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MAKING IT PERSONAL: Spotlight on Custom Cars

My Cherry Amour

Customizing Cars Has Become a Big Industry With a Wider Range of Fans

July 30, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From chopped-and-channeled '32 Ford hot rods to fender-flared Honda Civics with $500-a-copy wheels and computer-generated graphics decorating their flanks, Southern California highways are becoming a showcase for the nation's fast-growing car-customizing craze.

Turning cars and trucks into personalized vehicles that go beyond what the factory dreamed up has been a passion here since the first speed demons pulled the fenders off their 1920s flivvers and lowered them to achieve more aerodynamic shapes in their quest for a few more miles an hour.

The pursuit for personality in our vehicles has grown from a backyard hobby dependent on self-taught skills and homemade parts into a $19.3-billion-a-year industry. In just four years, between 1993 and 1997, spending on improving the appearance and performance of cars and trucks grew 34%.

And all along the way, Southern California has set the trends. The hot rod, the full-custom "lead sleds" of the 1940s and '50s, and the lowrider all came out of backyards and back-alley garages around Los Angeles.

Perhaps the biggest change in car customizing in the last decade has been its gradual switch from a largely do-it-yourself hobby into a major do-it-for-me business, says Jim Spoonhower, chief statistician for the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., the automotive aftermarket industry's trade group. Only about 20% of the parts and services sold to owners after they buy their vehicles--the so-called after market--is sold to do-it-yourselfers, Spoonhower says.

The other big change is that while it is still a largely male hobby, customizing is seeing more and more women in the driver's seats.

That's largely because the two newest trends involve vehicles--import sedans and sport-utility vehicles--that appeal to women.

"It's the late 20th century, and girls are going against male chauvinism," says Edward Eng, an editor at Illustrated Graphic Communications Inc., a Huntington Beach publisher whose magazines chronicle both the import-auto and sport-utility scenes.

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The goal of the new era of customizer is to achieve a base vehicle that is superclean, "like a factory car, only a lot better," Eng says. Outrageously altered metalwork is out, as are big chromed bumpers and huge hood scoops. Instead, the modern customizer smooths out the body and then embellishes it with a "wing," or spoiler; a high-performance engine; improved suspension; fancy wheels and tires; and a paint-and-graphics scheme to make it unique.

Most customizers also pay tremendous attention to the interiors of their vehicles, often spending thousands of dollars on custom stereos and upholstery jobs. "Sport-ute" enthusiasts often take it to the extreme, installing satellite navigation systems and integrated electronic entertainment packages that include super stereos, computer game systems and television-VCR units with monitors installed in the headrests of each seat.

About 40% of all the money spent on customizing last year was spent on automotive sound and entertainment systems, Spoonhower says.

But customizing--"personalizing" is perhaps a better way to describe the phenomenon--isn't just about Hondas and Expeditions.

Just look at any well-stocked magazine rack--there are scores of periodicals devoted to vehicles of all types and how to make them look better and run better.

Among other things, they show the tremendous breadth of the customizing culture, which these days cuts across age, gender and ethnic lines.

Enthusiasts are buying elaborately painted vintage Chevrolet lowrider cars, built by custom shops in Los Angeles and Orange County, and shipping them across the Pacific to their homes in Japan.

Latinos, though still deeply involved in the lowrider culture, are discovering imports. Elaborately lowered Hondas and Volkswagens, some equipped with the same hydraulic systems that make conventional lowriders hop and bop, are turning up with regularity at competitive lowrider car shows.

And women, while still most active in the import and SUV arenas, are building and driving hot rods and muscle cars.

"Everyone wants to feel distinctive, and the car is just a great tool to create an individual image," says Howard Becker of Becker Automotive Design in Los Angeles.

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That search for individuality is the underpinning of the entire car-personalizing industry.

The eyes may be the windows to our souls, as the poets say, but it is that write-me-up red roadster in the garage--the one with fat rear tires and screaming yellow flames on the nose--that tells the world: "Hey! This is me. This is how I want to be seen."

Sure, there are people who don't consider their cars anything more than an appliance, a necessary evil in a sprawling land untamed by mass transit.

But considering the dollars spent here each year improving the stock cars and trucks that roll out of factories in Asia, Europe and North America, they are in a minority.

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