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MAKING IT PERSONAL: Spotlight on Custom Cars | Commentary

Driving Under the Influence of Chrome and Leopard Skin

July 30, 1998|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every car says a little something about its owner--which is kind of a depressing thought, since most of us drive ho-hum vehicles that are so bland they defy description.

The typical car today is short on pizazz and very long on homogeneity. It is almost impossible to tell a Honda from a Toyota from a Ford from a Yugo, which I suppose is one of the reasons random freeway crime is such a growth industry these days.

I admit I am one of the horde of homogenous people who drive a Honda--a 1989 Honda Prelude four-wheel-steering model that a friend left in my driveway after departing the country. What my Honda says about me is: "I am a practical commuter who is too cheap to get all these dents fixed. This car is not worth hijacking. There is nothing valuable inside. I have no life. I deserve your pity."

It's sad to say, but I'm actually fairly content with this road persona. At least I'm alive and have a very modest insurance bill.

But at the same time, I understand the human need to customize a vehicle. To paraphrase from that great female-bonding movie "Steel Magnolias," which I must have watched by mistake one day, the difference between humans and animals is our ability to accessorize.

With some cars, like a Honda Civic, it is almost imperative that you customize the vehicle or be forever branded as a member of the bland horde. Without a Mugen sticker, all a Civic says about you is, "I don't make enough money to afford a Z3" or the even more demeaning "I'm practical and think that cars are just for transportation."

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The problem with accessorizing arises with that group of drivers for whom being a little different is just not enough. They must boldly trod past tasteful modification into the realm of metal butchery and hideous accessorizing. This is the stupid zone, where the bad taste of the driver is exceeded only by his or her ability to squander loads of money on such items as mud flaps with chrome-plated women or fiberglass airfoils the size of Rhode Island.

Entering the Zone of Stupidity requires tons of money--enough to put your children through Harvard and support several large insurance companies. The resulting vehicle has enough horsepower to launch you into geosynchronous orbit and has the wings to return you to Earth. You must own several fire extinguishers and will eventually get to know some Highway Patrol officers on a first-name basis.

The guiding principle of the Zone of Stupidity is excess--that is, if a certain attribute is considered good, then taking it to the extreme must be best.

Just the other day I was looking at a pickup truck that was so low, it scraped the pavement just going over the cracks in the freeway.

Low is good, but lowest is another way of saying, "I don't mind scraping my engine off the road every now and then."

Another common example is wing disease: If one wing is good, then many must be best.

I own a 1971 Porsche 911T, which I think is a pretty nice-looking car as is. But car magazines are packed with stories about Porsches being turned into monster-winged atrocities that can do Mulholland in a couple of seconds and are somewhat more stable than a Toyota Camry at speeds in excess of 200 mph.

I ask: Does Mona Lisa need a breast enlargement? Should the Eiffel Tower be chromed?

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What is interesting about vehicular excess is that if you persevere in your vision and press past the stupid zone with ever-larger doses of ugly, you eventually will burst through the forest into a transcendent realm where the merely garish will have morphed into the weirdly sublime.

If someone decided to take a perfectly nice 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera and convert it to a 300-horsepower Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, I would have to admit that the vehicle had transcended mere stupidity. The car could no longer be described as one incredibly ugly Porsche but rather as an awesome and powerful high-speed hot dog.

The lesson here is that moderation is key to automotive beauty. If you own a Civic, please feel free to add wings. If you own a 1953 Corvette, touch it and you die. If you own a many-winged Porsche with wheels the size of 55-gallon drums, an engine that could power a helicopter and a body with more fiberglass than my spa . . . may I borrow it this weekend?

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Times staff writer Ashley Dunn can be reached via e-mail at ashley.dunn@latimes.com

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