Big wheels (for grownups)

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Robbie Casselman built what he says is the tallest car in the Carolinas. These days that's saying something. The blue 1991 Chevy Caprice stands in a body-shop lot here under the South Carolina sun on an altogether commonplace set of 15-inch-diameter wheels that would look just fine on your grandmother's Lumina.

When it eases out of the painting bay here at Mr. Scrape Customs, this highly modified ride will sit, more fittingly, on its usual gleaming chrome 28s – the same size wheels that are mounted on the company's hulking red Hummer H2.

Welcome to the sky-scraping South, where old (sometimes decades old) American sedans with "donk," "box," and "bubble" bodies – those are enthusiasts' designations based on appearance – increasingly wind up wearing very big shoes.

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Forget the oversized rims – 20-inch. "dubs" – long celebrated in rap songs. Mr. Casselman says he knew he'd seen the roots of "the next big thing" when a client showed up a couple of years ago with a boxy 1984 Chevrolet and a set of 24s.

"It couldn't turn," Casselman says. "But he didn't care. He liked the way it looked."

He liked the car even better with a custom-built suspension that gave it functionality along with a monster-truck stance.

Today, plenty of other modifiers like it, too. If Miami is the high-riding trend's starting line, the Carolinas and Georgia and parts of Tennessee and Texas have fast become its cruising strips. Expect it to spread. Competition is king in the car-modifier world.

"It's all about who's taller, who's got bigger wheels, who's got more money in their paint," says Brian Scotto, senior editor at Rides magazine in New York, which recently spawned a new publication called "Donk, Box & Bubble" to celebrate the emerging automotive movement.

Rims make a bold statement

In the high-flash world of automobile customization – from the throwback low-rider Impalas of east Los Angeles to the nitrous-oxide fueled "tuner" Hondas that began to swarm even the toniest East Coast suburbs early in this "Fast and the Furious" decade – it's often about performance. But it's always about plumage.

And in a from-the-ground-up modification of anything from a VW Jetta to a growling, lowered pickup, it's often the rims that make the first bold statement.

Custom wheels have routinely increased their market share in recent years, and they generally lead all other modifications in popularity, according to reports from the Specialty Equipment Market Association in Diamond Bar, Calif.

Car manufacturers, in fact, have taken a cue from the after-market crowd, rolling out an array of new vehicles with factory-installed, 18-inch alloy rims fitted with low-profile tires that have almost nonexistent sidewalls (not ideal, it should be noted, for negotiating potholes).

That has only pushed the enthusiasts to new extremes where the rubber hits the road. Recent years have brought "spinners" (developed for then-New York Knick Latrell Sprewell, their hubs keep rotating when the car or SUV stops – a jarring effect). Today, light-up rims from a company called Pimpstar combine fiber-optics and dashboard computers to display words and images – even digital photos – on rims. (They appear stationary as the car rolls.)

And the supersized wheels deliver a visual jolt, particularly in this odd new context. That, of course, is the point. "It's pretty interesting when one rolls up on you and you're sitting in an SUV and it's even taller than you are," says Mr. Scotto.

$14,000 for four wheels

The biggest wheels are not yet shifting to cars in the North, says Carmelo Signorello, a custom-wheels salesman for Town Fair Tire Centers in East Haven, Conn. At a Hot Import Nights show in Boston this spring, Mr. Signorello stood behind a display that featured a set of 28-inch Dropstar rims from American Racing – $14,000 (yes, three zeros) for four, with tires mounted.

"They're not moving that fast," says Signorello. As the new giants become the rim-makers high-end offerings, "prices on the smaller stuff are dropping," he explains, moving the action to 22- and 24-inch wheels in most regions.

Most, but not all. The Southern boom took custom-watchers by surprise, says Scotto. Many people thought the Hummer truck line must have been in overdrive there, based on the number of 28-inch wheels being ordered, he says.

Instead, many were being wedged onto throwback sedans – even throwaway ones – at places like Mr. Scrape or Dreamworks, in Roxboro, N.C.

Donks – the moniker is meant to convey a clunky, big-bodied build – were generally made between 1970 and 1976. Boxes and bubbles came a little later, the names based on the cars' respective appearances in profile.

Needless to say, modifiers have no worries about voiding and warranties, as they would if they were tweaking, say, late-model Acuras. "I literally have people bring me cars out of the junkyard," says Casselman. It can cost them $8,000 or more – sometimes much more – to bring the cars up to the level that attracts attention at shows and from car magazines.

"But you could pick up a $600 Box Chevy and start from there," says Scotto, who points to the bottom-up nature of the trend. "It's the kids who are doing the cars," he says, "a lot of the rappers are getting into it after."

Casselman has five cars in the shop and many others waiting to come in. At least one is a botched job by a do-it-yourselfer in for a proper handling. If the work is done well – with careful attention to the car's stance – the driving experience is smooth, he says.

"This is definitely a new lifestyle," he says. Casselman seems jacked up to be at the center of it.

In car modifying, as in so many realms, "California's always been the place," he says. "Now I've got people from California calling me every day."

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