Reviving Rust: Dickinson couple builds unique rat rods and inspires others to find their passion
Lee Hageman and his wife Lisa have been building “rat rods” for several years. These rides are similar to hotrods but as the term suggests, they’re scrappier and built more for pleasure than looks.
DICKINSON, N.D. — The world of rat rods, once dismissed as little more than heaps of scrap metal, has captured the hearts of car enthusiasts Lee and Lisa Hageman. For them, rat rods provide not just a canvas for their creativity, but a thriving community of like-minded individuals who share their passion for restoring and building these unique cars. In their eyes, the rat rod community is more than just a group of people who admire each other's vehicles — it's a place of genuine generosity and support.
The Hagemans are nearing completion on their latest project: a massive, awe-inspiring truck that stands as a testament to their love for rat rods. Hoping to inspire others to pursue this same fulfilling hobby, the couple eagerly shared their experiences with the community
Lee's own interest in rat rods began when his family invited him to a show in Nebraska, a budding interest formed despite his wife Lisa's initial skepticism. Soon the couple found themselves hooked after working on their first car together. Today, the couple pours their energy into their shared passion for restoring and customizing rat rods. Outside of the garage, Lee does mechanical work and Lisa is the director at Kinderkidz Daycare’s north Dickinson location.
What truly distinguishes rat rod enthusiasts is their sense of community, according to the Hagemans. This became crystal clear to the couple when they attended a show in 2019 and strangers helped them repair Lee's father's car in a hotel parking lot, demonstrating the incredible generosity and kindness at the heart of the rat rod community.
“He’s like, ‘Oh I got my welder.’ He’s laying under the car with a beer in one hand, welder in the other and fixed my dad’s car. I mean we’re good friends now but he didn’t know us from anybody else,” Lee said. “That’s what the rat rod community is about. Like really it’s a different kind of mindset with people who build rat rods. They’re always there to help each other out.”
For the Hagemans, this experience illustrates that rat rods are not just about appreciating each other's cars, but also about coming together to lend a hand and forge long-lasting friendships.
Lee said that these rigs can look pretty scrappy, but they’re actually built with meticulous planning and foresight.
“A lot of people look at rat rods and just think it’s a bunch of junk thrown together… It’s not just throw it together and see what happens,” Lee said. “No, we build ‘em safe so we can drive them every day,” his wife added.
His car, conspicuously named Absinthe Mind, is a unique welding pot of Chevy parts and components. It’s a 1941 Chevrolet Master Deluxe with suspension from a 1980 Chevy Malibu, brake and fuel lines from an old Chevy pickup.
Lee hopes this will enable others to get involved and find their passion for cars.
“We want to inspire people to go out, buy some rust, drag it home and build something cool,” he said.
They originally had Lisa’s truck built on a 1953 Chevy Nova frame but switched gears after they went to Nebraska’s High Plains Riot show in August and she decided she wanted something bigger. She explained there are many conflicting desires in her vision.
“I knew that I wanted a truck. And I knew that I wanted it to be big and beastly, and you know, not something that you're going to see in Dickinson. That's kind of where my headset is when we're building it. It's like, how can we make this so that either people want to touch it or look at it or be like, Oh, my gosh, I don't want to touch this. Because I want the attention. But I don't want the attention,” she said laughingly. “Now it's big. And that's what I wanted. I wanted it to be a big, bad*** truck. And her name is Ruthless.”
To make a shifter for the truck, they used the steering column from the Nova. Lee guided her on welding it and described her as a “kid on Christmas morning” watching it bend.
“It just turned blazing red. And he's like, okay, bend it. So I did and oh my gosh it was literally like bending a stick of butter. It was crazy,” she said.
Lee said he anticipates people being surprised seeing her driving it.
“I feel sorry for the first guy that's like, ‘Hey is that hat your husband's truck?’” he said.
Lisa added that it’s been a joint venture.
“We worked together on it, you know. So it's not just one or the other. It's a partnership of both of us. It's both of our visions,” she said. “This is so satisfying. It's because we just talk it back and forth. And we really don't have to answer to anybody. You don't really care what someone else's opinion is. It's like, no this is what our vision was and we did it this way because that's what we wanted. We like the way it looks.”
When asked how they find the time as parents with full-time jobs, Lisa said it fills their weekends.
“It’s every weekend unless we have other engagements. But on the weekends we’ll come out here and bust it for like eight hours a day,” she said.
They’ve been together for 20 years and married for 17. They said this love of cars has only strengthened their relationship.
“We've never had an argument over what we're building or how we're doing it. You know, because it was all new to me. So he's just been teaching me and I've been absorbing it,” Lisa said.
They share a 14 year old son who likes rat rods but hasn’t shown as much interest in the garage work. Lisa thinks that will come eventually.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘You get out here and do this.’ He can take his own path. And he knows that if it comes time when he wants to start doing this work, we’re right here to teach him,” Lee said.
The couple says they love going to rat rod shows and letting young children play around in their car because so many of them are used to being taken to car shows where they’re not allowed to touch the vehicles.
“That means a lot to like a little kid, like my brother's bus. They have a two year old and he's obsessed with the bus,” Lee said. “Or to a dad whose kid has interest he's like, oh, you know what, that is pretty cool. We could build something like that.”
They've befriended the owners of Rat Rod Magazine, who they say are passionate about supporting a program called Wrenching for the Future, which offers trade school scholarships to adolescents.
Lee drives by a scrapyard multiple times a week and lamented all the lost potential that gets melted away.
Lee’s father, Dave Hageman, said the Obama Administration’s 2009 Cash for Clunkers program was a real buzzkill for car enthusiasts. Approximately 700,000 cars, many of them classic and vintage rides, were purportedly crushed and destroyed in the process. Reuters reported the average price of a used car rose by 75% from 2010 to 2019.
“They got rid of a lot of good iron that is gone now, shipped off to China or whatever they did with it,” Dave said. “Lee cringes every time somebody pulls in (at the scrapyard) with some old truck or something to sell it for 50 bucks.”
Dave, a Kansas grain truck driver who also spent years working in a pit crew, had developed bonds with his two sons over dirt track racing. He explained that his lifestyle of excessive drinking had ultimately alienated them, but that his commitment to change and a shared love for rat rods renewed once lost bonds.
“When I got sober twenty-some years ago, I needed to fill that void. And because I’d burned so many bridges with my family, we didn't really have any relationship before rat rods,” he said. “So by doing this it brought our whole family back together, slowly. The gifts are just tremendous to me, being able to work with my two boys.”
After being fascinated by an article about rat rods he went to a show and saw a Ford Model A that had been rebuilt using a lot of wood paneling. That was when he “got the bug right there.” On the way home he met a farmer in Concord, KS, with several antique cars and trucks sitting around.
“He ended up showing me this ’32 Chevy out in the middle of the field and kind of fell in love with it,” he said.
Dave’s ride took him 10 years to complete, and finally did in 2017. Lee explained that it was a long journey.
“He had some old 70s trucks, this and that. But he’s not like a big gearhead though… That’s how long it took him to finish this car, going through shops that told him, ‘We know how to do this. We know how to do that. He got ripped off thousands of dollars and was basically ready to throw in the towel. Then my brother went to my dad’s house, brought the car to his place and finished it,” Lee said.
Lisa noted how well her father-in-law and brother-in-law work together now.
“Dave has the vision and Dylan executes it,” Lisa said.
To learn more about this growing rat rod community, check out Lee's Facebook page, Rustsmith CO-OP.