I love the smell of exhaust.
Ever since I was a kid, I've been all about cars. I don't have the money to do much about it these days, so I make do with basic-and-dependable. It is a measure of my love, however, that my rides always have carefully selected names. Love Shack and Phillip Honda are the current stablemates in my driveway, replacing Das Bug, Leroy Brown and AT-AT of yore.
Even though I don't build motors and worry over wheels anymore, my head always turns when I see a car cruise by that's obviously no stranger to love or speed.
All this is to say that I am currently in awe of the urban car scene in Little Rock ? the blinging rims; the SS Impalas with mile-deep paint; the sticker cars painted up like cereal boxes; the so-called donks with lifted suspensions and wheels so comically large they look like something out of a cartoon. At first, I admit, I was in the naysayer camp, believing most of them to be squarely of the $200-car-on-a-$1,200-set-of-wheels genre. But when you manage to run down one of those Monte Carlos or Malibus or Caprices and talk to the owner behind the wheel, you'll find out why they put blood, sweat and tears into their automobile: creativity, devotion, and the quest for a tiny bit of individuality in a sea of vehicular sameness.
There aren't many bolts Avery Starks hasn't turned on his 1994 Mustang convertible. When Starks ? who goes by the name Mr. Snow ? got it, the car was about as plain Jane as they come: a V-6 powered base model. Since he finished it a little over a month ago, however, it's hard to miss. The paint is a retina-searing green several shades brighter than a Granny Smith apple, under a white top. The original fenders, hood and grille have been ditched in favor of pieces from a sleeker 2008 model Mustang, and the car rides on 24-inch rims that look as big as wagon wheels. Instead of opening as Ford intended, the doors scissor out and up, rising on pneumatic pistons like the flag on a mailbox. As if that wasn't enough, Starks decided to join the current sticker car trend, in which owners make up their cars in and out to evoke popular brands. Though it's hard to pin down exactly where the sticker car phenomenon started ? both Houston and New Orleans lay claim to being the originator of the fad ? it has taken off in a big way in Little Rock's urban car scene, with sodas, candy bars, cereal boxes, even cartoon characters like Bob the Builder and The Simpsons represented. Starks' Mustang is festooned with vinyl logos, catch phases and even the nutritional information off a package of Starburst Sour brand candy. Inside, a redone interior in polar white features Starburst logos throughout.
Usually parked in front of the body shop he runs on Asher Avenue, the Mustang makes a great billboard for Starks' services, and is featured on his business cards, along with “Get Your Whip Dipped Today.” He apparently hands out a lot of those cards. On the day we visited, his shop was jammed to overflowing, with a FedEx car, a Fruit Gushers candy car, and a car lot full of Reagan-era Buicks and Chevrolet coupes waiting their turn for service. Inside on the lift, a 1980s Chevy Malibu with massive wheels, a candy pink and green paint job and a purple frame was getting the once-over by mechanics.
“These are theme cars,” he said. “Everybody is going on the Internet, and they see the theme cars as something different. Everybody's looking for something different, so this is the number one paint job that's on the market right now.” Starks said that his business has borne that out. In the past year, he's done 26 product-themed cars.
“It's competition,” he said. “Everybody is trying to outdo the others. Every time I do one car, somebody wants something better so I have to create something better ... I've done the Starburst, I've done four Skittles, Cocoa Puffs, Captain Crunch and Fruity Pebbles.”
Tim Lindemann is Stark's paint and body man. He's been painting cars for 20 years, and says that there's a niche for everything in the custom car world. Everybody wants to be a little different, he said, “to stick out a little bit, just like in everything else. Just to be able to stand out a little bit and be The Only One. None of them are the same. They're looking for individuality.”
The car he's got in the paint booth getting its dose of individuality at the moment is a 2001 Chevy Tahoe. It's getting an “inside and out” job, meaning the interior, glass and trim are removed, and the car is sprayed down on all surfaces to completely change the color. When it's done, it will be an eye-popping metallic lavender with a silver undercoat, and will look like it came that way from the factory.
“This job here is about $4,700,” Lindemann said. “You're talking about a lot of work. We remove all the inside door panels, the mirrors, the lights and all that. A lot of [owners], they don't do it, but the ones that really think about it, they do.”
Though the Tahoe isn't planned to become a sticker car, the trend is hot in Little Rock right now. Mike Vazquez is the owner of Altura Graphics, a small shop in Levy that specializes in custom vinyl logos and signs. In the past year, he's done the stickers for more than 30 sticker cars, a job he said can cost from $200 all the way up to $1,000 dollars, depending on how much detail the owner wants. “Basically they bring in a box or a candy bar that they like,” he said. “Sometimes they bring pictures of their loved ones. From there, we just design and print it. Sometimes they put them on themselves, but the paint shops usually do it.” In recent months, he's done the graphics for everything from a hot-pink Pepto Bismol car to a car celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama. “I think they want to express themselves,” Vazquez said. “They want to be seen and they want to turn heads. I think that with the bright colors of the logos, that's what they're looking for ? something different.”
Travis Hester's car is certainly different. The 1979 Chevrolet El Camino was an $1,100 dollar heap when he bought it. Four thousand dollars later, it's an orange and black dream machine, rolling on wheels big enough that it needs a lift kit to keep them from rubbing the fender wells and painted with the K&N Air Filters box logo. Inside, the custom interior matches the paint. Hester said the logo he chose was inspired by his son's toy.
The car “was primed down, with a bunch of dents in it,” Hester said. “My little son had a model car that he bought at O'Reilly's (Auto Parts), and I decided to do it like that. Mine was going to be for car shows, to get sponsored by K&N.”
Style is everything in a custom car, and much of the style in the urban car scene is tied up in the rims. The desire for mega-buck chunks of aluminum and chrome is enough that rent-to-own wheel shops have sprung up, with easy payments for that new pair of automotive shoes.
Rick Holmes is the general manager of the Sherwood outlet of Rent and Roll, a chain rent-to-own-rims store. On the racks there, tags feature the retail price, the price per week you'll have to pay to roll the set of your choice out the door, and the number of weeks you'll be in debt. Though the largest wheel you can get on payments at Rent and Roll is a 24-inch rim, Holmes can get just about anything. “Right now, if I'm recalling right, the biggest production wheel is a 32 [inch], but there are some custom one-off pieces like 40s,” he said. At that altitude, major suspension modifications are in order ? everything from body lifts and longer drive shafts, to bigger brakes to compensate for the increased rotating mass of the rim itself.
Then, there's the cost of the rims and tires themselves, the price of which increases exponentially for every inch in diameter you go up, and the intricacy of the wheel.
“The larger wheels, you get up to $1,900 [a set] on up,” Holmes said. “When you start getting into that really big stuff ? 26's on up ? you're looking at $3,000 plus. If you get into what's called a multi-piece wheel that's actually built in sections, you're talking easily $8,000 or more.”
Holmes said spinning rims ? which feature a center section that can rotate free of the rest of the wheel and which were all the rage in urban customs in recent years ? are rapidly becoming yesterday's news. “That's really a dead beast,” he said.
“There's only one or two manufacturers who are still building spinning wheels, and even they've really gotten away from it.” The next big thing, Holmes said, will be color. “Color is starting to get popular, as are wheels with very deep lips on them. Black is also really popular. That's the in-thing right now ? high gloss black with polished aluminum or even chrome.”
Asked why someone would put $5,000 into a set of rims, Holmes doesn't think even for a second. “The same reason we were putting 15-inch Cragars on our cars back then is the same reason these guys are putting the 26's and 28's on their cars now: style, girls, to be cool.”
Though he often says “guys” when talking about his customers, Holmes says that women roll big wheels as well.
“Let's not forget about the girls,” he said, “because we've got a lot of ladies that are riding big too. A huge portion of my customer base are the ladies. They generally stick with 24 inch or less ?typically around 22 inch.”
Caught during a refueling stop at a gas station on Pike Avenue, Shadreca Agee is one of the women whom the car bug has bitten with a vengeance. Agee's 2001 Chrysler Sebring convertible looks like a parade float, sporting $1,700 worth of orange and yellow metallic flake paint, with an orange top and 22 inch chrome rims. Down both sides, in 6-inch block letters, Agee had her online nickname stenciled: MZ.FR3AKYDR3CA. On the back window, in vinyl, is a phrase she says is “for the haters”: “OOPZ DID I CRUSH U HOEZS!!”
When Agee bought the car last year it was a plain gold model, but she soon decided it was too sedate for her tastes. Since then, she's painted it twice ? the first time, she went with pink and purple ? and she's already considering another paint job. She acknowledges that she picked the current paint scheme for its head-turning properties. “I decided I wanted to change the color, and I wanted it to be loud,” she says with a smile. “It makes people stare so I get a lot of attention. I like to dress fancy, so I think my car should fit me. This car, it fits my personality now.”