Parked in front of a mobile car wash on Independence Boulevard, Rodney Beasley's Chrysler 300 is photo-shoot fresh. The car is as blue as Jesus' eyes — if Michelangelo is to be believed — with 28-inch chrome rims that spin when the wind hits just right, and so candy it's hard to tell where the water ends and the paint begins. Beasley, 30, flashes a gold-and-diamond grilled grin when a woman cuts across four lanes of traffic for a closer look.
"I grew up liking cars," he says, in a chopped-and-screwed west Charlotte drawl. "My granddaddy had old cars, and so did my cousins. On my side of town, it's part of the culture."
Cars have long been linked to ideas of pleasure and freedom to Americans, but custom cars hold a special place of fascination in our hearts. From the days of James Dean, modifying cars to go faster and look sweeter has been about more than transportation and convenience. They're status symbols, reputation makers, a form of street art that cuts across economic and cultural barriers.
From classic cars to drift, there's a subgenre for every automotive lifestyle. Donks, slabs and lowriders, cars characterized by extreme paint finishes, oversized rims and/or amped up audio/visuals, rule the urban landscape, but this hip-hop-influenced niche still struggles with pigeonholing.
For better or worse, Beasley, with his designer jeans, diamond studs and shoulder-length locs, looks exactly the way you would expect a driver of one of these vehicles to look: young, black and flashy. But we all have roles to play. He regards me, in my vintage '50s pin-up dress, with a slightly amused air — is this what lady journalists are wearing now? — and clearly enjoys skewing my expectations about the motivations, finances and mores behind urban car culture.
Because the perception of these cars — and their drivers — is often warped by stereotype. Ben Chappell, author of Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars, writes that one of the things people immediately associate these cars with is gangs or drug dealers. "It's something that's associated with urban communities and neighborhoods ... where gangs and violence have been a problem. There are gang members who appreciate custom car styles and lowriders," Chappell says. "But the lowriders I got to know best really wanted to appear as positive forces in their communities."
Chris Roach, 30, knows this negative perception all too well. Roach, who founded Swerve Kings custom car club in Charlotte four years ago, says the cars are magnets for the police. He described getting stopped on Beatties Ford Road last year. "Now, some [police] who know what we're about don't sweat us. We post up at the gas station or parking lot and it's cool. But new rookies want to mess with you."
A Charlotte police officer saw Roach's '94 Chevy Caprice, complete with nine TVs and 30-inch dubs, and pulled him over. First, the officer ran the tags. Then, when those came up clean, he continued looking for more than half an hour for a reason to bring Roach in.
"He says, 'I think you have seeds in your car,' and asks me to get out. I don't smoke weed, period, and you can't keep nothing [illegal] in your car because you know those cars are a target," Roach, whose uncle is a sheriff, recalls. After denying permission to search his car, he was put in the squad car until police approached him with a new problem. "He came back a few minutes later, asking if I could tell them how to get in my car, because I have the handles sanded off and use door poppers to get in and out," Roach says. He was arrested and eventually got the case dismissed, but the saga didn't end. "They changed their story. They said they thought Swerve Kings was gang-related, conspiring with the Bloods to kill the police," Roach says with an incredulous laugh. "Please, I just got a new house."
It's this grown-ass-man and –woman sensibility that permeates much of the custom car scene. Despite the rebellious, fiercely individualistic imagery, owning a customized car generally shows a lot of stability and responsibility. Members have kids, keep regular jobs and regularly devote time to building up their communities.
Swerve Kings coordinate book-bag drives in the fall, coat drives in winter, collect canned goods and organize neighborhood clean-up days. Roach says he has friends in jail who want to be a part of something positive when they come home, and look forward to becoming part of the community through the club.
In early June, Swerve Kings hosted a cookout and Hood Ride, where all members shined up their cars and cruised through west-side neighborhoods, bringing the show to the kids. Next spring, they'll provide a free prom taxi service to high achievers as a way to publicly reward students' hard work. "We do things to help kids be positive," Roach says. "Little things to tell them you don't have to sell drugs to get a car. It takes time, but you can get it. Kids will listen to us. You get a lot of respect from these cars."
It's evident why. A lot more than Joker-sized levels of flamboyance goes into creating a hot custom whip. A consumer, inspired by the latest car show or YouTube video, comes in the shop with a vision, and a fabrication expert uses wood, plastic, plastic molding, fiberglass, steel, aluminum and more to realize that idea, and ensure that the aftermarket parts fit and function properly. Then there's the design and installation of audio, video and alarm devices, as well as luxury accessories like rims, smoked taillights and custom-mixed paint. High-gloss finishes are most popular, but matte effects are trending up. The whole process can take months, as gifted techs are in high demand, with customers paying $200 or $300 a week to get it done. The end result is several thousand dollars' worth of personal expression.
"It's not a fad, it's a lifestyle," says Hisham Bedwan, owner of Dirty South Customs and Motoring, on Wilkinson Boulevard. "It's not like the old days. You'd be surprised how many people cross that barrier now. They're not worried about what other people think, they're trying to make themselves happy. ... Everybody customizes cars. The other day, a soccer mom came in wanting big 26s [26-inch rims] on her Denali."
VANESSA MASSEY-CHAMBO would agree. Right now, her white Chevy Tahoe has 26-inch rims, in-dash and flip-down TVs, high-intensity discharge lights, and the Jordan jump man on the hood. On the back is a tribute mural for a friend who died in a car accident at 17. Massey-Chambo, who is lead preschool teacher at Steele Creek Child Development Center and holds a degree in early childhood education, knows many people wouldn't expect her to drive such a souped-up ride.
Last year, Massey-Chambo and best friend LaSharra Fields formed Queen City Sistas with Attitude. "It's very rare to be an all-female club in Charlotte," Massey-Chambo acknowledges. "I never thought I would have one."
The group's purpose is to provide mentorship and outreach for low-income kids, and she deliberately chose the custom-car angle to court teens' attention. "We grew up in low-income neighborhoods and when we saw the flashy cars driving up, it excited us. Most young people are geared toward these cars, but think, 'Maybe I have to sell drugs or sell my body or be a video chick to get a car with rims or nice paint.' So it catches their attention, draws them in."
Massey-Chambo was raised by her grandmother in Boulevard Homes, a low-income complex on West Boulevard that has since been demolished. After beginning her career and starting her own family, the 27-year-old began brainstorming ways to reach young people from her old neighborhood.
"So many people left us out when we were growing up," Massey-Chambo says. "We didn't have role models to look up to, other than the people out there doing drug dealing or whatever, so we show teens you can still have this [luxury lifestyle] from working a 9-to-5. I want them to know you don't have to let where you are now determine where you're going to be."
Other Charlotte car clubs acknowledge Queen City Sistas with Attitude as one of the most socially active. They regularly support other car and bike clubs' events, in addition to hosting their own. In 2012 the group, which is a nonprofit, partnered with Arbor Glen Recreation Center and gave away more than a thousand dollars worth of school uniforms — "We didn't know those would be so expensive!" Massey-Chambo jokes. "But it was worth it, to see the kids' faces. So we're planning already to do it again." At the same event, the club also provided haircuts for the boys and braids for the girls.
INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, it's no longer just the die-hard riders who are investing this level of effort into their cars. They started the wave of a multi-million-dollar industry, which is now booming, lifting automobile customization into a more mainstream light. Consumers from high school students to businesswomen and stay-at-home dads who still want to feel cool are all lining up to pimp their rides.
"There might be a business opportunity and the 'hood is buying first," Bedwan of Dirty South Customs says. "Then other people see that and want a piece of the action. The 'hood might be where the easy market niche is, but a lot of people in that upper financial status are getting dirty now."
The services consumers seek vary as widely as the customers do. Parents of younger children want entertainment systems with DVD players and drop-down screens, while businessmen seek out Bluetooth enhancements for hands-free mobile conferences. The industry has taken notice. Car accessory companies are driving product placement and advertising in media; manufacturers are coming to car shows, selling the newest in car modifications and after-market parts.
"Anything that makes lifestyle choices easier, people want to accommodate that," says Jon Prather, an independent marketing director who works with Dirty South.
IN ADDITION TO the blue Chrysler 300, Beasley also owns an aggressive, yellow 2006 Daytona Charger with custom-painted Forgiatto wheels and grill. (He makes a tidy living off of his obsession, buying cars at auction, fixing them up and selling them for profit.) Counting the blackout lights, fog lights, sound system, cameras and flat screens, the ticket runs about $30,000 worth of after-factory work. Luckily, close connections help take off a bit of that sting.
His cousin Cory owns House of Dubs, a full-service rim and custom shop on Wilkinson. Another relative, who goes by South, runs the shop. Cory sponsors most of the custom work on Beasley's cars, enabling him to promote the shop in contests and regional car shows. House of Dubs has taken home numerous trophies and awards. The business also does charity work, and the entire Beasley family attended a car show/fund-raiser benefitting the Levine Children's Hospital in early May, at the Pineville Sam's Club.
After a few hours, Beasley's fiancée Jessica tried to round up their children, Rodney, 4, and Jalayah, 5, into her car, but Jalayah couldn't stand still. The 5-year-old's beaded braids clacked continuously as she zigzagged between the blue 300 and a '71 black Impala on 26-inch blacked-out chrome rims.
"I got it for $3,000," South said of the Impala, "and it was in terrible condition, rusted out and all that. I redid the top, reupholstered it in that big block gator interior, put a little over $12,000 into it." His efforts are part of a cultural ethic that prizes putting in work on an older car above buying a new model that's factory simple and identical to every other version of that model on the line.
"To get it to compete or look like a newer car is a lot of effort. With a nice paint job to make it stand out, people will know you put a lot of work in this car," Roach says.
Saturday mornings at the car wash on Freedom Drive and Allegheny Street, next to Team Charlotte Motorsports, often look like a car show. It's a popular spot for the west side custom scene. For Massey-Chambo, it's a ritual to stop by and shine up the Tahoe or her other ride, a red and black Chevy Caprice (which also features the H.I.D. lights, flat screens and is on 24-inch rims).
It's an expensive hobby, she admits, but the preschool teacher has no plans to stop. "It's not taking away from necessities. So long as we make sure we stay grounded, focused and serve the community and be positive for them, we're good."
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