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MAKING IT PERSONAL: Spotlight on Custom Cars

Fueling a Dream

They have different jobs and backgrounds, but they share a bond--a love for custom cars.

July 30, 1998

Coco Shinomiya is an art director at a major record company in Studio City. She's also a hot rodder, owner of a 1932 Ford nostalgia rod that looks stock but hides a Corvette engine under the hood.

Peter Gallup, a school psychologist from the Inland Empire, is a drag racer, a muscle car owner who bought his 1965 Chevy Chevelle 30 years ago. He rips down the drag strip at 115 mph on Friday nights, then tows the car home, strips off the racing equipment and turns it back into a street machine.

Tony Montecalvo, a package delivery service driver from Montebello, has a tricked-out 1998 Volkswagen Passat: a four-door sedan that looks pretty normal, except for its lowered stance, fancy tires and wheels, and the big chrome exhaust peeking out from under the bumper. Beneath the hood is a turbocharger and other goodies that help squeeze 220 horsepower from the little engine. He represents the newest element in car customizing: the import performance enthusiast.

Jesse Saldana works for the Los Angeles district attorney's office and studies criminal justice at Cal State L.A. But on his own time he's a lowrider. His elaborately customized 1965 Chevrolet Impala stays in the garage behind his Echo Park home, and he usually drives around in a nondescript Chevy station wagon. But at show time, the lowrider comes out and Saldana is in his element.

Bruce Lewellyn owns an auto repair business in Huntington Beach and most days drives a 1995 Chevy Impala SuperSport or a Ford van. But in his garage, and in his heart and soul, lives a fire-engine-red 1930 Ford street rod, all shaved and filled and bobbed and raked and stuffed with a 425-horsepower engine. Inside: an automatic transmission, comfortable leather seats and even an air-conditioning system.

Betty Turner's vice is a custom 1998 Chevy Suburban she uses when she's ferrying her daughter and her friends to soccer matches and birthday parties. She drives a stock Jaguar sedan when she calls on clients of her insurance business and calls the Suburban her "fun car." Inside is a kid-control system that includes a television and VCR with monitors built into the headrests. Outside it's cool but subdued: lowered, with blacked-out window pillars, monochrome paint, color-matched bumpers, custom grille and fancy wheels.

These six Southern Californians represent the faces of today's custom car culture. They are the people whose classy, sometimes outrageous cars we stare at and wonder about when we see them on the road. They recently discussed their passion for cars with Highway 1's John O'Dell.

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Highway 1: Why'd you pick a car to be the thing that says to the world, "Here I am and here's what I'm all about"?

Montecalvo: I guess I represent the Generation X team, although I'm really not that young. I'm 32. I started in on cars right after high school in 1984. That was about when they started doing things to imports. We started with maybe a little Toyota Celica or Nissan pickup trucks and stuff like that. Now it seems like every other car is fixed up, whether it's a Volkswagen or a BMW, but back then not many were doing it to imports. I do things to my cars because I want to make them my own. And fixing them up special says to people that maybe I'm not ready to give in; it's saying that I like cars, and I'll always like cars.

Saldana: What got me involved was my brother. Seeing him grow up having his own lowrider inspired me to have one. As a minority, coming from a community which doesn't have much, I've seen how kids look up to someone with a nice lowrider. I think they are a positive thing in a neighborhood where you could have a lot of negative aspects.

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Highway 1: You're saying it gives others something to look up to?

Saldana: Definitely. To look forward to in life. Because maybe in the community they come from there aren't such a lot of positive assets to be inspired by. We got together a while ago to do a photo shoot [for a magazine], and as we were driving down by Roosevelt High School, the kids would just turn and stare. They'd see this flock of 12 lowriders going down the street, and you could see the gleam in their eyes that was saying, "Maybe I'll have one someday."

Lewellyn: For me it fulfills a dream I had from the '50s. We lived and breathed hot rods back then on the streets of Long Beach. Then in 1958 I got drafted and was taken away from my home and wife--all the things I took for granted. When I got back, I really wanted to knuckle down and get my life together and get a family and a home and a job. But I always wanted to have a hot rod again. Then a few years ago, Carol and I discovered a cruise night at a local drive-in and saw a lot of nice cars. We started being more conscious of what was happening in the street rod industry and what was available, and one night we just decided we had to have one more street rod. It makes me feel like a kid.

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