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From Motown to Rimtown

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

There is no better place in the world to see the most cutting-edge, tricked-out custom cars than Southern California. Just drive down Ventura or Van Nuys Boulevard in the Valley or pull into any of the mini-malls in Monterey Park or San Gabriel, and you’ll see the art of the custom car writ large. These rolling beauties encompass the ultimate end of automotive styling with rims and body packages that rival a Nancy Rubins sculpture for bolt-on complexity. Here in SoCal, a ride featuring only factory parts no longer cuts it.

One of the reasons for that is Latrell Sprewell, the NBA star and owner of Sprewell Motorsports, which is located on a nondescript section of San Gabriel Boulevard surrounded by minimarkets and Chinese restaurants. Perhaps best known for choking his then-coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997, Spree has found new life as a player (now with the Minnesota Timberwolves) and as an entrepreneur.

Sprewell Motorsports is a family-owned and -run affair, with Latrell’s mother, Pamela, and older brother Terran running the ship while Spree is off playing hoops. (At press time, the Timberwolves were still alive in the NBA playoffs.) And the Sprewells have fitted it with all the accouterments you can expect from today’s high-end automotive shop: a waiting room with a big-screen TV, plush leather sofas, a well-used foosball table and a couple of video games, backed by walls and walls of rims and car parts and enough high-end Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac customs to make even the most jaundiced automotive journalists salivate. The shop is staffed by a multicultural array of car-obsessed young men whose conversations tend to run like this:

“Do you want to buy a [Mercedes] twin-turbo CLK for real cheap?”

“How much?”

“120 grand.”

“Man, that’s too much.”

Pamela Sprewell, at 53, exudes a matriarchal charm that would make anyone feel at home while dropping 20 grand on rims, partly because she drives her own lowered black 2002 Mercedes-Benz S500 sitting on chrome dubs. Automobiles are a Sprewell family tradition, she tells me. Her father has owned an auto shop — “just basic auto repair, nothing fancy like this” — in Milwaukee for the past 53 years, and Spree is keeping on with the family tradition. She came out from Milwaukee last October to help at the shop. “We like to have a family environment here.”

Terran explains how Latrell came to purchase the shop in 1998 from Dazz Motorsports: “When Spree used to play for the Golden State Warriors, he would get his wheels done at Dazz. He knew there weren’t any shops in the San Gabriel Valley, and there was a lot of money in the area, so he just took it from there.”

The shop does everything from custom interior and body work to dropping suspensions, but its bread and butter is selling a mind-boggling variety of rims and tires. Sprewell features more than 100 brands, from low-end five-spokes to high-end chromed-out 22-inch Löwenharts. Spree even sells two signature models, one by Lexani and the other by BR9. And next year, he’s coming out with a full line of both high- and low-end Spree’s custom wheels and accessories. None of these should be confused with those ubiquitous “spinner” rims, which are known as Sprewells but were in fact invented by David Folkes of Dävin Wheels.

“The original idea came from a class project in 1991,” explains Folkes over the phone, “and I thought it would be great to design something that would continue the motion of a car. Fast-forward to starting Dävin in 1998 and coming across Sprewell Motorsports. They were the first shop to buy and prominently display our product. In fact, they showed the rims on an MTV Cribs episode but didn’t mention our name, so people started to call them Sprewells.”

Latrell went with the flow: His line of basketball shoes made by Dada even features little chrome spinners that keep on moving after you’ve driven the lane and dunked. The shoes are an apt symbol, as most of Spree’s clients are athletes or hip-hop stars like the Dirty South’s own crunkster, Lil’ Jon, and Missy Elliot. Their cars, mostly big-sticker, blinged-out Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz models, are the flip side to the over-the-top import tuner cars. Here the custom work is like a fine men’s suit, where you don’t fully appreciate the superior craftsmanship until you’re in it.

On one of Spree’s personal whips, a black Cadillac Escalade EXT, the rear seat folds down to reveal a custom-built wood-and-suede subwoofer cabinet that matches the rest of the interior. Even the $20,000, 26-inch Dävin Revolution rims have wood insets on the spinners. All of Sprewell’s personal cars are black and exude the muted elegance of Prada. He personally sets the tone for what’s done not only in his shop but in the entire marketplace. He was the first person on the cover of Dub magazine, the bible of hip-hop bling, and he helped create the whole scene.

 

He’s always had that kind of effect, says Terran, watching as a brand-new white Mercedes-Benz E500 is fitted with a new pair of shoes. “When we were just kids, you just knew he had talent and was a great ballplayer. Even with all the trials in the media he has been through. People just love Spree. They see what he does with his cars — and he has a lot of cars — and when he does something extra-special with them, people think, ‘I’ve got to have me a piece of that pie.’”

 

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.”

If the after-market scene has its own In Style, it would be Dub, which started out as a small-niche magazine in 1999 and has grown into a marketing and publishing mini-empire. In addition to the bimonthly, there are the Dub Super Series, a national touring automotive and lifestyle show that drops in on the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 22; Twenty Inches Strong, a Dub-branded line of wheels and after-market accessories; and Dub City, a line of die-cast toys.

Started by Kovacs, Herman Flores and Haythem Haddad in Los Angeles, Dub took what was once the fringe automotive

subculture of urban celebrities and their high-end toys and gave it a voice. The stout Kovacs, sporting baggy denim shorts, an oversize T-shirt and a diamond-encrusted Jacob the Jeweler watch, spoke about the genesis of the Dub Generation as he leaned against his own tricked-out black 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air

— on chrome dubs, of course — at the Convention Center during last month’s SEMA show.

“We’re three California kids that grew up here and lived the culture. We all worked in auto-related retail shops selling wheels and stereos and body kits. We saw a growing trend that was not being addressed, nor did it have a voice. So we created Dub magazine. We’re all car guys, so seeing the car market explode is phenomenal, and knowing we had something to do with that is great. We fulfilled a demand.”

Though the magazine can overwhelm with page after page of displays of monetary and automotive excess, Kovacs is an unapologetic booster. “You could be the most gangsta of gangstas, but when you’re in our magazine, it’s all about the positive.” From the toys they give away from a fleet of semis on Christmas to hiring urban youths to promote events, Dub is all about taking an up-from-the-street approach. And as their empire expands, Kovacs and company manage to keep their focus on the underground while at the same time competing with the big boys at Primedia, the corporate publisher of Hot Rod, Motor Trend and Automobile.

“We run a small company, but it’s tight, like a family, and Dub is still owned by us,” says Kovacs. “We look at what Primedia is doing and say, Oh, yeah, we can compete with them. With the Dub name, we have a huge licensing arm, and we model ourselves after Playboy, Low Rider and The Source

One of the reasons both Dub and the after-market keep growing is the ever-increasing desire to see what outlandish creations athletes and celebrities come up with next. “It’s all fashion nowadays, who’s wearing this, who’s driving that, and there is a fanatical market that follows particular icons. There are a lot of famous guys involved in fixing up cars now. They have a lot of money and are only limited by their imaginations.

“When they get a car and do something special with it, they start a trend. A lot of celebrities are now starting an automotive line. Tyson Beckford, the Polo model, is endorsing his own line of rims called Beckfords. Outkast is looking into doing a deal. Clothing companies like Ecko are getting involved. It has opened up the whole marketplace.”

 

Asked where he thinks the celebrity market is headed, Kovacs surprises: “People are going to start moving back to the old hot rods, for a few reasons. From a craftsman point of view, you can go nuts restoring a classic car, and it can either hold or potentially increase in value. But the biggest reason why all the celebrities are doing it is they are tired of having the same cars. Look at the Lakers parking lot before a game: How many Escalades, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are there? But how many guys can pull up in a fully restored ’57 Chevy or a $350,000 Chip Foose Hot Rod? That’s what the market is turning to.”

On the other hand, there’s a good incentive to stay with the dealer cars. “With a lease, you can write off 80 percent of the monthly payment,” notes Kovacs. “If you lease a Rolls-Royce Phantom, you put down $40,000 or $50,000 and your payments are $5,000 a month, you’re writing off more than $50,000 a year on that car alone. And you get to show off.”

Dub isn’t just all blinged-out hip-hop stars and athletes. A recent issue focused on such X Games athletes as Dave Mirra, Bucky Lasek and Tony Hawk. As with hip-hop itself, a large portion of the audience is young white males. I ask Kovacs where he sees Dub’s crossover with mainstream culture.

“If you’re young and hip and you’ve got the cars, you got the jewelry, you got the money, you got the style, come on in. We’re opening our doors to everybody.”


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