
Handout, Discovery

Can Darnell and his crew avoid the disasters that lie on the side of the reality TV road? Let’s drive down memory lane and look in our rearview mirror.

Back in 1998, two shows debuted from Britain that were aimed at fans of mechanical mayhem.

Junkyard Wars was a challenge to construct a vehicle or machine in a limited time between two teams placed in a real-life scrapyard with access to unlimited power tools. Result: brilliant out-of-the-box engineering and fabrication with occasional accidents and fires. After a couple of seasons the producers ran out of project ideas, the series moved to the U.S. and died off.

The second show from across the pond in the same year was Robot Wars, where slightly nerdier engineers and mechanics built fighting robots and squared them off against each other in a fight to the death. After several seasons it too lost its attraction when audiences got bored of watching two vacuum cleaners beat the bolts out of each other with giant spiked hammers.

Things looked up when Monster Garage, hosted by Biker Build-off star Jesse James, aired beginning in 2002 with the legendary motorcycle builder leading teams of fabricators through some interesting challenges. The show succumbed to the producers’ demands for more outrageous projects and Jesse’s very public burnout with Hollywood.

During this period there were three other shows vying for the attention of gear heads: American Chopper, American Hot Rod and Overhaulin’ – and they each began well enough. American Chopper saw Paul Teutul Sr. & Jr., a father and son team, creating custom motorcycles in their small shop until they were crushed beneath massive business debts and even bigger egos years later.

American Hot Rod was an inside look at the late Boyd Coddington’s custom car garage and actually showed a lot of actual car building. Unfortunately Coddington was a boss from hell and most of the talented people left for greener pastures, and then Coddington passed away. One of those who left the employ of the boisterous Boyd was Chip Foose. He soon appeared as the expert car designer on Overhaulin’, a sort of prank show where a project car was “stolen” from the owner and finished by Foose and his team. More time was devoted to the TV hosts donning fake mustaches and making crank phone calls rather than, you know, actually building the cars.

Loud, brash Steve Darnell, a rancher-turned-car-artist, leads a motley crew of misfits in the new custom car reality show

Loud, brash Steve Darnell, a rancher-turned-car-artist, leads a motley crew of misfits in the new custom car reality show “Vegas Rat Rods”.
Handout, Discovery

Recently there has been a resurgence of taking cars from barns, auctions or junkyards and turning them into very cool rides. Texas Car Wars followed four competing body shops who bid against each other in auctions under the hot sun. Then they towed their purchases home to rebuild them for sale each week. That lasted just one season.

In 2011, famed car builder Jimmy Shine of SoCal Speed Shop entered the fray with Car Warriors, where he was one of three judges. This show pitted an all-star team against a local car club or shop in a race to build their versions of the same car in a side-by-side garage in less than 72 hours. The second season saw Shine become the host and sole judge and the all-stars had better things to do, being replaced by a second team of locals. I suspect Shine got tired of the hot seat being the judge and awarding the winning team their car with tens of thousands of dollars worth of speed parts. No matter who wins, the judge had to lose popularity with half the people.

Enter Richard Rawlings, with a personality bigger than Texas, this master of gab and his mechanical-whiz sidekick, Aaron Kaufman, led a gang near Houston. Rawlings actually won the Gumball 3000 and the Bullrun rallies across America — twice. Unfortunately two of the most popular cast members, GMG goofball mechanic Tom Smith and the perpetually grumpy Jordan Butler, were both fired after a run-in with one of the producers so we’ll have to see if the show’s popularity (ratings) drop.

I had the opportunity to view the first episode of Vegas Rat Rods and there is definitely some promise but also the shiver of “I’ve seen this before and it didn’t end well”. The lead guy, Steve Darnell, a rancher-turned-car-artist, is loud and brash. The wise old engine builder and hulking funny guy are in place, and the pretty girl with the tattoos is hopefully more than eye-candy. I personally don’t know of any professional shops that would accept a client’s “can you build it in a week for $25K?” request. That said, the actual build of the first car is shown well within the confines of a 44-minute show. That’s the reality of reality TV: time gets compressed and many, many hours of cutting, welding and grinding metal would bore anyone to tears.

Tune in on Thursday, April 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT to see how the gamble in Vegas turns out.

Joining Vegas Rat Rods is another show from Discovery called Rods ’n Wheels with TV personality Billy Derian as the garage owner/designer and includes his buddies including his own son. It is already taking some flak on the online gearhead forums for the unbelievable deadlines imposed by the producers, something guys who work on their own cars can always smell at 50 paces.

The good news is that Jesse James announced on social media that he has been filming a new metalworking show for the past six months for Discovery. James has been pursuing the finer skills of working with metal since he moved to Texas and away from the glare of Hollywood.

There have been other shows like Pimp My Ride and West Coast Customs that have catered to a younger demographic with plenty of celebrity tie-ins, but for those of us more interested in the flash of a MIG welder than a paparazzi’s flash we’ll keep our fingers crossed that the newest shows will be less drama and improbable deadlines. If only the show producers can restrain themselves from killing off another show for us backyard mechanics.

VEGAS RAT RODS: “Salt Flat Rod”

Thursday, April 17 at 10 p.m. ET/PT
Summary: A hot rod lover from California challenges Darnell to transform a 1931 Ford Model A into a salt flats racing machine, but getting it done before his client returns to Vegas will take a miracle.

The crew of the new Discovery reality TV show

The crew of the new Discovery reality TV show “Vegas Rat Rods”.
Handout, Discovery

About Jim Leggett