Donk the World

Philadelphia's car outlaws battle for respect on the streets.

By Christopher Maag
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted May. 19, 2009

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They call their cars all kinds of names—boxes, bubbles, Monties, Cutties—based on different makes and shapes, but the most widely accepted term is “donk.”

Photo by Jeff Fusco

“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.”

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Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. lalaw9833 said... on May 19, 2009 at 10:35PM

“It's good to know where some people's priorities stand in these tough economic times we are dealing with.”

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2. Eric said... on May 20, 2009 at 08:44AM

“When I see cars like the ones mentioned I don't think drug dealer. I think, "Wow, I guess that's how we spend our money." I understand the concept of growing up poor and wanted a "dope" car but come on now. I have yet to purchase my first car...why? Because I don't need it, I am a firm believer in public transportation and walking.

Although if I won something on the Price is Right, I would gladly accept it :).”

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3. MC1968 said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:02AM

“Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps.”

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4. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 11:48AM

“worst article ever, thse ppl are pathetic”

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5. floridastyle said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:10PM

“this style comes from florida, though the rims are not as large as the ones here in florida and the cars are not as lifted as those seen in the miami and orlando area. let the people enjoy their lifestyle how they wish. who cares if you think its a waste of money. we dont tell you how to spend your money on. you probably blow your money on iphones, ipods, xbox's and playstations. to each his own.”

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6. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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7. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 12:14PM

“First I think the statement - "The typical owner of a car like this is anybody who grew up poor in an American city, mostly African-American men but not exclusively, between the ages of 17 and about 45" is racist, in that the comments are direct to AA men between the ages of 17 & 45. Well than does that mean that every law binding, tax paying citizen in Phila who did or did not grow up in a poor city. AKA Ghetto is POOR. Dang, where are we going with such talk? So does that mean that "PW" stands for Poor Whites? and that's who reads it because of such ill-regarded comments the editor made.”

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8. Anonymous said... on May 20, 2009 at 07:11PM

“@ MC1968: "Yeah, meanwhile they are probably living in dumps." ---------- Wow, you sure showed them, didn't you? I guess it's "If you can't join them, denigrate them," huh? Look, I don't think that this is the best way to spend one's money (and it's certainly not something that I would do myself, even if I could afford to do it), but I wouldn't look at one of these guys with their tricked-out cars and have my first thought be "They are probably living in dumps." No one's making you pay for it, so stop hating.”

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9. DJ CHOC said... on May 21, 2009 at 04:08PM

“wow it's crazy how i'm the one with that trick out tahoe in the pic and now i'm sitting here reading all your comments and all of u sound like the rest of these people in the streets i'm sorry haters if u can't do it like i can do it and to the people who think i live in the dumps go head and keep assuming because while u waiting for that next hot iphone to come out with all the extra features i will be riding right by you while u snapping pics for your next screen saver lol blog about that clown”

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10. Anonymous said... on May 28, 2009 at 04:26PM

“@DJ CHOC: You just confirmed every negative comment readers have made so far. I live in a neighborhood where one of these "donk" shops are. It is a complete blight on the community. There's constant loud noise, junk cars parked everywhere, trash all over the place, barking dogs, etc. But all that is ok, because you have your tricked out Tahoe and people who don't are "haters". The article was horribly written, not because of it's topic, but the way it seemed to reinforce firmly held stereotypes about inner city AA males. It also appeared to glorify how AA men with children, possibly living in low income neighborhoods, are frivolously spending money on cars. I found it striking at the beginning, the comparison of the white man's Toyota and the black man who had the car that stirred a look of fear on the white man's face. Unbelievable. Some of the terms and phrases used to describe the black man's car was snorting, blacked out windows, enormous, growling and menacing. I just can't understand why anyone would make a negative assumption about you? Not that it matters what others think, but how about a little consideration of the image and values you portray to our youth??? How about contributing positively to the neighborhoods you seem to selfishly do business in??? I have more suggestions, but I guess I'm just a "hater". I'm curious to know how proud you will be of that Tahoe twenty years from now.”

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11. DONK KINGS said... on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:05AM


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12. ChevyRidinHI said... on Jul 31, 2009 at 12:19PM

“People spend their money how they want. Some lift trucks some lift cars some fix up hot rods, lowriders the list goes on. In the end we are all the same. MEN WITH THE LOVE FOR CARS. On another note. As far as cars with big rims goes. I didnt grow up poor, in the ghetto, or slums. I am 24 and I make $85000 a year working for the government. I am in Pensacola, FL just to pinpoint my location.”

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13. Evan Yates said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 06:40PM

“What a bs article and borderline racist. Christopher Maag totally took what I told him out of context and twisted around my words to make it seem like I was talking negatively about these cars. Christopher called me pretending to do a positive article about a new trend he was noticing and contacted myself and others so he would have the proper side of the story, or so he led us to believe. I should have just let you do your own research but I figured I would help you set the record straight, in hopes this particular culture would get some respect. Christopher, you need to man up and admit that you LIED. The MAIN thing I told you is that this particular culture IS NOT CALLED 'DONK'. I mentioned THAT many times, Christopher. I told you exactly what the definition of each type of vehicle were. I should have known this type of article would be the result. Very shady, Christopher.”

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14. Frustrated said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:00PM

“This article is a fail in so many ways. Considering the fact that I've been involved in this "game" since it started, I'll educate you a little bit. First off, the term "donk" refers to 71-76 Chevy Caprices and Impalas ONLY. Donk does not refer to wheels. You cannot "donk" a Cutlass. You can't "donk" anything. A donk = 71-76 Caprices/Impalas and that's it. Anything else is just a car on big rims. The term was actually derived from "dunk" which referred to the way the Imapalas/Caprices rear-ends were "dunked" down in the back. The 71-76 Caprices sat with this stance from the factory. The term didn't come from "ba-donk-a-donk". That's just a ridiculous assumption. LOL. Smack yourself. Next time you want to know about this "culture" then ask somebody from South Florida, the home of it.”

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15. fuk_your_article_cuz said... on Sep 6, 2010 at 11:58PM

“This article is as gay as the cracker who wrote it. Ol lollipop sucking, childrens isle book store creepin whitey”

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16. Matic said... on Sep 7, 2010 at 12:25PM

“This is honestly one of the most condescending, misleading articles I have ever read. Pure garbage. I hope they kept this bullshit online. The "journalist" should be ashamed. To write a good article you need to submerse yourself in the culture. This shit sounds like something who hung around but was scared to ask or say too much would write.”


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