By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
History will say that the customized-automobile market got its start with the release of the 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe, the first model where one could pull off the fenders, swap out the engine, chop and channel the frame — create whatever automotive mayhem one wanted without compromising the structural integrity of the vehicle.
When Henry Ford released this tiny and underpowered model, little did he foresee a through line of “kustom kar” history that runs from the Deuce to the postwar hot-rod scene, midcentury lowrider mishegoss, the pony and muscle-car wars of the ’60s and ’70s, and the total domination, since the mid-1980s, of the import tuner — small, lightweight Japanese cars with four-cylinder engines that produce over 500 horsepower and have bolt-on rear fins larger than most of the airplanes of Ford’s day. The man who invented the motto “Any Color as Long as It’s Black” would be floored by the ostentation and variety of automobile parts available today.
The customized-car scene took off in the 1940s in Southern California, with its year-round good weather, excess of aerospace engineering talent and seemingly endless supply of disposable income. But it really accelerated in the ’90s. The Specialty Equipment Market Association (or SEMA), which represents the specialty automotive industry, has been tracking the growth and economics of the sport compact tuner segment since 1997, when sales hit $295 million. By 2003, annual sales topped $3.2 billion, growing 35 percent from 2002. Today, the market for rims and tires alone is a $3 billion–plus segment, and the entire after-market industry tops out at an astonishing $29 billion.
That’s because almost every car — and driver — is fair game now. Some of the most badass customs on the street today started out in their stock form as economically sound grocery-getters. The Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Dodge Neon or Volkswagen Golf can, with just a small bit of time and money, be turned into one of those prancing peacocks you see on Main Drag, USA, on a Saturday night. These custom tuner models are supplanting the old V-8–powered Detroit muscle as objects of lust and desire in the hearts of teenage boys worldwide. Even Hot Rod Magazine has begun running stories on tricking out import cars, much to the chagrin of its traditional readership.
As with all great automotive subcultures, the big companies originally turned a blind eye to the whole deal. But then they noticed small companies like Camarillo-based Neuspeed, which got its start without any factory support and has grown from a small, $100,000-a-year tuning shop in 1979 into an $8 million to $10 million–a–year parts-manufacturing powerhouse. The list of parts available today from most dealerships reads like a race catalog. Everything from suspension kits to carbon-fiber shifters is available for installation and can be neatly folded into your monthly payment. Toyota’s new Scion brand is built on that principle. And the motto for Ford’s new line of Focus tuner parts is “Revolt, Build, Rise,” which sounds awfully weird coming out of the mouth of a button-down Ford executive. But if the subculture is being rapidly co-opted, the “underground” does manage to stay a step or two ahead of the factory system. The newest rage is a scissor-style door kit that can make your Honda look like a Lamborghini for less than 2,000 bucks.
Who would do that? Guys like Noel Rollon, whom I met in the parking lot of the Irwindale Speedway while watching a small group of young men practicing their power slides and off-the-line starts. I asked Noel, the driver of a supercharged, lowered Ford Expedition sitting on 22-inch chrome rims, what was the appeal of dropping so much money, sometimes more than twice what the car is worth, on customizing his ride.
Noel, 39, broke it down by showing off every custom part, going through all of the specs and who made what, how they installed the parts and the advantages of each one. “I’m running 22-inch AFX wheels on Pirelli Scorpion tires. The engine is a stock V-8 with upgrade intake, throttle-body spacers and air-mass sensor with a direct intake nitrous shot.” I tallied the cost of these and other customization in my head and was amazed. It came to about $30,000, much of which, in Noel’s case, is offset by donations from his various sponsors. What makes it worth the cost? He explained that, from the guy who takes a junked $2,000 Honda and drops in every modification known under the sun to the street racer who wants to emulate the look of a car he saw in the video game Gran Turismo 4, it’s all about hobby, performance and speed. In other words . . .
“Mostly, people just want to show it off,” Noel said, cranking up his 500-watt stereo system. “If you’re not a famous musician, this is the best way to do it. These cars, they draw the girls.”
“L.A. pioneered lowriding, L.A. pioneered the hot-rod scene, L.A. pioneered the dub scene,” says Myles Kovacs, the 30-year-old editor of Dub magazine. “Automotive culture is a part of the city. They refer to Detroit as the Motor City — well, L.A. is the Wheel City. If you don’t have wheels, you’re not doing it. A stock car is not hot, no one wants to drive around in a stock car. When I have my mom and dad asking me for rims, you know there’s a problem.”