Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.
“I don’t even try to keep up with this crap,” says Brian Kull, 56, owner of the Wheel Thing.
Donk enthusiasts see it as “a good hedge against declining resale value,” says Ali as he explains that an unmodified Expedition is worth $8,500, half what he paid for his two years ago. But with all his extras, he could sell his truck tomorrow and still make 12 grand.
Parked up next to Ali’s truck is a white Lexus. Its owner is quite an ornate piece of work. He stands on the oil-stained parking lot wearing pointy-toed snakeskin shoes, jeans pressed and bleached at the thighs, a blue Lacoste sleeveless sweater with green alligator insignia over left breast, and a crisp white shirt. His face is obscured by huge wraparound Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. When asked his profession, he smiles but says nothing.
On the subject of his car, the man becomes more loquacious. He installed new wheels, flat-screen TVs in the headrests, a super loud stereo and a GPS-based alarm that will track within two feet any fool stupid enough to jack his ride.
“I don’t want to attract a lot of attention,” the man says. “I want it to look nice, and I want it to be safe for my two girls.”
Safety wasn’t a priority back when donk started in Miami in the mid-1990s. There you had a bunch of poor city guys driving cheap, readily available cars, mostly V8 monsters like Chevrolet Impalas and Caprices, of which General Motors manufactured roughly a gazillion between 1971 and 1996.
These young men would be sitting at a stoplight when up rolled a Maserati, Lamborghini, whatever, driven by one of the city’s many land speculators, professional athletes or children of South American plutocrats. The young men would say to themselves: “Damn. I gotta get me one of those.”
Instead, they jacked those $500 Impalas up 4 feet into the air and crammed a set of giant wheels underneath. The result was “donk.”
“We were at the MTV Music Awards in Miami writing about all the rappers’ Bentleys and Ferraris, when 10 local guys pulled up in these jalopies all jacked up on huge wheels,” says Brian Scotto, former editor of Donk, Box & Bubble Magazine. “These cars were pieces of crap, but they looked fantastic. They shut the place down. Everybody went crazy.”
Donk became the first underground car craze of the information age. Everybody started buying off-road pickup truck suspensions on Craigslist, with all the rapid-fire permutations one might expect. Pretty soon these guys were sitting eye to eye with truck drivers. Some donks were so high they just flipped over. Huge wheels proved too heavy for factory- installed brakes, so runaway donks started mowing people down.
But the real problem was style. These cars had bright pink and purple paint the color of lollipops, or “flip-flop” paint that shifted from gold to green as they drove by. The whole phenomenon was just so garish, so loud.
“Even the name ‘donk’ sounds ghetto and goofy,” says Evan “Evo” Yates, Southern editor for Rides magazine. “It doesn’t sound like something you get respect for.”
It didn’t take long for the Internet to change that perception.
Unlike hot-rodders, choppers and lowriders before them, donk lovers can go to a meetup, say, at the K-Mart parking lot at the corner of Westmoreland and Aramingo in Kensington; spot a car painted like a bag of Skittles candy; capture it with a cell phone picture; and upload it to the donk forums that populate the Internet’s darker crevices. Whereupon a kid in Georgia sees it and says, “That’s what I’m gonna do with Grandpa’s Impala!”
Last year, this exact phenomenon caused hundreds of cars all across the country to be painted like Snickers bars, Sunburst packs and Baja Blast Mountain Dew bottles. Six months later, the whole car-as-candy joke looks as tired as a Seinfeld rerun.
“That gets made fun of big-time,” Yates says.
Pretty soon, donk culture did a 180. Instead of jacking cars up as high as possible, today the goal is to be low-profile. The paint is sedate and factory-correct. The whole car is lowered to the ground, “slammed,” if you will, which sounds simple but actually requires shaving huge chunks of fender and frame just to make room for the donked wheels.
“Yeah, everybody out here wants to donk and slam it now,” says Kenny “DJ Choc” Pettus, 30, the Wheel Thing’s stereo salesman. His Chevy Tahoe has huge Gianelli wheels and broad fields of blue and silver paint, split down the middle by a barbed tribal pattern painted atomic green. “I wanted something unique, but not too crazy. I wanted it to be classy.”
Donk’s domestication got a push when corporations finally noticed the army of backyard mechanics making a ton of money from the craze. Toyo, from Japan, started manufacturing skinny “rubber band” tires, allowing donks to use bigger wheels without lifting the car. Dodge got into the act in 2005 with its Magnum station wagon, with wheel wells big enough to fit 24-inch rims. Pretty soon suspension makers, paint companies, Sony, everybody was angling for a piece of the donk dollar.
“In the beginning, donk was this underground thing that most people didn’t take very seriously,” says Peter MacGillivray, a spokesman for Specialty Equipment Market Association, the custom car industry’s trade group. “It’s really grown into a major market presence in its own right.”