Boys Under the Hood

What makes fast-car enthusiasts furious? Cops, speed limits, and punk kids with loud mufflers and no brains.

"Some people are afraid of turbo," Rollins observes. "There are a lot of stories about blown motors going around. People who do put turbos or nitrous on their cars sometimes get crazy and don't know what they need, so they blow their motors. You can put a certain amount of nitrous or certain amount of turbo on a car, but you can't overstep your boundaries."


Bob Bauman is a plastic surgeon of vehicles, transforming the ho-hum into exotic four-wheeled chariots at Mad Mods in Hollywood. Some of Mad Mods' flashier masterpieces have been featured in trade 'zines, from which framed and shellacked pages are secured to the shop's wall. They're the kind of bright-colored, low-riding, body-mutated machines that turn heads on streets and in shows.

Recently, however, the 34-year-old Bauman has looked anything but beautiful or flashy. A motorcycle accident in early June left him with a broken leg, arm, and fingers. By early July, he's back at Mad Mods, but stuck in a wheelchair and able to do little more than supervise. He's wearing a black baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans. His bare foot is swollen; it continues to balloon as he talks. He little resembles the hard-driving, Mohawked, densely pierced Bauman of pre-collision days. The passion for wheels, however, is unabated.

When Mad Mods opened about four years ago, customers demanded conversions that stood out. Bauman's response was bright, pastel paint jobs. "Everybody was calling us the Skittles Crew," he recalls.

Body kits, prefit for almost any import, are de rigueur. They include skirting that lowers and streamlines the sides and "lips" that enhance the prow. The boys are separated from the men, however, with the "shaved" look, in which stock door handles, taillights, tailgate seams, and gas tank locks are removed. Glass inlays on the hood are in vogue for showing off customized engines. Door, trunk, and hood hinges are a playground for alterations -- for example, hoods that pop forward and curl down over the bumper or suicide doors, which catch the wind and tear off if opened accidentally while the car is moving. Mad Mods' signature is a lopsided frame for the rear license plate.

Bauman and his small crew can spend months on a fully tricked-out car, and at this point, he wants to work only on vehicles intended for car shows, whose owners usually want changes for each show. Mad Mods could stay busy with work for high schoolers, who love imports and are often endowed with money from parents, but those cars tend not to last long on the road, he says. "I've been more selective. Then again, I'll give a kid a price, they'll pay it, then they really get into it as a hobby. They get the bug. Some kids you don't even think ... it totally surprises me."

For the reason of simple economics, most import buffs pour money into either speed or looks. Take, for example, Jonathan Jeffery, a 19-year-old Boca Ratonian who moved to Florida from Long Island, New York, about a year ago. He'd been into cars since before he could drive. His first vehicles were American, including a Pontiac Grand Prix. "I really wanted to get more into the import scene," he says with the quick cadence of an L.I. native. "At first I made fun of them, you know, they're rice burners. Some kid puts a bad muffler on one, and it sounds like crap. They were in New York, but they weren't done right -- not in a way that would turn me into wanting to do something with the car. When I got down here, I started hanging out with a bunch of people, and that's when it started: This is what I have to do."

So this spring, he bought a Nissan Sentra. (For the buffs: Aztec red, SE-R Spec V engine, 175 HP.) Press him on what approach he'll take to hooking it up, and he'll give you the 60-40 ratio. "Sixty percent nice, 40 percent that I can kick someone's ass on the road," is how he breaks down his plans.

"When I was younger, I used to be nuts," he confesses. "I still drive fast, but not as fast as I used to. I loved the adrenaline. Now I get a rush hearing people say, 'That's a helluva nice car.' Being in the limelight for that little moment makes you feel good about what you do.

"They've got big shows, where you get to show your car and what you're made of. It's kind of an egotistical thing: who's got the best, who's bigger, who's badder."

Jeffery normally shows up Friday nights at Tower Shops in Davie, home to a weekly hot rods and classics auto show in the parking lot. Tricked-out imports -- the bastard children of muscle cars -- cluster around the periphery. The owners of the showiest cars turn on their strobe lights, crank up their mega-amp sound systems, huff and puff the suspension airbags, and show off the toys they've installed inside.

It had rained most of the day on July 5, so in the evening, the car show crowd is thin. Two local car clubs, Unconquered and The Firm -- mostly imports -- gather in the southeast section. The occasional couple with small children, on their way to the classics, wander through the cacophony and shake their heads.

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