By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
Drew is on his way, and his car better be done when he gets there.
It'll take him maybe 45 minutes to make it down from Boynton Beach to a dark, dingy bay in a warehouse lodged against I-95 where his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass has been transformed into a playa's fantasy piece.
But the boys at B+C Industries, the shop where the car is now being given the once-over twice, forgot one important detail. The tailpipe, dawg!
Drew's powder-blue miracle looks like a caricature of the car Granny would take to the A&P once a week if it had been kidnapped and shot full of chrome and steroids.
The Cutlass actually does have a tailpipe, gleaming with a torpedo-like grace, extending under the car's rear bumper like a cigar in a fat cat's mouth. But it's not what Drew Burrell ordered. Drew, not exactly a man who avoids attention, has a concept for the Cutlass relying not only on sight but on sound. Thus, the crew at B+C has about 45 minutes to slice off that tailpipe and weld a new one on there, the right way. One that's pointed directly at the ground for maximum sonic menace.
What were they thinking?
Brian Stangznve and Karim Meghani don't have time to freak out now it's time to get cuttin'. "A sawzall or a big old knife," Karim calls out from underneath the car. Stacked as it is on 28-inch rims and a suspension system that looks capable of launching small missiles, Karim can sit upright under Drew's ride. Brian disappears but returns with sections of curved steel tube cut like a furnace pipe. Karim starts welding.
Earlier that day, the interior of the car had been finished, new carpet on the floors, walls, and doors that matches the old-school two-tone paint job. Powder blue and baby blue is what Drew wanted, and that's what he'll have.
By now, Drew's car is almost unrecognizable as a Cutlass or anything else. Nearly 90 percent of it has been custom-built for him at B+C. The front grille and the steering wheel were made according to his design, and the shop eagerly complied with computer software and a plasma torch that can sculpt a crazy idea into reality within minutes. In the past, intricate custom chrome work had to be done painstakingly by hand and looked like it.
Time's almost up, announces Kenny Lewis, who runs the shop with his wife, Bobbie Jo. Gaunt but toughened, with the big arms of a streetfighter and the half-golden grille of a rapper, he lights up a Marlboro Light with fingers so black, they look almost burned.
The whole grease-stained scene looks like a muggy South Florida version of Pimp My Ride, with what was once a rust-bucket clunker polished to blinding, chrome-enhanced perfection. Where Xzibit and his crew are generally about expensive modifications that end up serving some sort of utilitarian purpose, a good portion of B+C's work is for customers seeking pointlessly exhibitionist modifications. But the air is similarly charged with anticipation as the final touches are applied.
Right on time, Drew makes a grand appearance. With perfectly appointed dreads under a white terrycloth headband, bling-blinging here, there, and everywhere, denim shorts, and a Miami Heat jersey with the number 30, Drew is as fresh and clean as a long-range missile.
Drew's on the tall side, at least six feet, contrasting nicely with his entourage: a white dude in the same blinding-white T-shirt and gleaming gold chains who stands five-foot-six at most, and a hulking black guy with a white 561 baseball cap and white shirt. All three are so perfectly clad in immaculately new clothes and shoes, they could be extras in The Wire or a Lil Jon video. The energy level at B+C somehow escalates dramatically.
Bobbie Jo, pipe-cleaner-thin, plays the doting midwife perfectly. "That's his baby," she says. She's riding a double high watching Drew's beatific expression and thinking about the fat envelope he's about to deliver.
"He's king of the street in West Palm Beach now."
Today's customized car business is a mixture of hubris, risk, ingenuity, and showmanship. Size really matters, with outlandish automobile rims now nearing the 30-inch mark. At that circumference, the tires themselves resemble a thin licorice whip wound around a telephone-cable spool. Like body piercings, not all of the modifications are functional; in fact, over-the-top visual appeal is often the prime directive. Loudest, biggest, highest, lowest: custom cars are about extremes and about having something truly unique.
Drew stubbornly refers to his Cutlass as "money in the bank." The caveat is that "anybody who gets me $30,000, they can have it."
Recouping expenses in this game isn't easy. In fact, the custom-car craze must be among pop culture's most outlandish vanity projects, with thousands of dollars thrown into oft-illegal modifications designed not for utility but to show off. And by the time it's finally primped, pimped, painted, and ready to roll out, owners might still end up behind the fad curve by the time the thing is ready: a white elephant sleeping in a garage.
The fads are often driven by the latest hip-hop videos. And like music, what's huge one year is likely to be passe the next. Money down the drain.
"When I was young, it wasn't so expensive," Kenny remarks. "I'd spend maybe $10,000 to fix up a car the way I wanted. I couldn't afford to spend what that kid spent."
Taking a $2,000 grandpa-mobile and investing thousands in its obsolescence requires a certain sort of fellow.
But when you finally roll it out and your fantasy comes to life, when people on the highway stare at you like you're riding in Air Force One, it's a triumphant moment.
The day Drew first steered the Cutlass into B+C, there was one word to describe it, he says: raggedy. "Everyone said I was crazy puttin' anything in it." The interior had no seats, so the driver had to use a Publix milk crate. "And that wasn't even bolted down," he says.
How much money has he sunk into his dream? Drew thinks for a moment. "They tell me $40,000," he laughs, "but I think it's really only about $30,000."
With that in mind, he walks through the shop, past cars in various cannibalized states, to the air-conditioned office bunker, where the door slides shut.
Underneath the Cutlass, Karim continues hammering the tailpipe into place. Six-year-old Cody Lewis, clad in pink sandals and her hair in barrettes, peeks under the car at Karim, puffing and sweating. Swinging underneath the "SAVE FLORIDA WHALES" license plate are a shiny pair of chrome-plated balls, and she slaps at them absent-mindedly.
Since the trunk-rattling arsenal of subwoofers, speakers, and amps pumping out hundreds of watts of power is de rigueur, Drew changed his mind about having a small aquarium built into the dashboard with live fish. He figured the stress would be too much. "The shock waves from the bass gonna kill 'em all," he says. "I don't wanna hurt anyone."
It's too late for that, though; Kenny can't help but show off the true pièce de résistance. Deep in the bowels of the customized Cutlass is an air compressor exactly like the kind found in the Tri-Rail engines that roll by 100 feet away. It's connected to a series of black plastic horns, also exactly the same array as a Tri-Rail locomotive's.
Kenny reaches in the car, turns the key, and gets ready to honk the horn. When he does, it's less a sound than a painful atmospheric pressure, the sort of sonic boom that makes pants legs ripple as if in a stiff wind. Drew and his crew are slack-jawed, amazed. Drew doubles and then triples over in laughter; he can't speak for several seconds.
"Damn," he finally says, with a mixture of pride, fear, and amazement. "I didn't want it that loud!"
Karim shakes his head. "Boy, that noise ordinance gonna get you."
When it's finally time to leave, it isn't Drew but his 561-loving partner who fires up the (sluggish) Cutlass. The short white dude appears with a mix CD for the driver to jam out to on the ride back to Boynton Beach. The Cutlass rolls out on the street, its chassis a full 24 inches off the ground, and the train horn honks again. Drew ducks back into the other car.
Double take from the shop's employees. A problem with Drew's license, perhaps? Chuckles and smirks all around.
On the asphalt outside the shop, Kenny and Brian struggle with the front axle of a blood-red 1965 Galaxie 500. The old whitewalls with wire rims are stacked inside, and the car is being readied to accept both hydraulic suspension that will double its height as well as a set of massive, 26-inch rims. After cleaning it up, the two get ready to carry it back inside, but Kenny, Marlboro Light clenched in one corner of his chiseled jaw, gets a bad grip on his end. In a second, and with nothing more than a snap, he's holding up a visibly broken pinky.
"Well, why were you trying to move that?" Karim chides. Topped off with a lumpy afro, a smoldering cigar with its white-filter tip lolling in his mouth, Karim is drenched in grease and garage-floor grime. He'd look at home on a Sanford and Son rerun, but his expertise is hard to miss. Like everyone else in the B+C universe, Karim was obsessed with cars from childhood.
With an impressive grasp of hydraulic engineering and electrical systems, Karim builds and installs devices that allow drivers to raise and lower individual parts of their automobiles via control units on the dash. Specially positioned airbags can be deployed for "popping," when one axle or tire is made to bounce. He knows how to weld trailing arms so they look good and work right, and he factors gravity into each equation while tinkering with hydraulic lift diagrams.
"You gotta know some physics," the self-taught mechanic says, biting his cigar as he tightens up an air tank he welded to the bed of a Toyota pickup truck. "Otherwise, you're gonna fuck somebody up."
With mad-scientist glee, Karim's like a shop-class freak who never grew up, actually getting paid to tinker with what he'd probably be doing in his spare time anyway. He puts together compressors, valves, lines, and fittings like a kid playing with Legos.
Limited only by imagination and the reach of his plasma cutter, Karim likes to think he can make the impossible happen. "Yeah, because to me it doesn't sound impossible," he offers. The only thing that frustrates him is dealing with customers who don't understand the first thing about automobiles. "They want the car factory height with 26-inch rims," he says. "They don't understand it can't be done."
As any dude with a customized ride will tell you, driving something that's largely the product of one's own imagination possesses a dirty downside. A car with hydraulic suspension will eventually spring a leak. Valves will stick. "It'll always be something," Karim cautions. "It's never finished." And when you want wheels twice the size of what the car was designed to roll on coupled with the problems finding parts for, say, a '72 Caprice you're constantly playing catch-up with a breakdown. "It's like a chess thing," Karim counsels. "You always have to think six moves ahead. But hey nobody's got a '72 Caprice with 28-inch rims."
Brian adds: "If you got a custom car, you got a problem. Automatically."
Custom cars have a way of attracting negative attention too just witness the daily interception of pimped-out coupes on the Sistrunk Corridor, drivers issued tickets for windows being too dark, stereos too loud, bumpers too high, or a simple combination of altogether too much. "Any alteration to a vehicle's original factory equipment may increase safety risks in the operation of that vehicle" is the Broward Sheriff's Office word on such matters. Though most tickets are issued for moving violations, not unsafe additions, Florida statutes indicate that some of the most popular modifications like dark-tinted windows and decibel-pumping stereo systems, are officially forbidden.
Thus, a lot of the work done at B+C is to limit a driver's tickets or to repair work that was done improperly to begin with.
"A lot of guys don't wanna pay to do it the right way," Karim gripes. "That's why they end up here. They'll buy 26-inch rims and think it comes with a kit that lets you put 'em in. They just want the rims on the car they don't care if it turns, rides, or moves."
He remembers one such handicapped Impala limping in with the rims installed in such a way that steering was impossible. "It took me 20 minutes just to pull it in here," he recalls.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of those guys are in for a rude awakening when it comes to installation," Bobbie Jo adds.
Kenny still laments a navy-blue Chevy parked outside the shop. Perched high on massive chrome rims, the interior of the car has been stripped. The work Karim considers his art was destroyed within two years. "You get bummed, but there's nothing you can do about it," he says soberly.
The car, Kenny explains, is "owned by one big dope boy, and all his younger dope boys took it out joyriding and did this to it." Wires stick out from the dashboard, which itself is tattered. "I hate to be a dick," he says, pointing to the B+C Industries decal in the back window, "but it's a privilege for a car to have this on it. And he doesn't deserve it."
"That shit's ragged, dawg," Karim concurs.
But the customer is always right here. B+C continues installing customized gear that is prone to break down. Trends set the pace and the type of work at these kinds of shops, and each fad seems to come with its own host of problems.
Nowadays, the shop sees so many customers with gull-wing/DeLorean doors even on old Buicks a sign warning "DO NOT DRIVE WITH YOUR DOORS UP" is prominently posted.
Before closing at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, they have to move the plundered blue Chevy inside or it could get vandalized again. Karim pilots the oversized craft through the bay entrance with inches to spare on three sides. Looking like he's helping a hippo into a hamster cage, Kenny guides it in with hand gestures.
On Kenny's taut, thin neck is an inky-blue tattoo of his wife's name finished off with a star. Each arm is decorated with the names and birthdays of daughters Brianna and Cody, the shop's namesakes. His cocky, drill-sergeant bearing, though, makes him seem uncompromising.
The tough demeanor may well appeal to his clientele, who often tend to be young African-American men of means.
As he makes his final preparations to leave, he inserts a huge metal pipe into a hole in the concrete just behind the bay door. The door has been dented and nearly destroyed by vehicles ramming it, manhandled by thugs trying to get inside and steal cars. "That's what we deal with," Kenny complains. "If we had Harleys and old white men, we wouldn't have to even do this. But this is fun. It's a liability, but the fun outweighs the liability."
"Most of the time," Bobbie Jo chimes in.
"With cars and trends," Kenny continues, "blacks and whites are so totally different." He'll reluctantly admit, though, just like hip-hop, it's usually a black fad first. "Black people will start a trend and stick with it, whereas white people change trends more often."
"White people like going down, and black people like going up," Brian says, explaining the difference between lowrider and towering suspension junkies. He's in the lowrider category and has put nearly $40,000 into a 2004 Mustang GT. "I can't leave it alone," he says. "I can't sleep if I'm not putting money into it." His newest addition is the ever-popular Lamborghini doors, which he did himself.
"You can't just slap shit in a car," he adds. "Some people take it so far, it's distasteful. Simple is always better."
Brian, who enters his car in competitions, is into scoring points with judges. When his Mustang's original modifications started causing him problems, he brought it down to Kenny to have it straightened out. What he saw at B+C convinced him to work there one day a week, helping out and learning whatever he can. He can work on his ride there. The rest of the time, he's a sous chef at a Boca Raton restaurant.
"And he likes getting his hands greasy," says Kenny, pointing at Brian's darkened palms.
Those willing to brave the brutal sun this Sunday afternoon at C.B. Smith Park in Pembroke Pines are treated to a procession of tricked-out cars that would easily put Pimp My Ride in the shade. When the heat from the sky and the pavement become too much to take, they stroll past the collection of lowrider bicycles and head under the pavilion roof, where hip-hop slams from speakers and rice, beans, and roast pig await.
Like a candy-flake-painted funeral procession, a line of colorful vehicles slowly snakes through the gates of the park. Traditional lowriders like early-'60s Impalas and Bel-Airs hug the pavement, while a Caprice Classic pops up and rides past gawkers on three wheels. A four-door Caddy bounces up and down like it's crossing a boulder field. Drivers, some with wife up front and kids in the back, pose for photos to the strains of Young Jeezy's "Soul Survivor." Elegance, an auto club from Miami-Dade, is hosting this picnic, but the cars seem to represent all three counties evenly.
There must be millions of dollars in rims alone, gleaming chrome centerpieces that command attention and dwarf the skinny tires that surround them. But spinners, the fad from three years ago, are nonexistent. "That trend is just about played out," Kenny says. In fact, the only approximation is a Mercedes with reverse-spinners, making the rims look stationary while the car's moving.
A sparkling, pink-purple jellybean on wheels rolls up. Actually, it's a 1996 Caprice that owner Mike Hollywood had uplifted at B+C. "I've gotten tickets for being too high," he admits, talking about the car. Muscling into a shady spot, Mike proudly displays a photo of his car in a recent issue of Lowrider magazine. Though he spent $30,000 to trick it out (including $8,000 on rims), he admits he'd be lucky to get $15,000 if he sold it.
Easily stealing Mike's thunder is the appearance of another B+C-built car, a heavily adulterated American coupe that's painted like a garish Green Bay Packers mascot and whose chassis sits a good five feet off the ground. A tangle of springs and struts supports 19-year-old Adrian and his three friends, who have to jump out of the car to the grass below. Last year, he paid B+C almost $9,000 to elevate his dream machine.
"That's the highest they've ever done," he crows.
Adrian estimates he's spent in excess of $40,000 on gear for his car, which bears a B+C decal and a sticker across the trunk reading "HOW HIGH ARE YOU?" But close inspection reveals where that money wasn't spent: The entire undercarriage, shocks and all, has been crudely spray-painted to match the green-yellow body, and the covered-up rust spots abound. It looks worse than a $500 Maaco job.
"Yeah, Adrian's a little weird," Kenny remarks later. When the shop finished with the car, the springs were brand-new and shiny red, which didn't work with Adrian's intended color scheme.
"It was a lot nicer," Kenny says. "But they're kids, and they basically destroyed it."
Adrian seeks shade. He and his friends are wearing the uniform that's seen on nearly every car enthusiast this afternoon: T-shirt, long baggy shorts, black socks, white slipper-shoes. Chicas come with tight tops, jean skirts, and flip-flops. The scent of locally grown hydroponic adds a heavy spice to the humid air. Even a baby in a stroller is clad in a "G-Unit" T-shirt.
Though the crowd is fairly evenly mixed, the lowrider movement grew out of the Latino culture of Southern California. From there, it spread and adapted to far-flung communities (Lowrider magazine's biggest circulation nowadays is in Japan). Today's picnic is really an amalgamation of different styles of car surgery, bound by one common denominator: always sacrifice functionality in favor of stylistic excess.
Despite the heat and the nonstop preening and one-upmanship, the event is completely chill, and despite the dubious legality of some of the rides, law enforcement is absent.
Florida statutes specifically outlaw "horns or other warning devices" that "emit an unreasonably loud or harsh sound," but this afternoon, drivers delight in honking their train horns, startling passersby. The maximum bumper height permitted on an automobile is only 27 inches, and a significant percentage of tricked-out cars here easily surpasses that.
Back at the shop, Donnel Constantine is fretting. He doesn't want to see his beloved Chevy S-10 lowrider, which coasts mere inches above the pavement, burst into flames. A friend with a similar rig nearly lost his life last year when he hit a pair of speed bumps on a residential street.
"The first one punctured the gas tank," Donnel relates, "and the second one sparked it." His friend was lucky to escape with his pants on fire and a burn on his leg, but the truck was done. "That was it," Donnel says solemnly. "Completely gone." The modification he's seeking is simply to spare himself his friend's fate.
To avoid the same river of fire, Donnel came down to B+C, explaining to Karim how he'd like the shop to weld a series of steel plates to the bottom of the chassis. "In case I hit something," he says. "This way, I'll have play, so I can still drag, no problem."
Donnel a real estate inspector from Pompano Beach has always lived with a penchant for craziness, starting with dirt bikes as a kid, drag racing as a teen, and now cruising around in a freakishly unrecognizable S-10 that he once drove to Colorado and back.
"My cars have always been juiced," he says. The attention, he explains, is a thrill he can't pass up.
As Donnel gestures and Karim contemplates exactly how this gas-tank protection system is going to work, a 50-something City of Fort Lauderdale employee strolls in. He owns a 1999 Suburban, he says, and wants to put 24-inch rims on it.
"I need to lift it up," he says. "Every time I hit the brakes, it's just sittin' down in the front."
"You should be able to put 26s on there, no problem," Karim advises. "Maybe some new springs or tighten up the torsion bars."
"Damn, you know your shit," says the Suburban's owner, who promises to return when he's off his shift.
Kenny struts in, cigarette smoldering. "Off that car!"he barks at Donnel's friend, who had been leaning against a midnight-blue '72 Caprice that came in beige and broken. Now it's as sweet as anything in the shop, poised on huge chrome rims, with a custom chrome steering wheel and a grille that spells out Ghetto Fabulous.
Donnel tries to get Kenny to schedule an appointment to look at the S-10 and see what it'll take to do the work. "You'll have to call Wednesday," Kenny says, as Bobbie Jo walks through the shop. "She won't let you talk to me, so make sure you tell her your name and that I'm expecting your call."
Can you do it? Donnel wants to know. Kenny tosses a spent Marlboro butt to the floor. Hell yeah, he says, we can make anything. "I'll build you a building if you want."
Karim explains the simple appeal of radical custom work: "Anything you can't buy, we make."
Bobbie Jo's own pickup is customized with an airbrushed paint job and a tricked-out interior, into which she's sunk nearly $23,000. After Kenny got out of the trucking business he was in charge of a fleet of semis and 19 drivers he and Bobbie Jo opened the shop eight years ago.
"We started out as a lowrider shop," Bobbie Jo says. Called Drop Zone, the company started strong but then endured perilously lean years as the lowrider movement in South Florida waned. Becoming more popular were blinged-out African-American convertibles and coupes, with the requisite big-ass rims. So Kenny and Bobbie Jo rolled with the punches.
Bobbie Jo laughs when she's asked if Brianna and Cody will one day run the business that bears their initials. "Maybe when they're 18 and 21," she says. "But we'd like to get where this isn't so much work. We'd like to work on newer, South Beach-type cars. Maybe sell accessories. A showroom. Instead of correcting other people's mistakes or [compensating for] their lack of imagination."
Just as the lowrider bubble has burst and spinners have spun out, it's a matter of time before the big-rim craze dissipates too. At some point, B+C is aware, the hassle of putting wheels designed for a Hummer on a two-door car will outweigh the benefits.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," Kenny quips, "but the golden era of hydraulic suspension has come and gone." Tracking trends, he calculates that the next big thing will be rims, even bigger rims.
Wheels as big as 26 and 28 inches in diameter, outrageously expensive and rare a few years ago, are now standard fare on the most outlandish rides. "Thirties we haven't had yet," Kenny remarks, "but I'm sure we will."
Within a week, the Galaxie 500 is sitting on four massive wheels that look like caricatures of Popeye's dumbbells. The tires are taller than the car's body is high. With a black convertible top and chrome polished to a blinding shine, it looks knife-sharp. The customer, a man in Georgia, should be pleased with the way his 41-year-old antique has been transformed into a beautiful, if bastardized, beast.
Back over on the Toyota pickup which now looks as if four completely different science projects have been crammed into its innards Karim puffs a cigar and tries to figure out the best way to run lines, fittings, and valves so that each corner of the vehicle can move up and down independently. "I'm putting shit where it's really not supposed to go," he explains.
Kenny just watches, wipes sweat from his forehead, and advises, "Just do what you gotta do to make it work."