Hot Wheels

Iown a green 1977 Ford Thunderbird. Its sun-faded, dilapidated elegance is an irrational source of pride, even if its condition is what I would call “Appropriate for Parking on New York City Streets.” It has two doors, opera windows, pinstripe tires, and it looks as though the street might at any moment buckle under its weight. Almost half its considerable length is taken up by the hood, which gives it the air of a yacht.

I bought the Thunderbird six years ago from a classified ad that read STARSKY & HUTCH, but the character it evokes is, without a doubt, Huggy Bear. So it was understandable when a friend, inspired by the MTV show Pimp My Ride, recently exclaimed that my car should get “pimped.” The show tracks the giddy process by which a lucky person’s wreck is outfitted with new rims, paint job, sound system—and, say, a small waterfall where the cup holders used to be. Unsurprisingly, it’s based in Los Angeles.

When I went searching for New York custom palaces, I found the options limited. The local body shops are repair-oriented. “No one wants to haggle over custom work,” I was told. “They want the easy insurance money.”

It wasn’t until I was in the Catskills, past Kingston, that I spied a place with promise. Thinking of the show, in which burly men lovingly wrestle mufflers into interesting shapes, I said to the man in dusty overalls, “Do you realize your profession is the most glamorous thing around?” He blinked and answered, a little menacingly, “What can I do for you?”

Pimping your ride, I found, is a city pursuit.

Further research led me to Todd Ashley, who fixes up muscle cars for Williamsburg fashion shoots. Todd referred me to his stash of craftsmen, like Jerome, at Ludlow Garage (212-505-0869) on Attorney Street. But he was a boutique operator who couldn’t see me for weeks.

I combed the Internet and the Yellow Pages, but found nothing under “Pimp,” and every place I called was chasing that insurance money.

Then, on my way to the Bronx Zoo, I passed a Webster Avenue shop with fancy rims on display. They sent me to nearby Auto Sports (718-563-2609), where I found Malek, a bulky young Palestinian in a retro Giants jersey. “What can you do for me?” I asked. “Assuming the sky was the limit.”

A few men gathered around, as though for the telling of a fairy tale. With the sage wisdom of an expert, Malek recited the possibilities:

“First, we do the interior, all in white, with the piping the color of the exterior. That’s $2,100,” he began. Everyone nodded a silent Amen. “Then we take off all the moldings and dip them in chrome—$2,000. The wheels, 250-spoke spinners, $4,500. We paint it black, but with a little bit of smoke on the sides.”

“What about Chameleon?” someone called out. Chameleon, it was explained, is a paint job that turns your car into a giant mood ring that changes colors in different light.

“We shave off the handles and do a door popper for $3,000,” continued Malek. “Touch it and it lifts up like a Lamborghini.” I felt like I was at a beauty parlor, hearing about how great my car would look with a Brazilian bikini wax.

Car culture has always been a kind of parody of machismo. But here the element of foppishness comes into play. As I stood with the auto congregation, it occurred to me that no matter how socially acceptable elaborate male grooming becomes, most guys don’t want to look like Oscar Wilde (or Snoop Dogg, for that matter). But what you won’t do to yourself, you might do to your car.

Hot Wheels