Seeing the Welder Up garage for the first time is like stumbling into a gearhead oasis.
You’re driving a long while out of Vegas to get to it, and you’re not seeing much beside desert, at least until you hit a gas station-slash-McDonald’s.
You turn onto a side road, toward a couple of rusty-grey airplane hangars surrounded by rustier-brown hulks of pre-war cars. You almost start to think the place is abandoned. Almost.
“Then you walk in and you’re like—I don’t understand what I’m seeing! A ‘man-cave’ is an understatement.”
That was Toronto car enthusiast Twiggy Tallant’s first impression of Steve Darnell’s shop, anyway, back in early 2013. It was rat rod culture manifest in hangar form: old gas pumps, road signs and other junk on the walls, half-finished gassers and Deuces on the hoists.
Steve Darnell (sitting on roof) and the rest of the crew from Welder Up, the shop at the centre of Discovery’s new ‘Vegas Rat Rods’
Tallant – a model and, now, recently graduated automotive tech – had at the time just landed a spot as an intern at Welder Up, an opportunity she couldn’t turn down even if it was 3,600 km from home.
“I had to take it immediately,” she says. “[When you’re starting out,] it is very difficult to have somebody take you seriously, especially somebody as good as Steve, who specializes in exactly what I’m into.”
Becoming Darnell’s apprentice also meant Tallant had earned herself a role on Vegas Rat Rods, a Discovery Channel show about the shop debuting April 17, which was, to make another understatement, overwhelming.
“To be thrown into an apprenticeship with guys I had never really met, and then being on camera—but wait! We’re also building a car!” she says. “You’re like, How do we make this work!? It wasn’t easy, but we did.”
Building electric Frankensteins
To understand why Discovery figured Darnell’s Welder Up deserved its own TV show, just look at some of their work, like ‘Fermented Fruit,’ the mid-engined Industrial Injection diesel ’54 GMC cab-over that debuted at Las Vegas’ SEMA show last fall.
Or the ‘Electro Rod,’ a monster-themed ’28 Buick with death-row-electric-chair seats and, as the name suggests, 10 batteries and an electric motor in place of an engine. Then there’s Tallant’s favourite, the ‘Mack Rod’ ’38 big rig chopped and dropped so dramatically low you don’t even have to step up on the ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ running boards to see the alligator heads fixed to the roof.
“I had no interest in cars whatsoever until I saw my first rat rod and was like, Okay, I need to know everything about this car immediately.”
(The shop’s TV appeal is also helped by the car-building drama they’re constantly facing—though Vegas Rat Rod producers have added even more tension in the form of too-tight deadlines.)
In other words, Welder Up – which Darnell founded in Montana in 2002 and relocated to Vegas in 2009 – puts together rat rods even jaded seen-everything enthusiasts tend to give a second look. Their projects make big statements, but also feature all sorts of hand-crafted details.
The ’38 Mack truck-based ‘Mack Rod,’ Twiggy’s favourite build from the show
Becoming a ‘wrench wench’
Some of those details were crafted by Tallant herself; she has a knack for it. “Good welding requires patience and a steady hand, and I picked those up from day-to-day life—I mean, I’ve been drawing my eyeliner on for 14 years!” she says.
Besides her growing career in the automotive field, Tallant is also an accomplished model; she actually fell in love with the rat rod scene five years ago when she was hired as a booth professional at a car show.
“I had no interest in cars whatsoever until I saw my first rat rod and was like, Okay, I need to know everything about this car immediately. I just did not care to do my job any more, I was more, Okay, what is this?! How does it run? Oh my God!”
Tallant talked to renowned Ontario customizer and friend Stony Smith, who suggested she take an automotive technician course. While at first discouraged by the constant put-downs from students and even instructors – she was the only woman in her class at the time – Tallant persevered, pivoted into a different school and this past March just finished her two-year program.
“You have to be [a feminist to work in a garage],” she explains. “You have to really believe you’re not just doing this for yourself, because it just gets that difficult where you’re just like—no.”
Tallant found moral support in the mechanics at Toronto’s all-women Ms. Lube garage – since renamed Decent Auto Repair after a trademark dispute – and the car club they’d started. “It was called the ‘Wrench Wenches,’ and I wanted to be one so bad! It’s women like that you meet and that inspire you to go, like, Hey, I want to be like her because she is so bad-ass.”
The crew at Welder Up is, Tallant says, a lot more welcoming when it comes to having women working in their garage; the bigger hurdle was her Canadian background.
“Some Americans, because of what they see in their media, can be standoff-ish to outsiders. I think that was a thing—not just for myself, but for the [Toronto-based Proper Television] crew as well,” she says. “But at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and it’s got nothing to do with sex or where we’re from, we’re all here to make this work.”
Hooked on that Vegas vibe
Tallant says Las Vegas rat rod culture pretty closely mirrors Canadian rat rod culture—except rodders there get to enjoy their cars year-round. “There’s not necessarily a huge market here in Toronto for something you can only drive, like, three months out of the year,” she says.
“Plus in Vegas we find a lot of stuff in people’s backyards, or in the middle of the desert, for insanely cheap prices, stuff that would be like three times the price up here, but would be ruined in one winter.”
The ‘Fermented Fruit’ GMC cab-over making its SEMA 2013 debut last November
That’s partly why Tallant is hoping Vegas Rat Rods sees a second season, so she can stay Stateside. Plus, staying in Vegas would mean Tallant would finally be able to find (and afford to keep) a parking space for a rat rod project of her own. She drew plenty of inspiration from the classics at the Canadian International Auto Show this past year, in particular a 1919 Ford speedster that she’s picturing in a bright yellow.
That said, her tastes are a little varied. She doesn’t care much for new cars, but did dig some of the drift cars spotlighted in one of the Vegas Rat Rods episodes. “It was probably the first time I had seen a new car that I was really interested in,” she laughs. “I think this summer I might see if I can build a little drift car and start getting into that because I feel like that would be a lot of fun.”
Vegas Rat Rods premieres on Discovery Canada on Thursday, April 17 at 10:00 pm EST/11:00 pm PST.